Van Gogh moved to France in 1886 and from February 1888 he was settled at Arles, in Provence, where in just 15 months he produced over 200 canvases. The subject of this painting is a bullfight at the ancient amphitheatre, and yet the arena is barely noticeable, for the main motif is the public, the colourful crowd gathered to watch the popular spectacle. Amongst the viewers we can see the artist's friends and acquaintances that he so often depicted in other canvaes. During the period when this painting was produced, Gauguin was working in Arles alongside van Gogh and the latter was much taken with his fellow artist's painting style. Note the flattened space and the replacement of individual strokes with general patches of colour, outlined with a broad dark contour. Yet in the expressiveness of the painting we see van Gogh's own powerful temperament and his deeply dramatic perception of the world. Having passed through an Impressionist phase, the artist moved on to create his own personal, intense artistic language.
This picture was painted in November of 1888. Van Gogh took advice for the composition from Gauguin, who had joined him in Aries not long before. The artist painted this work from memory because at the time the weather was not good enough to work outdoors.
Earlier in April of the same year, van Gogh wrote to his friend Bernard about his visit to a bullfight, where he was most impressed by an enormous and colorful crowd of spectators. He was not as interested in the ancient architectural monuments of Aries. For example, the arena depicted here was constructed before the Christian era and is painted by the artist in a manner that says nothing about its architectural merits.
Van Gogh combined personal feelings and symbols in his work and disguised them with realistic details. According to Bernard, yellow was van Gogh's favorite color. It embodied the sun and the south of France where the artist went in search of bright, sunny colors. Round shapes had an irresistible attraction for the painter and reminded him of the sun. In his mind the \ellow arena was easily transformed into the sun.
The interaction between the arena and the back of the yellow head in the foreground carries a meaning that is not purely coloristic. The yellowheaded man in the foreground introduces the spectator into the space of the painting. It is possible that this figure may be another self-portrait. If this is true, then the painting is unique among van Gogh's works. The painter, however, did not insist that this was his self-portrait. He showed the figure from the back and left us with only a hint, although a very important one.
The woman in a green dress is easily identified, in spite of the fragmented manner in which the painter depicted her. She is Madame Ginoux, who owned a railroad cafe in Aries. Van Gogh painted her portrait in November (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and later made another version of it (Orsay Museum, Paris). Ronald Pickvance noted that the two small figures in the center, a woman in a red dress with a baby and a bearded man, were Postmaster Roulin and his wife, who were close friends of van Gogh. By locating the postmaster and his wife in the center of the composition, van Gogh expresses the idea of familv—always important to him.
Hermitage Museum, inv. no. 6529
1905. Shchukin collection, Moscow;
1918. First Museum of Modern Western Painting. Moscow;
1923. Museum of Modern Western Art. Moscow;
since 1931. Hermitage. Leningrad.