Painted in October 1889, Parc de l'hôpital Saint-Paul dates from one of the richest and most important periods of Vincent van Gogh's life. The picture is filled with the rhythmic swirls that lend his greatest paintings their unique energy. The cypress especially reaches for the sky, a darting series of curlicues thrusting heavenwards, making all the more dramatic an impression by its contrast with the lighter, scintillating, ever-shifting forms of the rest of the landscape. Meanwhile, two trees in the foreground snake their way across the painting like incongruous bars, adding a strange spontaneity to Van Gogh's choice of view, which comes to resemble a snapshot in its unusual composition.
It was during his voluntary confinement at the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, that Van Gogh created some of the greatest of his paintings, especially in the latter part of 1889. Perhaps surprisingly, many of the masterpieces dating from this period were painted in the wake of one of his fits, after which he had been unable to use oils for six weeks. His return to oil painting in September 1889 after a month and a half was characterised by a new-found boldness and enthusiasm. The life that pulses through the striations that comprise the forms of Parc de l'hôpital Saint-Paul has an electric vitality to it. Van Gogh appears to have tapped into the raw energy of existence itself, creating a shimmering painting that appears to show some underlying spiritual and organic dimension to nature.
Van Gogh had originally gone to Saint-Paul-de-Mausole following a string of debilitating fits in Arles, where he had been living with Gauguin. In the most renowned of these attacks, Van Gogh had had an altercation with Gauguin and had then cut off part of his own ear and given it to a local prostitute, before being been found later bleeding in bed. The townspeople gradually came to pressure the authorities to have the artist confined in hospital, and through the intervention of some of the senior doctors who were sympathetic to him, he was eventually placed in the care of the asylum, which lay some fourteen miles outside Arles, occupying a building that had originally been a 12th-century Augustinian monastery. At certain points during his time in Saint-Rémy, Van Gogh had a varying degree of access to the world around him; sometimes he was confined to his rooms, sometimes allowed to wander the countryside or even visit Arles. In the wake of his fit in July, though, he was confined to the grounds of Saint-Paul itself for some time. This, to Van Gogh, was no great hardship, as the slightly ramshackle grounds themselves provided endless themes to be painted. Earlier, he had written to Theo extolling the virtues of the gardens:
'Since I have been here, the deserted garden, planted with large pines beneath which the grass grows tall and unkempt and mixed with various weeds, has sufficed for my work, and I have not yet gone outside. However, the country round St. Rémy is very beautiful and little by little I shall probably widen my field of endeavour' (Van Gogh, The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, London, 1958, Vol. III, no. 592, p. 173).
He later went into more detail in describing some of the effects of the light and colour on his surroundings, providing a catalogue of the sights that itself reads in parts as though he is inventorising the visual contents of Parc de l'hôpital Saint-Paul:
'From time to time there are moments when nature is superb, autumn effects glorious in colour, green skies contrasting with foliage in yellows, oranges, greens, earth in all the violets, heat-withered grass among which, however, the rains have given a last energy to certain plants, which again start putting forth little flowers of violet, pink, blue, yellow. Things that one is quite sad not to be able to reproduce. 'And skies - like our skies in the North, but the colours of the sunsets and sunrises more varied and clearer...
'I also have two views of the park and the asylum, where this place looked very pleasing. I tried to reconstruct the thing as it might have been, simplifying and accentuating the haughty, unchanging character of the pines and cedar clumps against the blue' (Van Gogh, ibid., no. 610, p. 222).
In his catalogue raisonné of Van Gogh's works, A.M. Hammacher considered Parc de l'hôpital Saint-Paul to be one of the two views that the artist mentioned here (Jan Hulsker considered this reference to be to two other pictures, F642 and F643, but nonetheless considered the present work to form part of the same group of pictures). Meanwhile, de la Faille considered Parc de l'hôpital Saint-Paul to have been the latter work to which Van Gogh referred when he wrote describing two pictures: 'I have a study of two yellowing poplars against a background of mountains and a view of the park here, an autumn effect in which the drawing is a little more nave and more-home-felt' (Van Gogh, ibid., no. 609, p. 221). Certainly, there is a directness in this painting, a deliberate navet that adds to its engaging charm. Indeed, in looking at this intimate landscape, one can well understand the honesty of Van Gogh's earlier reassurance to his brother that, 'You will see that, considering my life is spent mostly in the garden, it is not so unhappy' (Van Gogh, ibid., no. 592, p. 174). These grounds provided an endless variety of scenes and sights and visual effects, and it is a reflection of Van Gogh's amazing enthusiasm for rendering the world around him in oils, as well as a result of his confinement, that he created a range of pictures during this period showing a similar view as is seen in Parc de l'hôpital Saint-Paul, sometimes even showing the same trees and steps. It is perhaps a mark of Van Gogh's own appreciation of the success of this particular view that it can be seen hanging on the wall of his studio in his own painting of the window in his room at Saint-Paul.
