France 1848 – French Polynesia 1903
oil on canvas
canvas 91.5 (h) x 72.5 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Gift of Countess Vitali in memory of her brother Viscount Guy de Cholet 1923
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Van Gogh, who migrated south from Paris in 1888, envisaged a community of artists at Arles, and he desperately wanted Gauguin to be involved. Finally persuaded by Vincent (and by Theo’s financial support) Gauguin left Pont-Aven in Brittany, arriving in Arles in October 1888. Les Alyscamps is one of the first paintings he produced there. Van Gogh took Gauguin to his favourite sites: the two artists painted together on the plains of the Crau, and at the ancient cemetery, Les Alyscamps.1
Gauguin later claimed to have been unimpressed by the magnificent Roman remains at Arles and the flat treeless landscape of the Camargue area. Les Alyscamps was consecrated for the burial of Christians in the third century by Arles’ first bishop; very little of the Roman necropolis remained in the nineteenth century other than a few empty sarcophagi and an avenue lined with poplars. The ancient site was partially compromised by the proximity of the railway workshops just across the Craponne Canal, but Gauguin only hints at this, including a plume of smoke in the sky at left. Painting from outside the tree-lined avenue, Gauguin concentrates on the canal, the undulating ground and range of vegetation, making the domed tower of the Romanesque church and the three figures the focal point of his work. He was more impressed by the local people themselves—the Arlesiennes were famed for their spirit, dignity and bearing, and reminded Gauguin, with their black pleated shawls and elegant coiffure, of the women of ancient Greece.2 Les Alyscamps was also a popular place for promenading, and a meeting place for lovers, and Gauguin makes ironic reference to this with this work’s alternate title, The three graces at the temple of Venus. It was under this title that he sent the work to Theo van Gogh in December 1888.
Gauguin expends only the necessary paint on his canvas. He composes the work according to traditional one-point perspective but with few concessions to pictorial realism. The recession of the canal at left, and the line of trees at right, is undermined by the central figures on what appears to be higher ground. The lower half of the canvas—a patch-work of paths, stones and scraggly bushes, grassy mounds with arbitrary patches of pale orange and the flame-red bush—culminates in the pyramid of trees crowned by the octagonal bell-tower of Saint-Honorat. The canvas is divided: the ‘cool’ left side, with sky and clouds reflected in the canal below, contrasts with the extravagant, saturated hues of the yellows and orange at right. The hatched brushstrokes of the green foliage which punctuates the autumnal trees is reminiscent of Cézanne. The massing of colour and decorative quality would later be exploited to extraordinary effect by the artist.
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
- Douglas W. Druick et al., Van Gogh and Gauguin: the Studio of the South, New York, London: Thames and Hudson 2001.
- Belinda Thomson, Gauguin, London: Thames and Hudson 1987, p. 76.