The Netherlands 1853 – France 1890
Restaurant de la Sirène at Asnières
[Le restaurant de la Sirène à Asnières] 1887
oil on canvas
canvas 54.5 (h) x 65.5 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Bequest of Joseph Reinhard 1921
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Gérard Blot
We painted on the banks of the river and ate in a country café, and we returned on foot to Paris, through the streets of Saint-Ouen and Clichy. Van Gogh wore a blue zinc worker’s smock and painted coloured smudges on the sleeves.—Paul Signac1
Van Gogh arrived in Paris on 27 February 1886, and left for Arles in February 1888. During this time he completed 230 paintings. His artistic metamorphoses—from rustic, Millet-like realist to radical colourist—is one of the more dramatic in nineteenth-century art. He arrived in Paris at a time when Monet, Auguste Renoir and Pissarro were rethinking their positions. Gauguin and Seurat were jostling for leadership of the avant-garde, and the younger trio of Bernard, Toulouse-Lautrec and Louis Anquetin were searching for signs and symbols in medieval glass, Japanese art and popular prints.2 The young artists were eager to move beyond Impressionism. As they redefined their work both in terms of subject matter and stylistically, van Gogh began to refer to himself and his contemporaries as ‘painters of the petit boulevard’.3
In 1887 van Gogh worked at Asnières—with Signac in late April and May, and, later, in the autumn, with Bernard. Asnières, on the banks of the Seine, was then one of the expanding suburbs of Paris, and its modernity attracted many artists: it was neither city nor country and, with a shifting population and volatile class structure, seemed in a constant state of flux. It was also at a walking distance from Montmartre, where Vincent lived with Theo. At Asnières Van Gogh painted riverside restaurants, public gardens, bridges and factories. As he later wrote to his sister Wilhelmina, Asnières allowed him to see ‘more colour’.4
The Restaurant de la Sirène, at 7 Boulevard de la Seine (now Quai du Docteur-Derveux) near the Pont Asnières, was a substantial establishment. Van Gogh renders the buildings, sky and road in delicate greys, blues, yellows and tans, and then reanimates the whole scene with a rich brocade of climbing plants, flickering flags, and figures looking down from the second-floor balcony. In some sections, such as the shuttered facade of the tallest building at left, van Gogh applies his paint so thinly that the ground and drawing are visible. He uses the same thin brushstrokes to scratch the text on the hoardings. Touches of pure white are used to highlight elements of the facade and details such as the shirt of the figure on the street. The three men crouching over the cafe table are portrayed with minimal brushstrokes. Restaurant de la Sirène at Asnières demonstrates van Gogh’s absorption of both Impressionist and Pointillist techniques. Later paintings (works 46, 47, 48, 49) show him using the pure colours and intensely Expressionist marks for which he is best known.
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
- As told to Gustave Coquiot, 1923. Quoted in Jan Hulsker, The new complete van Gogh: paintings, drawings, sketches, Amsterdam: J.M. Meulenhoff; Philadelphia: John Benjamins 1996, p. 282.
- Ronald Pickvance, ‘Van Gogh à Paris. Paris, Musée d’Orsay’, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 130, no. 1021, April 1988, pp. 311–13; see also Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov, Van Gogh à Paris, Paris: Ministère de la culture et de la communication: Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux 1988, cat. 44, p. 126.
- Cornelia Homburg, Elizabeth C. Childs, John House et al., Vincent van Gogh and the painters of the Petit Boulevard, Saint Louis: Saint Louis Art Museum in association with Rizzoli 2001, p. 21.
- Paris, summer/autumn 1887, letter WO1, viewed 1 September 2009, www.vggallery.com/letters/557_V-W_W1.pdf.