Van Gogh’s ‘Arles’: A Cloisonnist’s Delight

Vincent Van Gogh’s Memory of the Garden at Etten (Ladies of Arles) was painted in 1888, before his famous falling out with fellow post-impressionist Paul Gauguin. Though the two artists experimented with the cloisonné style, Van Gogh’s “Arles canvass is a bit more vibrant than Gauguin’s Arlésiennes (Mistral) or even The Yellow Christ. With that in mind, now is as good a time as any to revisit the Garden at Etten.

At first glance, you can see how Vincent must have been way out there when he created Memory of the Garden at Etten (Ladies of Arles.) Though misunderstood at the time, his use of a sinuous orange dirt path with greenish hemlock bushes lit in blue “tongues” was both imaginary and a pioneering feat of excellence. In the upper right corner, his coarse strokes flow with energy around two stationary flower beds containing bright red geraniums. Though almost 120 years later, Van Gogh’s soil is alive with movement. Even the maid bending over to pick flowers seems to be in motion via single thick lines against her flat blue dress.

To the left, an aging fair-haired woman and a younger brunette with a parasol are looking down as they make their way somewhere. The dark haired woman’s raised eyebrow conveys an air of energetic naiveté, while her companion wears a somewhat tired expression. Based on their resemblance, particularly the nose, they must have been related, as in Van Gogh’s mother and sister. Remember, this is supposed to be a memory from his childhood. As a result, those are no ordinary dahlias. The juxtaposition of the conspicuous yellow flowers against the indigo of his mother’s shawl is Vincent’s way of singling her out.

But something else stands out about VG’s tour de force of cloisonnism. Despite the intensity and the color, I’ve always thought his rendering of the hands was equally intriguing. Notice how each of the women’s fingers are full and somewhat out of scale. Alone, they have no resemblance to human hands. But somehow everything works together as the flat two-dimensional surface shines with excitement and an acute understanding of natural light viewed through the mind’s eye. I can’t help but think of Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett, another outstanding talent who was ahead of his time. But in Van Gogh’s case, it was more like “Dark Side of the Arles.”

Video: Memory of the Garden at Etten (Women of Arles): digital reconstruction – vangogh/YouTube.

Photos: Memory of the Garden at Etten (Ladies of Arles) (inset) by Vincent Van Gogh – public domain, published before Jan. 1, 1923/Creative Commons (CC);

Arlésiennes (Mistral) by Paul Gauguin – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002CC; public domain/CC;

Usage of photos does not constitute endorsement.

Paul Wolfle has a B.A. from Hofstra University (m. Art History); and an ARM (Risk Management) insurance certification.

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