The Netherlands 1853 – France 1890
Caravans, gypsy camp near Arles
[Les roulottes, campement de bohémiens aux environs d'Arles] 1888
oil on canvas
canvas 45.0 (h) x 51.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Bequest of Mr and Mrs Raymond Koechlin 1931
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
This energetic painting shows the transition from van Gogh’s more naturalistic Paris works to the extravagant colour of the south. Van Gogh moved to Arles in February 1888 and in the space of fifteen months completed 200 paintings—almost one every two days—as well as more than 100 drawings and watercolours. He often appealed to his brother Theo in Paris for money for materials; when funds were short, he concentrated on drawing in ink, with reed-pens he carved himself. Van Gogh’s intense pace strained his mind and body: he described himself as being
like an actor on the stage in a difficult part, with a hundred things to think of at once in a single half hour. After that, the only thing to bring ease and distraction, in my case and other people’s too, is to stun oneself with a lot of drinking or heavy smoking.1
Early in his time at Arles, probably at the end of May 1888, van Gogh took a trip to Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, a coastal village in the Camargue. In the nineteenth century this area was still a sterile salty plain of lagoons and marshes, populated by flamingos, wild bulls and white horses. Saintes-Maries was also the site of annual pilgrimages for many Romany who came to worship the relics of the Marys. The outing proved inspiring and van Gogh returned with three canvases—the glorious View of Saintes-Maries, as well as two seascapes2—and a dozen drawings which he later worked up into paintings. Caravans probably dates from August 1888, after his return to Arles: in a letter of mid August van Gogh refers to ‘a little study of a roadside inn, with red and green carts’.3
In Caravans, gypsy camp near Arles, van Gogh alternates between thick impasto in the foreground and areas of the sky, and the sparse mid-section where the canvas shows through. In this and other paintings from the period, he worked rapidly, executing a ‘succession of studies with quick yet coherent brushstrokes’.4 Here we sense the artist’s intense feeling at a unique moment, and at a specific site: nothing breaks the horizon except a windmill, itself the merest suggestion of a distant structure. The frieze of figures, vehicles and horses, also rendered with minimal means, seems designed to emphasise the flatness of the landscape. Only the tree at right and the scrubby vegetation at left offer refuge from the sun. The empty foreground adds to the feeling of harsh desolation, a suggestion, perhaps, of the peripheral position of gypsy people. The intensity of the light suggests the glorious palette of works to come, such as Van Gogh’s bedroom at Arles. As van Gogh wrote in June 1888:
Now that I have seen the sea here, I am absolutely convinced of the importance of staying in the Midi, and of positively piling it on, exaggerated colour—Africa [is] not so far away.5
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
- Letter to Theo, Arles, 29 June 1888, letter 507, viewed 1 September 2009, www.vggallery.com/letters/615_V-T_507.pdf.
- Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo; the marines are: The sea at Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer 1888, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; Fishing boats at sea 1888, Pushkin Museum, Moscow.
- Lettter to Theo, 13 August 1888, letter 522, viewed 1 September 2009, www.vggallery.com/letters/639_V-T_522.pdf.
- Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov, Van Gogh in Provence and Auvers, n.l.:Hugh Lauter Levin Associates 1999, p. 71.
- Letter to Theo, Arles, 4 June 1888, letter 500, viewed 1 September 2009, www.vggallery.com/letters/604_V-T_500.pdf.