The directness with which Van Gogh channelled the world around him into his pictures was in part inspired by his love of Japanese art, and indeed in both its spontaneity and its composition, Parc de l'hôpital Saint-Paul appears to owe a great deal to his love of Hiroshige in particular. Van Gogh copied several of Hiroshige's prints, and here appears to have created a landscape view that, through the use of the barring trees in the foreground, echoes perfectly some of the striking compositions in his Japanese predecessors woodblock prints. Van Gogh had in fact headed to the South of France, to Arles, originally in search of a more accessible version of the Japanese landscape. As he had earlier written to his brother, justifying the additional expenses of staying in Arles: 'About this staying on in the South, even if it is more expensive, consider: we like Japanese painting, we have felt its influence, all the impressionists have that in common; then why not go to Japan, that is to say the equivalent of Japan, the South?' (Van Gogh, ibid., no. 500, p. 589). He then expanded upon the subject, explaining that it was the manner of execution as well as the sight of the landscape that interested him in Japanese art and which he sought to echo in his own unique way:
'I wish you could spend some time here, you would feel it after a while, one's sight changes: you see things with an eye more Japanese, you feel colour differently. The Japanese draw quickly, very quickly, like a lightning flash, because their nerves are finer, their feeling simpler.
'I am convinced that I shall set my individuality free simply by staying on here' (Van Gogh, ibid., no. 500, p. 590).
This, of course, was to become all too true. Van Gogh's rapid development, in part catalysed by the presence of Gauguin and the intense discussions about art that the pair had, involved his thrusting himself into his paintings with a new reckless abandon. There was something of the medium to Van Gogh's intense views of the world around him, and his manic quality is reflected as much in the frantic and enthusiastic brushwork of Parc de l'hôpital Saint-Paul as it is in his sheer output during this period. In terms of execution, he has taken a couple of lessons from Neo-Impressionism and twisted them to his own purposes and needs. The colours have been applied not with the backdrop of logic and colour theory of Paul Signac, whom he had met earlier in the year, but instead with boldness and passion. That Van Gogh was pushing himself too far was all too painfully evident to his brother, who wrote even before the July fit had struck celebrating the paintings but worrying about the strains of the process of their execution. 'Your last pictures have given me much food for thought on the state of your mind at the time you did them,' Theo wrote:
'In all of them there is a vigour in the colours which you have not achieved before this in itself constitutes a rare quality but you have gone further than that, and if there are some who try to find the symbolic by torturing the form, I find this in many of your canvases, namely in the expression of the epitome of your thoughts on nature and living creatures, which you feel to be so strongly inherent in them. But how your brain must have laboured, and how you have risked everything to the very limit, where vertigo is inevitable!
'For this reason, my dear brother, when you tell me that you are working again, in which from one point of view I rejoice, for by this you avoid lapsing into the state of mind which many of the poor wretches who are taken care of in the establishment where you are staying succumb to, it worries me a little to think about it, for you ought not to venture into the mysterious regions which it seems one may skim cautiously but not penetrate with impunity before you recover completely. Don't take more trouble than necessary, for if you do nothing more than simply tell the story of what you see, there will be enough qualities in it to make your pictures last' (Theo van Gogh, ibid., no. T10, pp. 543-44).
This was to become prescient both as a judgement on the lasting legacy of Van Gogh's pictures, and as a presentiment of what was to come in terms of his brother's health. Van Gogh was a rational, modern-thinking man, and yet his illness was accompanied by fits of completely irrational terror, a fact that almost embarrassed him: 'I am astonished that with the modern ideas that I have, and being so ardent an admirer of Zola and de Goncourt and caring for things of art as I do, that I have attacks such as a superstitious man might have and that I get perverted and frightful ideas about religion such as never came into my head in the North' (Van Gogh, ibid., no. 607, p. 214). Van Gogh's rational mind was being disrupted by his emotional state, and yet it was this curious intensity of experience and existence that makes paintings such as Parc de l'hôpital Saint-Paul such palpable, almost tangible traces of life and the beauty of nature in all its forms.
It was during precisely this period, so shortly prior to his death in Auvers the following year, that Van Gogh was beginning to receive more and more acclaim within a small group of artists and admirers. This was the period of his burgeoning fame, the founding of his immense legacy. While he famously sold almost none of his paintings during his lifetime, those which he presented as gifts or offered in exchanges with his friends were highly treasured, for instance the picture of herrings he had given to Signac earlier that year. It was in itself a tribute to the respect he inspired that Gauguin had made his way from Pont-Aven to Arles. Likewise, he was also being considered for more exhibitions and even benefited from favourable press in an article written by J.J. Isaäcson the same year that Parc de l'hôpital Saint-Paul was painted:
'Who interprets for us in form and colour the mighty life, the great life once more becoming aware of itself in this nineteenth century? I know of one, a solitary pioneer, he stands alone struggling in the deep night, his name, Vincent, is for posterity' (J.J. Isaäcson, quoted in J. Hulsker, The New Complete Van Gogh: Paintings, Drawings, Sketches, Amsterdam, 1996, p. 418).
Van Gogh was embarrassed by this praise, feeling unworthy of it, stating that Isaäcson should have waited until he had another year's worth of works to show in order to justify such a lavish statement. However, he was clearly aware of the fact that he was on the path he had so long sought, and was reconciled to a lack of fame or recognition during his own lifetime. This philosophical perspective is evidenced by his words to Theo from this same period:
'Do you know what I think of pretty often, what I already said to you some time ago - that even if I did not succeed, all the same I thought that what I have worked at will be carried on. Not directly, but one isn't alone in believing in things that are true. And what does it matter personally then! I feel so strongly that it is the same with people as it is with wheat, if you are not sown in the earth to germinate there, what does it matter? - in the end you are ground between the millstones to become bread.
'The difference between happiness and unhappiness! Both are necessary and useful, as well as death or disappearance... it is so relative-and life is the same.
'Even faced with an illness that breaks me up and frightens me, that belief is unshaken' (Van Gogh, op.cit., 1958, Vol. III, no. 607, p. 218).