“’Auvers is very beautiful, really profoundly beautiful… decidedly very beautiful… [It is] the real country, characteristic and picturesque… far enough from Paris to be real country… an almost lush country [with] much well-being in the air…. ‘no factories, but lovely greenery in abundance and well kept.’”
Fleurs dans un verre belongs to a very small group of floral still lifes that Vincent van Gogh completed in his seventy day residency in Auvers-sur-Oise, where he would bring his life to an end in the height of the summer of 1890. Although traditionally assigned to his time in Arles in J.B. de la Faille’s 1928 and 1939 catalogue raisonnés of the artist’s work, the present canvas is now agreed to have been part of the artist’s final, dramatic artistic production in this hamlet north of Paris. In his seventy days in Auvers, van Gogh would paint seventy or so canvases, a huge output by any measure. Many of these canvases represent the village of Auvers itself and its immediate surroundings. There are also major portraits and, rarer still, still lifes such as Fleurs dans un verre.
Van Gogh was not the first artist to draw inspiration from the picturesque town of Auvers-sur-Oise: “The medieval town along the Oise River, a tributary of the Seine, had entered the French imagination as early as the 1850s, when Charles Daubigny anchored his studio barge at the water’s edge and began to record its archetypal charms. Fixed in the rich alluvial margin between the river and the surrounding plateau, and dependent for centuries on the fish-rich waters of the Oise, the town had grown along the riverbank like a vine, not outward onto the surrounding plateau. Only a few roads wide, but miles long, mixing clusters of thatched houses and farm enclosures with vineyards and market gardens all along its winding length, Auvers became a model for the postcard-perfect rural utopias depicted again and again in the mania of nostalgia that accompanied the depredations of industry. Once the railroad came, the same mania brought flocks of Parisians, all looking for vestiges of the lost past. Artists like Corot, Cézanne and Pissarro followed Daubigny in capturing these pretty, rustic scenes for broader consumption, and dealers like Theo van Gogh sold thousands of their images of picturesque cottages, country lanes, and village folk, all advertising the reparative power of country life” (S. Naifeh & G. White Smith, Van Gogh The Life, New York, 2011, p. 826; see figs. 1 & 2).
On his arrival and over the course of the coming weeks, van Gogh’s appreciation for the natural beauty and rural character of Auvers was consistently reflected in his letters to his brother Theo. He triumphed at the traditional thatched roofs, the quality of the air, the productive yet peaceful quotidian life of the village: “’Auvers is very beautiful,’ he wrote, ‘really profoundly beautiful… decidedly very beautiful.’ He called it ‘the real country, characteristic and picturesque… far enough from Paris to be real country… an almost lush country [with] much well-being in the air.’ He compared it to Puvis’s mural of quiet, ancient, unstained Eden—only lovingly tended like a Dutch garden, not Zola’s untamed Paradou—‘no factories, but lovely greenery in abundance and well kept’” (quoted in ibid., p. 825). Van Gogh’s principal anchor, from his first day in Auvers, was the eccentric homeopathic doctor Paul Gachet, for whom Theo provided a letter of introduction. The subject of several of van Gogh’s most famed and enduring portraits, Dr. Gachet and his household became the central point of Auvers that Vincent orbited around (see fig. 3).
Gachet himself was passionate about the visual arts. He collected the avant-garde of the day rapaciously and provided medical advice and counsel to artists from Manet to Renoir to Cézanne to Pissarro. By the time he died in 1909, Gachet had amassed one of the largest collections of Impressionist Art in Europe. Van Gogh pointed out that it wasn’t only artworks that Gachet acquired—his home was full to bursting the antiques and curiosities: “But you will see that his house is full, full like an antique dealer’s, of things that are not always interesting. But nevertheless there is this advantage, there is always something for arranging flowers or for a still life” (letter no. 638 to Theo). Included in his collection at the time of van Gogh’s sojourn in Auvers were two floral still lifes by Cézanne, both now in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay (see figs. 4 & 5). As he told Theo in one of his first letters after meeting the doctor in late May, Gachet's house was filled with black antiques as well as Impressionist paintings including "two fine flower pieces by Cézanne." Van Gogh found Gachet's environment so inviting that he pledged to "... gladly, very gladly, do a bit of brushwork here" (letter no. 635 to Theo).
It is likely that the present work and three other floral still lifes from this period were painted at Dr. Gachet’s house (see figs. 6-9). Indeed three of these canvases share with Cézanne’s Bouquet au petit vase de Delft a similar, rounded table edge tilted towards the picture plane while the fourth follows in contours Cézanne’s Dahlias dans un grand vase de Delft. Van Gogh’s floral arrangements are notable for their use of common garden flowers or wayside flowers in surprising juxtapositions. It is precisely the choice of natural materials of such widely divergent shapes and growing patterns that gives the present work its innocent appeal. Looking at the present work, one can imagine the artist traipsing through the fields on his way to Gachet's, gathering up a spray of foxglove, an ear of wheat and leaves of vine, to place casually into a translucent glass.The foxglove provides blue, violet and pale green tones, highlighted by white and dramatized by some red outlining. These blues are complemented by the yellow wheat, contrasting with the bold reds and greens of the leafy vines that wind through the bouquet and extend into the vase. A white blossom and buds and some pale green leaves brighten the right side of the arrangement. By choosing such disparate elements to include in his vase of flowers, van Gogh has lent the composition interesting spatial rhythms that complement those created by his palette. The asymmetry and angularity of the floral elements stand in piquant contrast to the regularly grid of basket-weave strokes in the background wall, and the smooth, rounded forms of vase and table. In this still life, van Gogh has created a vibrant, understated yet intricate play of form and hue.
In comparison with the more reserved and academic still-lifes that he had completed in Paris in the mid-1880s, the present work evidences the dramatic shift in the artist's painterly style, now characterized by frenetic energy. "I am working a good deal and quickly these days," the artist wrote June 13," in so doing, I seek to express the desperately swift passing away of things in modern life" (Letter W23).
The present work has a fascinating provenance. La Peau de l’Ours, the owner of Fleurs dans un verre from 1908 to 1914, was a collector’s consortium formed by André Level and twelve partners in 1904. Each shareholder contributed 250 Francs a year for ten years with which to buy pictures. The auction of their collection was held on March 2, 1914 and was a considerable success. This work was looted from the Lindon Family bank vault in Paris during World War II and was restituted to the family after the war. From 1963 until 1998 the work formed a part of the famed Reader’s Digest Collection, formed by Lila Acheson Wallace who generously exhibited it around the globe. It has been in the same private collection for over twenty years.
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