“We painted on the banks of the river (Seine); lunched at guinguette [a small café], and returned to Paris on foot, along the avenues of Saint-Ouen and Clichy: Van Gogh wore a blue zinc-worker’s smock and had painted dots of colour on the sleeves” Paul Signac would reminisce. It’s no stretch of the imagination to picture those sleeves … speckled with clashing colours.
Vincent van Gogh, Banks of the Seine with Boats, 1887, Private collection.
Van Gogh along the Seine is the title of the new exhibition now open at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, concluding the Museum’s 50th anniversary year (until 14 January 2024). In collaboration with the Art Institute of Chicago, the show investigates, for the first time, the profound impact that the suburbs northwest of Paris along the Seine – Asnières, Clichy, and the surrounding areas – had on five painters between 1881 and 1890 Vincent van Gogh, Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, Émile Bernard and Charles Angrand. Featuring 75 works (over 20 rarely exhibited and from private collections), the exhibition unfolds in seven themes: The Outskirts of Paris, Banks and Bridges, On the Water, Van Gogh’s Triptychs, Exploring the Towns, Leisure, Industry.
A new hunting ground
Asnières and its environs were profoundly altered in the transformation process of Paris in the Second Empire.
A fashionable destination for leisure pursuits, on Sundays, it was flooded with Parisians fleeing the city, ‘that bourgeoisie deprived of grass and starved of country walks’, as Guy de Maupassant wrote in his short story, A Country Excursion (1881). Only two stops from Saint-Lazare train station, with its sailing and boating clubs, Asnières ‘was an important part of Parisian life only since it was reachable in ten minutes, every half hour’, wrote Émile de la Bédollières in his new guide Histoire des environs du nouveau Paris (1861), enriched by Gustave Doré’s amusing illustrations (included in Jacquelyn N. Courté’s essay for the catalogue). The train made many stops, and amongst these were Asnières and, on the other side of the Seine, the industrial Clichy. In the middle was the elongated river island of La Grande Jatte. The postcards of the period, collected in a visual essay by Teio Meedendorp, take us to the sites and the viewpoints as they were at the turn of the century.
In Bridges Across the Seine (below), we see how Van Gogh transforms the location of his canvases into magical scenes; it’s as if we are walking with the woman in red, hearing the train whistling.
Vincent van Gogh, Bridges across the Seine at Asnières, 1887, Emil Bührle Collection, on long-term loan at the Kunsthaus, Zürich; Asnières – Pont du Chemin de Fer, Postcard, c. 1905.
Seurat would be the first of the five to paint the area in 1881, Signac in 1882, Bernard and Angrand in 1884-85, and lastly, Van Gogh in 1887. What did such different characters have in common? The need to find a revolutionary mode of interaction with paints and brushes, a need for experimentation – inspired by the influential research on the laws of colours and contrasts by Michel Chevreul, Ogden Rood, and Charles Blanc. This was how the new generation challenged the legacy of Impressionism. The stimuli offered by the new suburban environment, with all its contradictions and tensions, became their hunting ground. These were not the idyllic settings so dear to Monet and Renoir, like Argeteuil or Chatou, further downstream. Instead, they were part of a new visual vocabulary, an hour’s walk from the metropolis.
This show is an incredible walk for us, too, full of surprises. To one side, the enchanting Grande Jatte; to the other, the smokestacks of the factories.
Vincent van Gogh, Factories at Clichy, 1887, Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri.
