Vincent van Gogh and The Great Impressionists of the Grand Boulevard
“In Antwerp I did not even know what the Impressionists were, now I have seen them and though not being one of the club yet I have much admired certain Impressionist pictures — Degas, nude figure — Monet, landscape.” – Vincent Van Gogh
It was a malnourished, depressed, and lonely Vincent van Gogh who arrived in Paris on, or about February 28, 1886. He had left Antwerp with unpaid bills, his teeth in such bad shape ten needed extraction, and a distraught brother, Theo, who had repeatedly discouraged him about coming. So, as he quickly dashed a note to Theo, he was apprehensive yet just as headstrong as ever, intent upon foisting the inevitability of the situation on his more passive sibling. “Don’t be cross with me that I’ve come all of a sudden. I’ve thought about it so much and I think we’ll save time this way. Will be at the Louvre from midday, or earlier if you like. A reply, please, to let me know when you could come to the Salle Carrée…We’ll sort things out, you’ll see…”
It seems unfathomable that when Vincent had yet to experience the world as an impressionist painter might interpret it. After all, a dozen years had passed since the First Impressionist Exhibition of 1874. Impression, soleil levant, Monet’s small sketch set the artworld ablaze that year and it was unveiled during Vincent’s tenure as an employee of Galerie Goupil & Cie at the Paris office at 2 Place de l’Opéra. Here in 1886, it seems likely Vincent’s first exposure to Impressionism occurred at the Goupil gallery (now named Boussod, Valadon & Cie, successeur de Goupil & Cie) where Theo had served as director since 1878. Monet, Degas, and perhaps Pissarro and Sisley pictures were swapped out and placed on an easel so that Vincent’s inquisitive eyes could ponder the surfaces values. It would be his first opportunity to reconcile the brighter palette Theo had repeatedly encouraged him to adopt with his devotion to Rembrandt, Millet, Courbet and color theory as taught by Charles Blanc. That year, there were other opportunities of course: The Eighth Impressionist Exhibition that opened 15 May. Monet, Renoir, Sisley and Caillebotte were absentee painters, but Degas, Pissarro, Cassatt, Guillaumin, and two new arrivals —Seurat and Signac — reanimated the conversation about science, perception, and art, Ve exposition internationale de peinture at Galerie Georges Petit opening 15 June that attracted the likes of Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Renoir, Rodin, and Whistler, and the second Exposition de la Société des Artistes Independents showing a similar roster of artists during August and September.
Vincent referred to these artists as “The Great Impressionists of the Boulevard.” They were, in a sense what he aspired to become; established artists whose reputations were burnished by galleries Durand-Ruel, Georges Petit and now, Boussod, Valadon & Cie under Theo’s guidance. Of course, Vincent was realistic., his opportunity rested with the kindred spirits of the younger generation; the ones he called “The Artists of Petit Boulevard”, denizens of the Montmartre neighborhoods around boulevard de Cichy and boulevard de Rochechouart where the younger men had their studios and exhibited in cafés. Besides, he felt comfortable here in this environment. He was an habitue of paint grinder Julien Tanguy’s art supply shop and gallery where artists gathered to exchange ideas and where he could gain feedback on his most recent efforts. That group included the established painter Guillaumin and Seurat, Signac and Gauguin as well as fellow Corman atelier classmates, Emile Bernard, Toulouse-Lautrec and Louis Anquetin. In fact, there is no evidence Vincent spent a meaningful moment with any of the impressionists — except for one, Camille Pissarro, the man to whom he always extended his gratitude for the advice and encouragement he received.
Lucien Pissarro, the oldest of Camille’s seven children delighted in telling the story of the afternoon he and his father encountered Vincent one on a narrow Montmartre street carrying a clutch of canvases and traps after a day of painting. ‘My father and I met him on rue Lepic. He (Vincent) was on his way back from Asnières with canvases…He insisted on showing his studies to my father (and) to do so he lined them up against the wall in the street, much to the amazement of the passerby.’ The story is a vivid reminder how self-absorbed Vincent could be. It also conveys the deep sense of urgency Vincent lived with every day and illustrates his need to prove his viability as an artist to a man he deeply respected and admired. In the late letters, Vincent invariably referred to Camille Pissarro Père (“Father”) Pissarro an enduring moniker that suggests the avuncular warmth he felt toward the man. In 1884, it was M. Pissarro if he would be willing to board his brother. Lucien later wrote that his father was impressed by Vincent’s work and that there were occasions his father explained to him various ways of finding and expressing light and color, ideas he later used. Later, it was Pissarro that helped arrange a meeting with the inimitable Dr. Gachet who in turn, agreed to treat Vincent in Auver-sur-Oise.
