The Hague, Haagsche Kunstkring, Vincent van Gogh: werken, 1892
Paris, Galerie Marcel Bernheim, Vincent Van Gogh. Exposition rétrospective, 1925, no. 10, illustrated in the catalogue
Paris, Musée Jacquemart-André, Vincent Van Gogh, 1960, no. 49b
Van Gogh and Gauguin both left Paris in early 1888, in search of destinations that would inspire creative impulses, provide new sources of inspiration and help them to realise their aims for a ‘new art’ based on a simpler life-style than the one provided by the metropolis. Gauguin moved to Brittany, where the rugged landscape and peasant life appealed to his desire for a more ‘primitive’ existence far removed from urban Paris. Van Gogh, on the other hand, followed the sun to the south of France, where the light and warmth offered an opportunity to explore his interest in colour. Since 1886 Van Gogh had mentioned in letters to his friends and family members the wish to move to the south of France, in search of subjects bathed in a clearer and more brilliant light than he could find in Paris.
Van Gogh arrived to the town of Arles on 20th February 1888, where he rented the right half of the now celebrated Yellow House. He invited Gauguin to join him in Arles, and Gauguin arrived on 23rd October. Despite Van Gogh’s initial delight at Gauguin’s stay at Arles, and their vigorous work alongside each other, by mid-December Gauguin wrote in a letter to Van Gogh’s brother Theo that they could not live together because of their ‘temperamental incompatibility’. A violent argument between the two artists on 23rd December led to the infamous incident in which Van Gogh cut off a part of his ear. After a week of crises, Van Gogh started recovering, both mentally and physically. On 7th January he was released from the hospital and, on his return to the Yellow House, wrote in a letter to Theo: "I am going to set to work again tomorrow. I shall begin by doing one or two still lifes so as to get back into the habit of painting" (letter 569, in: The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, London, 1999, vol. III, pp. 113-14). On 17th January, he wrote to Theo: "I have started work again, and I already have three finished studies in the studio" (letter 571, in: ibid., p. 118). Although Van Gogh did not refer explicitly to Deux crabes or its companion piece Crabe (fig. 1), these two oils are likely to have been among the studies mentioned in the letter, in other words some the first works Van Gogh executed on his recovery.
Despite its unusual subject-matter, Deux crabes shows the artist in full strength, using his technique of boldly hatched brushstrokes, and strong, contrasting colours – depicting the crabs in warm red and yellow tones against the much cooler, green background. Writing about Crabe, a smaller version of the present work that is in the collection of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Richard Kendall commented that "we can only marvel at the clarity of his vision and the surpassing control that is apparent in every aspect of its surface. As much as in his portraits, Van Gogh has plotted the crests and concavities of the animal form, the fine junctions of its limbs, and the delicate bristling and serrations of its body. Drawing defines the crab’s structure, while resonant color and vivid brushwork evoke the potential for violence that remains in the creature’s claws" (R. Kendall, Van Gogh’s Van Goghs: Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (exhibition catalogue), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998-99, p. 116).
At around the same time as Deux crabes, Van Gogh painted another still life, Nature morte aux harengs saurs (fig. 2), executed from the same vantage point, a painting he gave as a present to Paul Signac during his visit to Arles. It has been suggested that Deux crabes in fact shows one crab, seen from above and below (J.-B. de la Faille, op. cit., 1970, p. 244). In 1887, Van Gogh executed several small-scale paintings, including Les Souliers (fig. 3) and Les Tournesols (fig. 4), in which he depicted a pair of everyday objects from two different points of view. The artist was experimenting with varying vantage points, creating a dynamic composition by presenting identical objects from two very different angles.
Deux crabes has belonged to the same family since 1946 until the present day, and was last exhibited in public in Paris in 1960. With its brilliant colours and unmistakable technique, this jewel-like work belongs to one of the artist’s most creatively energetic and psychologically tormented periods, which produced such masterpieces as the Sunflowers and Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe.
Fig. 1, Vincent Van Gogh, Crabe, 1888-89, oil on canvas, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Fig. 2, Vincent Van Gogh, Nature morte aux harengs saurs, 1889, oil on canvas, Private Collection
Fig. 3, Vincent Van Gogh, Les Souliers, 1887, oil on canvas, The Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore
Fig. 4, Vincent Van Gogh, Les Tournesols, 1887, oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
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