‘I’ll tell you that we’re having some superb autumn days,’ wrote Vincent van Gogh on 5 October 1889. He was sitting in his room in the asylum at Saint-Paul-de-Mausol in Provence, describing to his brother, Theo, how he intended to take advantage of the weather.
Within a fortnight of penning these words Van Gogh painted Arbres dans le jardin de l’asile, which depicts the fiery colours of the autumn foliage in the asylum’s garden. ‘It’s Van Gogh at the height of his power,’ enthuses Max Carter, Head of Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Art Department in New York. ‘The picture was painted during his breathtakingly fertile stay in the asylum at Saint-Rémy.’
The artist had been a voluntary patient at the converted Augustan monastery since May 1889. He had admitted himself to recover from the manic episode he had suffered at the Yellow House in Arles two days before Christmas in 1888; following an argument with Paul Gauguin his hallucinations had become so intense that he was driven to shear off most of his left ear.
Several weeks after arriving at the asylum Van Gogh wrote to Theo, describing how his ‘will to work was becoming a tiny bit firmer’. In the same letter he also expressed how beautiful the gardens were that he could see beyond the window of the ground-floor room that he had been permitted to use as a studio.
By the beginning of June Dr Théophile Peyron, who ran the hospital, had allowed Van Gogh to paint in the gardens, then outside the asylum walls, as long as he was supervised. On 18 June he painted his iconic La nuit étoilée (The Starry Night).
Four weeks later, he dispatched around 30 recently finished works to his brother in Paris, including the well-known picture Irises. Sadly, the following day disaster struck again. On 16 July Van Gogh suffered another ‘attack’, as he labelled his frightening seizures. While painting a quarry entrance not far from the asylum’s walls, he became frenzied and began devouring dirt and the contents of a paint tube before being escorted back to his room by an attendant.
For nearly six weeks afterwards, Van Gogh was confined to his room and forbidden to paint. ‘For many days I’ve been absolutely distraught,’ he wrote to Theo on 22 August. ‘It’s to be presumed that these crises will recur in the future, it is ABOMINABLE… You’ll perhaps do well to write a line to Dr Peyron to say that working on my paintings is quite necessary to me for my recovery.’
‘Ah, I could almost believe that I have a new period of clarity ahead of me’ — Vincent van Gogh, 5/6 September 1899
At the end of August Van Gogh was allowed to pick up his brushes again, painting a view of the fields beyond his window. ‘Ah, I could almost believe that I have a new period of clarity ahead of me,’ he wrote to his brother.
By October, Van Gogh was in the midst of a prolific run, painting two of the most impressive self-portraits of his career, as well as pictures of his attendant and his wife, then a view of a nearby chapel from the perimeter of the asylum walls. Emboldened and nearing the peak of this creative surge, he then painted Arbres dans le jardin de l’asil.
The composition, which depicts a footpath framed on either side by the trunks of fir trees, was inspired by the Japanese woodblock prints Van Gogh had become obsessed with a decade earlier. The picture was completed in a single sitting, with Van Gogh composing its structure speedily, and without hesitation. Carter considers the work to be ‘as fresh as the day it was painted’.
Unlike many of the canvases completed in the preceding months, Van Gogh depicted the garden of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole in primary and secondary colours squeezed straight from their tubes, rather than mixed on his palette. Some are tinted white to heighten their hues, and all are applied with his trademark rhythm.
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Van Gogh shipped the work to his brother in Paris on 6 December. Two months later he suffered another severe relapse, before leaving the asylum in May 1890 in order to be nearer to Theo. On 29 July, aged 37, a mentally exhausted Van Gogh fatally shot himself in the chest.
A grief-stricken Theo would die six months later. Arbres dans le jardin de l’asile passed to his widow, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, who helped to secure the fame of her brother-in-law by translating the letters between Theo and Vincent, and lending works to various exhibitions across the continent.
In 1908 Arbres dans le jardin de l’asile was shown in two Van Gogh retrospectives, in Berlin, then Zürich, that the German art publisher Walter Feilchenfeldt said ‘produced the greatest impact an exhibition could have ever exerted on the development of modern art in Germany’. In 1909, Van Gogh-Bonger sold the picture to a private collector.
‘In more recent years, Arbres dans le jardin de l’asile came to be owned by two of the 20th century’s greatest collectors,’ Carter adds. ‘The Greek shipping magnate George Embiricos, and Si Newhouse, the legendary head of the Condé Nast publishing empire, from whose collection it now comes to Christie’s.’