Van Gogh’s Arles Landscapes

Landscape with Sno

Landscape with Snow

Vincent Van Gogh’s Landscape With Snow (1888) is a bit of an oddity amid the nearly 200 paintings Van Gogh made during his relatively brief (fifteen months) but exceedingly productive sojourn to the outskirts of Arles, France, following his immersion in Parisian café culture. As with the canvas depicting the storm on the shore at Scheveningen, Landscape With Snow seems to have recorded a real weather event, a heavy and rare blizzard that happened just as Van Gogh arrived in what he must have been surprised to find was not a sunny early spring day in the south of France. Of greater interest for my research, however, is the rare appearance of an animal – a dog – in this painting.

The dog and his man are walking away from the viewer, and the painter, on the left side of the raised rut between a slushy dirt road and an adjacent fallow field, also patched with snow and maybe ice, though the cold and precipitation seems not to have discouraged the emergence of a few early bursts of foliage. The sky overhead is the cold grey of a European late afternoon, but the village, not too far distant, offers the shelter of steadfast trees and some inviting-looking structures. Still it is the presence of the dog that lends this canvas a sense of comfort – the man and the dog are just out walking and will soon reach the village – rather than the foreboding and isolation a solitary figure would indicate.

Vojtech Jirat-Wasiutynski describes Van Gogh’s fascination with Arlesian agrarian labor practices (and the impingement upon those practices as evidence by the occasional appearance of modern machinery) in a way that echoes Griselda Pollock’s pieces (supported by an even greater amount of first-source historical data) about Van Gogh and the peasant population around Nuenen. Both scholars more than suggest that Van Gogh was a bit clueless as to the actual monotonous particularities of the type of manual labor required by life on a farm, with or without the assistance of efficiency-making devices. However, while Pollock’s interest in Van Gogh is more or less in envisioning the social practices of capitalism realized in painting with the painter as the generalized fulcrum, Jirat-Wasiutnski concentrates on a favorable understanding of Van Gogh’s intentions. I say intentions because while Jirat-Wasiutnski intuits a good bit of bonhomie from Van Gogh’s visions of companionship with like-minded artists as he imagined existence in Japan and an almost Futurist-like faith in the benefits of embracing modernity, the landscape paintings do not precisely, in many cases, reflect this sense of community and optimism. In fact despite its chilly setting, Landscape With Snow (because of the dog) is much more emotionally vibrant than, for example, the invitingly titled but simultaneously cluttered and barren Orchard With Blossoming Apricot Trees (1988) from just one month later.

Flying Fox

Flying Fox

My favorite Van Gogh painting, period, is Flying Fox (1885) from the Nuenen period. I have always wondered why, after so viscerally animating a creature he could never have seen when it was alive and in its natural environment, Van Gogh’s interest never again turned intensively to the many available creatures of the earth in Nuenen, Paris, and Arles who invited the same types of projections of innocence and typicality as the peasants, fieldhands, and café attendants Van Gogh was so fond of. Franz Marc saw something in Van Gogh’s work that made the German painter immediately embark on his canonical horses. I am still curious and will continue to search for whatever this galvanizing influence is.

See: Vojtech Jirat-Wasiutynski, “A Dutchman in the South of France: Van Gogh’s Romance of Arles,” Van Gogh Museum Journal 2002, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. (78-89)

What do you think?