And then we meet the bridges, the trains, the cranes to unload coal… the riverbanks and bathers – the workers of these new suburbs allowing themselves a day off, captured by Seurat in his impressive oil on panel, or ‘croqueton‘ (small painted sketches), for the Final study for ‘Bathers at Asnières’. They are striking because these croquetons (five are exhibited) are small, yet everything can already be seen in those 15×25 centimetres, which would become 2 metres by 3 in the final painting (rejected by the official Salon in 1884). We can almost glimpse the painter at work, concentrating hard on depicting something intimate, a faintly melancholic snapshot of that scene: the figures are all alone against Clichy’s industrialised landscape. There is a beautiful contrast of subjects with the final study for La Grande Jatte, of the same size, begun immediately afterwards in 1884 – a sample of a bourgeois Sunday, which in the famous final painting also includes a monkey on a leash (shown at the eighth Impressionist Exhibition of 1886). Seurat, in these tiny studies, does not yet apply the pointilliste technique, but the pure contrasts of colour are handled with an exceptional attention.
Georges Seurat, Final Study for ‘Bathers at Asnières’, 1883, oil on panel; Final Study for La Grande Jatte, 1884, oil on panel, (both) The Art Institute of Chicago.
Although they never formed a group, the five protagonists of this exhibition knew each other and spent time together in their respective studios, often painting together en plein air: Angrand with Seurat, Seurat with Signac, and later on Signac with Van Gogh, Van Gogh with Bernard.
In the section On the Water, we are again in front of fascination for the play of light on the river. A fine pair of paintings of the same scene (displayed here for the first time) tells us that Angrand and Seurat positioned their easels side by side with the little sailboats and the canoes that animated those Sundays on the river. ‘I leave at half past 12 for la Jatte and only return at 7 o’clock or later. I’m in the company of Seurat, who also makes the journey daily…’ Angrand wrote to his parents in the Summer of 1888. From his home, the route was eight miles there and back, and he found it ‘quite exhausting’ by the end of the day. An almost unknown painter, Angrand is an absolute revelation. He produced only about one hundred canvases, chiselled out very slowly, working on each for many months. The unpublished letters he exchanged with his parents uncover his deep friendship with Seurat.
From the left: Charles Angrand, The Seine at Courbevoie: La Grande Jatte, 1888, Private collection; Georges Seurat, The Seine at La Grande Jatte, 1888, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels.
Surprisingly, even if the experimentation of these five artists eventually produced vastly different outcomes, there are some artworks that, seen side by side, could be by one artist or another, which shows that the division of the colours on the canvas was an almost “obligatory” step for all of them. Van Gogh explores everything but doesn’t imitate anybody. In some works, he adopts pointillist elements, in others impressionist brushstrokes; in still others, he builds the painting with elongated touches in pure colour, as in the very lively Banks of the Seine with Boats (above, private collection, on public display for the first time since 1984).
Bernard was the first, after some neo-impressionist experiments, to take a radically opposed path, with flat planes of colour and strong outlines that will be named Cloisonnisme, as we see in Two Women on the Asnières Footbridge (1887). Since he was sixteen, he lived between Asnières and Courbevoie, where his parents moved in 1884. Everyday life is powerfully depicted here, the faces of two working-class women in profile against the backdrop of Clichy and the unloading dock. In creating his work, Bernard was influenced by Japanese prints, placing the figures boldly in the foreground. Van Gogh himself, in early 1887, brought Bernard to see the shop of Siegfried Bing, the most prominent Asian art dealer in Paris. Vincent would spend whole days at Bing’s, hunting for the Japanese prints he would soon display for his painter friends at café Le Tambourin.
Émile Bernard, Two women on the Asnières Footbridge, 1887, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Brest métropole.
Van Gogh’s ‘painting campaign’ along the Seine, the triptychs
Paris, 1887. Seurat, Signac and Angrand participate in the third Exposition des Artistes Indépendents from 26 March to 3 May. Angrand presents his first Divisionist painting, The Accident; Seurat exhibits The Bridge at Courbevoie, and Signac submits The ‘Ponton de la Félicité‘, Asnières, two works executed in small dots. Van Gogh had seen La Grande Jatte by Seurat the year before and was motivated to paint those locations.
