Chrysanthemums and Wild Flowers in a Vase, Autumn 1887

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Artist Van Gogh, Vincent Willem

In July 1886, Vincent’s brother Theo van Gogh wrote to their  mother in Holland, reporting on the activities of Vincent, who had joined him in Paris earlier that spring: “He is mainly painting flowers—with the object to puta more lively colour into his next pictures. He is also much more cheerful than in the past and people like him here. To give you proof: hardly a day passes or he is asked to come to the studios of well known painters, or they come to see him. He also has acquaintances who give him a collection of flowers every week which may serve him as models. If they are able to keep it up I think his difficult times are over and he will be able to make it by himself.”

There survives a large group of pictures by Vincent of flowers in vases, which can be dated to that summer and fall and which introduce both a new vigour of handling into his art and an abundance of colour that previously had not existed in his dark and brooding realist subjects painted in the North.

This return to Paris by the thirty-three-year-old artist marks his entry into the mainstream of French progressive painting, and it is during this time, through his alert absorption of the divisionist techniques of many of the artists whom he would see that year for the first time, that he developed the foundations for the tremendously vigorous and innovative work he would do over the next four years. It was a time of rapid transition in his work, but also one that allowed a reabsorption into painting of the recent past, underscoring Van Gogh is true independence from his immediate artistic context and calling to mind all the more strongly the revolution that he was able to bring about in the short time remaining to him.

The Bouquet has long perplexed scholars as to its place within Van Gogh is production. For some critics, it bears strong resemblances to the flower pieces done in Paris, just as he was breaking away from his dark, early manner and learning the pleasures of a heightened palette and, ironically, turning to subjects that were less socially charged than his earlier concerns. For others, it must date to the first phase of his work in Arles, where he went in February 1888 to escape the harsh Paris winter and perhaps to gain an independence from the intensity of Parisian artistic activity, like his friend Gauguin: through his work in Pont-Aven and Martinique. It has even been speculated that the picture may have been done after his forced retreat to the asylum of Saint-Rémy, near Arles, in 1889.7 All this conjecture can be supported to some degree by comparisons with other flower pieces and still lifes; no one conjecture is completely satisfying with the evidence as given.

A randomly gathered group of flowers is placed in a handled pitcher, with fronds falling down around the base of the container on the table. They have most often been identified as chrysanthemums, which certainly would provide the great range of colour in the smaller blooms, although the strident reds and pinks of those blossoms in the centre just at the neck of the pitcher suggest the introduction of another, softer, less autumnal variety. The petals are painted with a staccato directness and vigour—applied like icing by a    pastry chef—in an overall rhythm of even brightness, their intensity of colour further heightened by the dark blue that is pulled in and around them and provides the ground colour for the picture. The constant animation of the surface is continued in the rapidly hatched lines in green and earth red, which sets off the bouquet in an aura of moving paint strokes. Only the longer branches strewn around the foreground are done with a more languorous and sustained drag of the brush, as opposed to the very rapid execution of the flowers, smaller leaves, and surrounding elements. It is an electric tour de force of rapid execution; it is, perhaps, not surprising that for some the picture must date to the end of Van Gogh is career at Saint Remy —the period of The Starry Night, when all elements within the image partake in a surging animation.

Van Gogh must have been fully aware of the flower pieces by his French contemporaries (for example, Theo owned Degas’s famous Woman with Chrysanthemums  in 1887),but there is little here to suggest the influence of Degas or Monet or Renoir, who also excelled in this genre. The painting's source, to the degree that we can point to one, is rather to an older style of painting, in all likelihood the flower pictures of the painter from Marseille, Adolphe Monticelli (1824-1886). Vincent first saw the work of Monticelli in Paris at the dealer Delarebeyrette’s in 1886. Monticelli’s nonanalytical use of colour, with highlights emerging without transition from a dark background, appealed to him tremendously, even to the point that he encouraged Theo to buy works by this still obscure painter. They eventually, probably in joint ownership, acquired five oil paintings, and Vincent frequently referred to Monticelli throughout his correspondence over the next four years, even noting that one of his reasons for abandoning Paris and establishing himself in Provence was to draw closer to the southern world of Monticelli. The brothers owned one flower picture by him, and its influence on of Van Gogh is flower series that are clearly documented to the Paris period has long been noted; a comparison to this picture is equally telling. The Monticelli has the same airless density as the Van Gogh, the jabbed-on colour contrasting, dark to light (without any working out of complementary colours), all within a surface that is covered with strokes of an equal degree of high impasto. The Monticelli image, with its suggestion of a cast shadow, is less intensely realized than the Van Gogh, which is spatially more drawn to the surface. Van Gogh is tabletop and the picture itself are dissolved in the same, hatched brushstrokes, giving the picture a more less-witnessed quality in comparison to the Monticelli, yet in pictures such as this by the older artist, Van Gogh found (as he would later in the works of Delacroix) the release from both his earlier dark manner and the more coloristically analytical paintings by his immediate contemporaries, which laid the base for his further explorations. Therefore, this suggests that The Bouguet be placed chronologically back with Van Gogh is Paris production, perhaps to about the same time in 1886 as the Bowl with Zinnias, which contains the same vigorous cross-hatching in high impasto, with a similar disinterest in modeled forms, features that would be reasserted in the flower pieces done later in the Paris period. However, this observation is made with the recognition that while there is nothing within the earliest group of flower pictures to match the emotional intensity displayed in the execution here, such complete absorption in the painting of flowers would not reappear in Van Gogh is work until he encountered the sunflowers of Provence in Arles.



Institution The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Medium Oil on canvas
Dimensions 65.0 x 54.0 cm












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