Painted in June 1890, Nature morte, vase avec oeillets dates from one of the most important and turbulent periods in van Gogh's life. By the end of July, the artist had died as a result of wounds from a suicide attempt, and so this work belongs to one of the last groups of paintings he created. Yet the short time that van Gogh spent at Auvers-sur-Oise, from late May until his death, has become one of the most legendary periods not only in terms of his life and career, but in terms of the history of modern art. During his time there, staying near Dr. Gachet and being helped by him, Van Gogh produced at least 81 paintings, of which roughly two thirds are now in museums and institutions.
Most of the pictures that Van Gogh painted during his time at Auvers are outdoor images, evidently the product of his exploration of the surrounding area. However the still life paintings were amongst his most potent during this period. The tightness of the composition of his flower paintings especially lent his paintings an intensity impossible in the more open landscape. In Nature morte, vase avec oeillets, the vase and the carnations dominate the picture, and indeed cannot be completely contained. There is a sense of life, of explosion, in the flowers' defiant lunge for freedom, a leap towards the world beyond the frame. This abundance gives the work a feeling of explosive life, an idea of a driving force within the flowers, and therefore within nature, that cannot be simply contained in the canvas and frame of an artist.
It was Van Gogh's gift to be able to harness not the life force of his subject matter, but an amazing, palpable sense of it, as though his paintings were living extensions of the reality, images of a subject that manage to retain a concentrated impression of their reality. Van Gogh's unique artistic process and unique vision has resulted in the flowers being lent a sense of existence almost beyond the flowers themselves. The rich impasto, which creates such a sculptural feel to the painting, means that this is a work that does not merely exist in two dimensions. The impasto in fact gives a sense of movement, drawing the viewer's gaze, making the flowers appear to move as our eyes are irresistibly drawn along the grooves and ridges. This impasto also lends a tangible aspect to the painting, making the flowers appear as though they are invading our space in a new form, a concentrated incarnation in which the pure essence of the flowers has somehow been distilled and trailed across the canvas. It is because of the intensity of this vision, the sheer burden on his mind of this joyous ability to see the raw matter of life itself, that Van Gogh felt his mental crisis had come. In a letter that he did not send, but which was found in his pocket on the day of his death, he had confided in his brother: 'Well, my own work, I am risking my life for it and my reason has half foundered because of it' (Van Gogh, The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, Vol. III, London, 1958, no. 652, p. 298).
Van Gogh's means of rendering the flowers appears as an almost violent affront to the then standards of painting as he drags the carnations into a new form of existence, yet there is an undeniable and wholly absorbing elegance to the composition. The rakish angle at which the vase is represented in fact gives a wholly Japanese air to the painting, reminiscent of the art of several artists including Van Gogh's revered Hiroshige. In many of his pictures, Hiroshige had either depicted plants, and especially those in blossom, as the main subject or as features in the works. In Nature morte, vase avec oeillets, Van Gogh appears to have been inspired by such works in the graceful curvature of the plant as it snakes its way from the vase and up, arching, into the top left hand corner. Likewise, he has selected a gentle palette that exudes an air of harmony, of contemplation, as well as movement. He has thus managed to combine the immediacy of the life- force with which he has rendered the plants with an elegance that is absorbing and satisfying. In his letters, Van Gogh had repeatedly endorsed the wonders of the Japanese, of their sense of elegance, of their understanding of contrast and of their art. Not least among the factors that made such an impression on the artist was the Japanese love of flower arranging. In Nature morte, vase avec oeillets, this love of flower arranging is combined with Van Gogh's unique ability to record a searing sense of life, creating an image that sings of the wonders of existence. It is small wonder that this painting was kept for so many years in the hands of Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, Vincent's sister-in-law, who was widowed only shortly after Vincent's death, and was then owned briefly by Paul Cassirer (fig. 2), who essentially introduced Van Gogh to Germany.
Nature morte, vase avec oeillets
Oil on canvas
THE PROPERTY OF A PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTOR
Vincent van Gogh
Berlin, Paul Cassirer, VII Ausstellung, April 1905, no. 17.
Zurich, Kunsthaus, Französische Kunst des XIX und XX Jahrhunderts, 1917, no. 573.
Paris, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Rétrospective Van Gogh, June - July 1927 (illustrated p. 119).
Toledo, Ohio, Museum of Art, Flower Paintings, 1930.
Cleveland, Museum of Art, Van Gogh, 1948, no. 17 (illustrated pl. XVI).
16¼ x 12½in. (41 x 32cm.)
A. Bonger, Catalogue des Oeuvres de Vincent van Gogh, Paris, 1890, no. 300 (as "Verre rempli de fleurs (6)" - unpublished handwritten list in the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation), inv. no. 3055.
J. B. de la Faille, L'Epoque Française de Van Gogh, Paris, 1927 (illustrated p. 119).
J.B. de la Faille, L'Oeuvre de Vincent van Gogh, Vol. I, Paris & Brussels, 1928, no. 598, p. 168 (illustrated Vol. II, pl. CLXII; as painted in Arles in 1889).
W. Scherjon & W. Jos. de Gruyter, Vincent van Gogh Great Period, 1937, no. 191 (illustrated p. 195).
J.B. de la Faille, Vincent van Gogh, Paris, 1939, no. F598 (illustrated p. 414).
J.B. de la Faille, The Works of Vincent van Gogh: His Paintings and Drawings, Amsterdam, 1970, no. F598 (illustrated p. 31).
J. Hulsker, The Complete Van Gogh: Paintings, Drawings, and Sketches, Oxford, 1977, no. 2043 (illustrated p. 468).
P. Lecaldano, L'Opera Pittorica Completa di Van Gogh, Vol. II, Da Arles a Auvers, Milan, 1977, no. 828 (illustrated p. 228).
A. Mothe, Vincent van Gogh à Auvers-sur-Oise, Paris, 1987, no. F598 (illustrated p. 173).
W. Feilchenfeldt, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cassirer, Berlin, the Reception of Van Gogh in Germany from 1901 to 1914, Zwolle, 1990, p. 19 (illustrated p. 106; as F598).
C. Stolwijk & H. Veenenbos, The account book of Theo van Gogh and Jo van Gogh-Bonger, Amsterdam and Leyden 2002, pp. 49, 124, and 180 (nos. 14/4 and 89/21).
Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, Amsterdam.
Paul Cassirer, Berlin, by whom acquired from the above in 1905.
Georg Schwarz, Berlin, by whom acquired from the above in 1905.
Galerie Barbazanges, Paris.
Alphonse Kann, St. Germain-en-Laye.
Paul Rosenberg, New York.
Millicent A. Rogers, New York.
Arturo Peralta-Ramos, New York; sale, Sotheby's Parke-Bernet, New York, 26 April 1972, lot 21.
Anon, sale, Christie's London, 25 June 1996, lot 8 (£3,081,500).
Acquired from the above sale by the present owner.