A Wonderful (Still) Life
A spring exhibition reveals the effect that Paris—and a basket of apples—had on the art of Vincent van Gogh.
By Sally Ann Flecker
Vincent van Gogh, Still Life, Basket of Apples, 1887, Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of Sydney M. Shoenberg, Sr. 43:1972
It was a quiet moment of familiar life. An autumn day. Vincent van Gogh was out for a walk on a Paris street with the Scottish art dealer Alexander Reid. They passed a shop where a basket of apples caught Van Gogh’s eye. He wanted to paint it, he told Reid, who graciously accommodated him by making the purchase. Van Gogh took the basket back to his apartment and painted the arrangement, signing and dating the canvas in cadmium red with a slanted hand in the bottom left corner: Vincent ’87. He gave it to Reid, who would take it with him when he returned to Glasgow. On loan now to Carnegie Museum of Art from the Saint Louis Art Museum, the painting is the centerpiece of a small but revelatory exhibition Visiting Van Gogh: Still Life, Basket of Apples.
Van Gogh’s sojourn in Paris from 1886 to 1888 was pivotal for him as an artist. “Before 1886, he had never seen an Impressionist painting,” says Amanda Zehnder, Carnegie Museum of Art’s associate curator of fine arts and organizer of the exhibition opening March 14. Van Gogh’s younger brother Theo, an art dealer in Paris, tried to explain the movement in his letters. But without seeing it, Van Gogh couldn’t fully grasp it.
That all changed when the 33-year-old artist arrived in Paris, the undisputed art capital of Europe. It was an enthralling and dynamic time in Van Gogh’s life. He met many famous artists and was able to develop friendships and collaborations. He and Theo lived together, deepening the relationship that would be one of the most important in his life. And he was able to attend the eighth and, as it turned out, final Impressionist exhibition.
“Most of the things that people think about when they think of
Van Gogh—The Starry Night or Sunflowers, the brightly colored paintings—all happened after he moved to Paris.”
- AMANDA ZEHNDER, CARNEGIE MUSEUM OF ART’S ASSOCIATE CURATOR OF FINE ARTS
“At that exhibition, the big uproar was the inclusion of Neo-Impressionists for the first time,” Zehnder says. Paul Signac and Georges Seurat showed large displays of art, including Seurat’s now famous A Sunday on La Grande Jatte–1884. “They were the cutting-edge, surpassing the older Impressionists who were more established at that point,” she adds. “Van Gogh was blown away by the logical approach to color that the Neo-Impressionists are famous for. It really is like a light bulb goes off for him when he gets to Paris.”
Van Gogh reveled in Neo-Impressionist discussions of color. The practitioners were interested in theories about how optics work in the eye as well as how colors mix in physical form. He became great friends with Signac, 10 years his junior. The two would go on open-air painting expeditions where Van Gogh was able to observe Signac as he worked with the tiny dots of color and little brushstrokes often described as pointillism.
“In general, prior to 1886, Van Gogh’s painting palette was muddy—The Potato Eaters,” Zehnder says. “Most of the things that people think about when they think of Van Gogh—The Starry Night or Sunflowers, the brightly colored paintings—all happened after he moved to Paris. All that bright color comes into his practice in 1886, and it defines the last four years of his career.”
By the fall of 1887, when he painted Still Life, Basket of Apples, his time in Paris was winding down; he would leave for Arles the following February. “He had digested what he had seen in Paris, and in his interactions with the avant-garde artists,” Zehnder says. “By then, he had been working a lot on the idea of color. He called his still lifes color studies. They were deliberate exercises in working out color harmonies and playing with the color wheel.”
Basket of Apples—on loan to the Museum of Art in a reciprocal gesture after it loaned two of its prized paintings by Edgar Degas and Gustave Doré to the Saint Louis Art Museum—shows Van Gogh experimenting with complementary colors. “Those apples have a prominent red outline, which plays off the greens in the texture of the apples,” says Simon Kelly, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Saint Louis Art Museum.
“The overall yellow palette is complemented by the shadows which have a violet tone. He’s playing there with complementary colors: red and green, yellow and violet. What you see in some of these paintings is color that is literally squeezed straight from the tube,” he continues. “A lot of that interest in experimenting with color comes from Signac and Seurat and the way that they would place pure colors next to each other. Rather than mixing on the canvas, the colors would mix in the viewer’s eye and intensify the effect. You see that in quite a few paintings from this period.”
Three works from Carnegie Museum of Art’s collection will share the spotlight with Basket of Apples, offering a condensed look at Van Gogh’s life in France. Le Moulin de la Galette, a small landscape showing two of the windmills on the Montmartre hill, was painted slightly earlier than the featured still life. Wheat Fields after the Rain, painted in Auvers, is one of Van Gogh’s last works.
The fourth and final painting in the exhibition is Signac’s Place des Lices, St. Tropez. While it was painted after Van Gogh’s death, Zehnder says it’s the type of painting Van Gogh would have seen during his days in Paris: “It’s a spectacular example of Neo-Impressionism—one of Signac’s best paintings.”
Visiting Van Gogh, which will be on view in Gallery One of the Scaife Galleries through July 6, is purposefully intimate, meant to encourage visitors to observe more deeply. After all, that’s what Van Gogh did.
“We want people to have a pristine moment of looking at each painting,” says Zehnder, noting that the museum will participate in Slow Art Day on April 11, encouraging visitors to slow down and spend dedicated time with works of art.
“You do notice more the more you look at it,” she adds.“Something that seems so simple at first, you realize how much there is to see.”
Support for Visiting Van Gogh: Still Life, Basket of Apples is provided by The Henry L. Hillman Fund, the Mary Louise and Henry J. Gailliot Fund for Exhibitions, and Citizens Bank.