The three paintings by Pissarro here incorporate his principal motifs and are consummate examples of his abilities as a great first-generation impressionist. The earliest picture, Le Quai de Pothuis a Pontoise (1976) reveals his willingness to devote attention to the modern realities of encroaching industry within the rural landscape — a unique tack among the early Impressionists; next, a delightful gouache of a rural figure — in this case, a wood cutter that Pissarro chose to include in the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition of 1881, and Jarin des Tuileries, après-midi, soleil an elevated view of Tuileries Gardens from his apartment overlooking the deep and expansive view of the park bathed in the delicate and defused light of a late afternoon spring day in 1900.
Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh never met, but it is not difficult to discern from Vincent’s comments that he held the landscape painter in the highest regard. Theo, aware of rumors Monet and long-time dealer Durand-Ruel were in the throes of a series of fractious misunderstandings, quickly met with the artist at Giverny and arranged the purchase of ten Antibes pictures on 4 June 1888. He had them installed in short order in two understated rooms at the 19 Boulevard Montmartre gallery where several journalists and critics were seduced and transfixed by the brilliant color. Monet’s most ardent supporter, Gustave Geffroy wrote effusively of the work citing the “changing colours of the sea, green, blue, grey, almost white — vastness of the rainbow-coloured mountains — with colours, clouded, snow-covered…” He summarized his impression by suggesting Monet had captured “all that was characteristic about the area and all the deliciousness of the season…the neat delineations of the mountains, the static movement of the Mediterranean Sea, the beautiful and bright light, the sweetness of the air.” Not to be outdone, Vincent wrote to Theo that, “I’ve just read Geffroy’s article on Claude Monet. What he says is really very good. How I’d love to see that exhibition!” Later, upon viewing Vincent’s ten pictures submitted to the annual Salon des Indépendants that opened 19 March, Monet added his voice to the chorus of admirers of Vincent’s painting pronouncing them “the best of all in the exhibition.”
Le Château d’Antibes was not among the pictures purchased by Theo on that promising day in June, but it is the largest canvas from that expedition, a picture-perfect Mediterranean jewel that is picturesque for certain, but also conveys a palpable feeling of the immediacy of a moment spontaneously expressed. The air is crisp, prismatic, translucent; the paint colorful, vibrant, dazzling; the hand of the artist as accurate as it is poetic — just the sort of painting to inspire generations of Impressionist painters.
Of Sisley, Vincent was less accommodating in his correspondence with Theo. Doubtless, they discussed the artist’s work and when Vincent did proffer an opinion of it for posterity sake, he referred to the artist as “the most tactful and sensitive of the Impressionists.” As for Caillebotte, upon hearing of the Impressionists show at Durand-Ruel’s gallery in May 1888, he importuned his brother to ‘write and tell me what (Caillebotte’s works) are like (because) I’ve never seen anything of his.’
Vincent’s Norwegian contemporary, Edvard Munch might seem a curious addition to the group. Although no moment of actual contact has been established between the two artists and it is presumed they never met, they are kindred spirits who took similar paths in developing highly personal approaches to painting using color to express emotion. Both artists visited Antwerp in 1885, spent time in Paris during the late 1880s and were inspired by the work of Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin. They shared strong thematic affinities and their rebellious nature opened the door that led to a century of artists working in an Expressionistic manner. According to employees at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the most frequent questions is invariably, “where is “The Scream?” Munch never loads his brush as Vincent might, but the pose of the sitter, and the spatial sensibility and color inflection of Seated Young Woman are eerily similar to Vincent’s late portraits and character studies at Arles and Auver-sur-Oise. Is it any surprise that both artists have been called ‘the father of Expressionism?’
As for Vincent’s own work, Uitzicht over Den Haag met de Mieuwe Kerk of 1882 is a direct and honest work unburdened by overzealous attention to detail and surely one of his most successful early forays working color into his drawings. La Chaumière et une Paysanne Sous les Arbres painted three years later shows hints of a new interest in adding taches that indicate flowering plants in foreground. It is a particularly attractive painting, picturesque at the expense of Vincent’s treasured sense of realism, but one that has a painterly quality displaying an elegance in handling that belies its relatively early date, five years into his short, ten years as an artist.