Van Gogh had high hopes of convincing his brother Theo and Theo’s family to move to Auvers, which van Gogh thought would be a healthier environment for his young nephew to be raised in. “Van Gogh was incredibly productive at Auvers…. In the nine weeks he spent there he produced more than one hundred finished works, many of which were figural pieces. After the isolation endured at St. Rémy, he reveled in renewed opportunities for the sort of work he liked best and delighted in the look of the locals, who struck him as hearty souls…. The chubby children and red-cheeked women van Gogh painted en plein air at Auvers may be seen as visual accompaniments to his relentless verbal campaign to move Theo, Jo and ‘the little one’ to an environment that promoted physical well-being. He noticed that ‘children here in the healthy open air look well,’ and as he painted them against the backdrop of thatch roofed cottages and flowering meadows—van Gogh reported to his brother and sister-in-law that the children of Auvers (even ‘youngsters who were born in Paris and really sickly’) thrived. He evoked ‘the health and restorative forces that I see in the country’ not only in the lustrous and expansive landscapes but in images of robust townspeople ranging from grinning tykes to a mop-haired youth chewing a flower stem to colorfully clad women traipsing along a country road, their faces ‘browned by fresh air, burned by the sun’” (Van Gogh: Face to Face, The Portraits, (exhibition catalogue), The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston & Philadelphia Museum of Arts, Philadelphia, 2000-01, p. 212).
The dating and locating of van Gogh’s works has long spurred debate. While some paintings and drawings can clearly be linked to specific locations and dates through the artist’s letters or through depicted imagery and other notable characteristics, not every work is easily identified. In de la Faille’s 1928 catalogue raisonné the present work is dated to the summer of 1889 in Saint-Rémy. Hulsker revises this dating to April of 1890, still in Saint-Rémy, while Heenk’s article suggests that, based on the characteristics of the paper, this work was in fact created in Auvers, where van Gogh moved in the summer of 1890. Whatever the case may be, this work, created during the final year of van Gogh’s life, contains an undulating rural landscape, a moon setting or rising in the sky, boldly filled with white pigment, and two laborers working in the field at center. The vertiginous composition calls to mind his 1889 canvas Wheatfield with Reaper painted from the asylum at Saint-Rémy looking toward the Apennines (see fig. 2).
While van Gogh’s letters are filled with discussion of canvases, colors, pigments and the like, a large portion of his artistic output during this time was works on paper. These ranged from small, quick sketches he would do in his notebook or in the margins of a letter to his brother (to fully explain a composition), to highly finished works done either just before or just after a canvas of the same subject matter. There was a third type of drawing—one which he saved for his largest sheets of paper—unique compositions in their own right. These works were not a means to an end but rather fully worked sheets whose compositions were the final product for van Gogh. In her detailed technical analysis of van Gogh’s works on paper, Liesbeth Heenk has delved into the various uses for the artist’s sheets: "Perhaps not surprisingly, there is a close correlation between the size and quality of the paper selected and the importance of the drawing for the artist…. The smaller the size of the paper, the less elaborate and worked the drawing is. There is also a close connection between the use of a folio one or both sides and the degree of elaboration of the drawing. For reasons of economy a study or sketch often consists of a recto and a verso. All large format drawings from Auvers can be classified as autonomous works. The six largest formats, entire folios of (different types of) laid paper of about 47 x 62 cm, were used for rather elaborate drawings of landscapes: Landscape with sun and two peasants [sic; the present work]…. They are independent drawings that show no direct link to paintings” (L. Heenk, 1994, op. cit., pp. 34-35). In short, Evening Landscape with Two Peasants is one of the most finished and highly worked drawings of van Gogh’s final year.
Van Gogh’s graphic works in Saint-Rémy and Auvers took on a new quality from those done in Arles. “Purity of line,” writes Sjraar van Heugten, “became the artist’s main concern, a result of his experiments in Arles. More than ever before, van Gogh used his pen to create a rhythm of lines, forming patterns that lend coherence to the composition (we see similar development in the paintings, effected through the brushwork). To achieve this goal, the pen strokes need to stand out perfectly against the paper; indistinctness caused by other materials was undesirable. Van Gogh’s pen drawings from Saint-Rémy are thus quite different from those made in Arles. The emphasis on rhythm, the focusing of composition and a reduction in details make these drawings significantly more abstract than the more or less realistic works of 1888” (Vincent van Gogh, The Drawings (exhibition catalogue), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York & Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 2005, p. 53). This shift is visible in works as broad and expansive as Wheat Fields with Cypresses and as detailed and focused as Arums, both in the collection of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam (see figs. 3 & 4).
Vincent van Gogh’s life came to an abrupt end in 1890; six months after his death, his brother Theo also died unexpectedly, leaving a widow and a young son named Vincent. Theo’s widow Johanna van Gogh set about preserving her brother-in-law and her husband’s legacies, moving back to the Netherlands and working tirelessly to promote Vincent van Gogh’s work through exhibitions as well as careful transcriptions of numerous letters. Evening Landscape with Two Peasants remained in Johanna van Gogh’s collection for the first two decades of the twentieth century. By 1978 the present work had made its way into the collection of Dr. Martin and Francey Gecht of Chicago. Voracious collectors of Impressionist and Modern Art, the Gechts made a lasting impact on their city with their donation to the Art Institute of Chicago of thirty-one works on paper by artists from Degas to Picasso to Matisse to Toulouse-Lautrec.
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