From early May to the end of July, Vincent adventured towards Asnières almost every day to paint. A strong walker, three miles from Montmartre, where he lived with Theo, was nothing to him. We have very few letters from the two years Vincent spent in Paris, but in a letter, he wrote to his sister Wil in Autumn, we discover in just a few lines what efforts he had been making to leave his Dutch palette behind him:
‘Last year, I painted almost nothing but flowers to accustom myself to a colour other than grey, that’s to say, pink, soft or bright green, light blue, violet, yellow, orange, fine red. And when I painted a landscape in Asnières this summer, I saw more colour in it than before. I’m studying this now in portraits.’
Vincent van Gogh, By the Seine, 1887, Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).
Van Gogh worked in cycles; for each theme he faced, he kept at it until he finally felt he had reached his goal. He called them ‘painting campaigns’. It’s a curious term used in the military; his was a struggle, a hand-to-hand combat with painting. Vincent used this expression in Dutch artistieke campagne, but also in French. From Arles, when he was ‘in a fury of work as the trees are in blossom’, he wrote to his brother, ‘I can assure you that what I’m making here is better than my campaign in Asnières last spring’ – this was his campagne d’Asnières.
Forty canvases in three months, one every three days. What is Vincent’s goal in this ‘painting campaign’?
As we know from his letter to his sister, he wanted to see more colour in landscapes. He tried to instil in them the pure contrasts he achieved in his flowers and the colourful balls of wool he kept on his table. Thus, the painter began his dialogue with modernism, determined to become part of the French modern art debate.
The climax of this research was reached in three triptychs, all dedicated to the area he had studied in those months: Clichy, Asnières and Grande Jatte. Sold in 1897 by Jo (Theo’s wife) to Ambroise Vollard, the most important art dealer in Paris, the nine canvases are now spread around various international museums and private collections. For the first time, seven of these paintings are reunited, a real challenge since the Van Gogh Museum has none of them.
The Clichy Triptych is an enchanting grouping, an oasis of peace, far from the city – the bridge of Clichy in the background is the sole element that identifies the location. At the centre, a woman in the greenery stares at us and seems surprised… a vivacious presence, unusual in these paintings. The frames on show, naturally very different to each other, allow us to glimpse the red edges Van Gogh had painted. But that’s not all …
Vincent van Gogh, Clichy triptych, 1887: Fishing in Spring, the Pont de Clichy (Asnières), Art Institute of Chicago; A Woman Walking in a Garden, Private collection; Riverbank in Springtime, Dallas Museum of Art.
“With a large canvas slung on his back, he embarked on his journey. He then split it into many compartments, depending on the subjects. When the evening came, he brought it back, filled up, like a little mobile museum, in which all emotions of his day were captured”, Bernard would later recall.
As Bergje Gerritse, the Amsterdam curator of the exhibition, explains in her essay for the catalogue, ‘Van Gogh marked out three rectangles with red paint on the canvas, which must have measured over a meter and a half in length’. New research ‘shows that each of these triptychs was made from a long piece of canvas, which Van Gogh only split into three parts after painting’. So that’s how it went – he painted, and then he cut. The ways he worked never cease to amaze. This crucial period in Van Gogh’s life and oeuvre was fundamental in developing his art beyond Impressionism.
After over 190 paintings, in February 1888, Vincent departed for Provence; the metropolis had nothing more to entice him. He left Paris with an ambitious and colourful Self-portrait as a Painter, signed and dated Vincent ’88. He identifies his role; he ensures its recognisability over time with a date. He underlines everything with a promising stroke: the colour is squeezed straight from the tube.
Van Gogh along the Seine Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam 13 October 2023 – 14 January 2024
The exhibition catalogue, Van Gogh and the Avant-Garde: Along the Seine, is edited by Bregje Gerritse (Van Gogh Museum) and Jacquelyn N. Courté (The Art Institute of Chicago), with contributions by Jena K. Carvana, Charlotte Hellman, Joost van der Hoeven, Francois Lespinasse, Teio Meedendorp and Richard Thompson.