Vincent van Gogh's Paris years

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) really started painting in his late twenties and most of his famous works date from the last couple of years of his too short life - he died at 37. He had spent his younger years working for art dealers, wishing to become a pastor, working as a missionary… and doing some art studies. Then, he decided to become an artist. His first major painting may be The Potato Eaters from 1885 – he was 32. In March 1886 he moved to Paris, sharing a flat with his younger brother Theo, first for a short while to an address at rue Laval (today rue Victor Massé), then for a longer period at rue Lepic, with interruptions for stays with his painter friend (rather parents of) Emile Bernard in the northern suburb Asnières. He left Paris for Arles in February 1888. This post will give some glimpses of his Paris period, which consequently lasted more or less two years.

Of the more than 800 oil paintings known by Vincent, some 225-230 are from the Paris period, some 330 from the short Arles – St. Remy period and close to 80 from the last Auvers-sur-Oise months – an enormous production over just a few years, not mentioning drawings, watercolours….

We can see how his art developed during the two Paris years, from rather dark to much brighter, influenced by impressionism and more particularly by some post-impressionist friends…

… and probably also by a few months at the Atelier Cormon, where he studied, met and became friends with other artists like Toulouse-Lautrec, Emile Bernard… (Some pretend that Vincent is in the front row in the photo below, but this seems hardly possible - the photo obviously dates from a year before Vincent’s arrival in Paris.)

Living at rue Lepic (see previous post), it was obvious and easy for Vincent to paint Montmartre. Here are some windmill examples, especially of course mainly concerning the Moulin de la Galette ones – Blute-fin and Radet…

… but there are many other Montmartre ones….

… e.g. the garden of this restaurant which looks different today (especially a winter day).

He also already showed an interest in sunflowers…

… and made some visits elsewhere around Paris.

This is where he stayed with Theo, rue Lepic. He painted the view from the windows at least twice.

Theo later moved to another address, Cité Pigalle. Vincent made short visits here on his return from the south and when living in Auvers-sur-Oise.

There are also some other Vincent-linked addresses in the Montmartre – Pigalle area:

Vincent became friends with Julien (Père) Tanguy, who sold painting equipment and exhibited Vincent’s works, especially the ones influenced by Japanese prints. In this portrait which Vincent made of his friend (he made at least two more), we can also see in the background some examples of Vincent’s works inspired by Japanese masters like Hiroshige (1797-1858), Toyokuni (1769-1825), Eisen (1790-1848)…  He sold nothing.

Vincent also exhibited in a café, called Le Tambourin, on Boulevard de Clichy, belonging to a lady called Agostina Segatori (who had modelled for Manet and others). Again, nothing was sold. But Vincent painted Agostina and Toulouse-Lautrec (who also exhibited here) painted Vincent.

Vincent together with some friends (again Emile Bernard, Toulouse-Lautrec and others) also showed their paintings at the Bouillon-Restaurant du Chalet on Avenue de Clichy… and once again he didn’t sell anything, but some of his friends did.

Here we can see where the above-mentioned spots in the Montmartre-Pigalle are to be found. However, of course, the cafés - and sometimes even the buildings – are gone.

What did Vincent look like? Here we can see some of the self-portraits he did during the two Paris years.

There are few photos of him, only one in adult age, unfortunately we see him only from the back, discussing with his friend Emile Bernard. (There is one photo who some claim to be him at the age of 34 or 35, but this is contested.)

Emile Bernard (1868-1941), who we can see in the photo with Vincent, then only 20 years old, was a close friend and Vincent spent much time at Asnières, a northern suburb on the Seine banks, where Emile then lived with his parents.

Before showing some works, here I have tried to spot where some of the paintings from this neighbourhood were made – and also where the photo of Emile Bernard and Vincent was taken. 

It's not easy to find the same angle, the Seine banks have changed considerably.

Vincent and Emile were obviously separated by a few meters when they made these ones of the railway bridge with the Pont d’Asnières in the background.

As I said, the banks have changed a lot, the nice restaurants are gone… 

From what we can see on the above detailed map, a bridge, Pont de Clichy, is not there anymore – has been replaced. From an island which has also gone or from the opposite bank, Vincent has painted two buildings which still stand there, but they seem less high; the bottom floors are now underground.

Here we are close to what later became a pet cemetery (see previous post) and a little park (Voyer d’Argenson) which used to surround a castle.  

I think something should be said about Emile Bernard here, who proved to be a very good friend and did a lot to promote Vincent’s works after his too early death. Emile had a different style, more related to Gauguin – another friend of his and for a while to Vincent. It may be referred to as “cloisonnisme” with more bold and flat forms. We can already see this in the above painting of the bridges.

Vincent wrote hundreds of letters to his brother, family and friends, in Dutch, in English, in French.  Another proof of the friendship between Vincent and Emile may be these letters by Vincent to Emile where he during his Arles period explains what he’s painting.

Emile was also, with Pisarro, Père Tanguy… present during Vincent’s funeral at the end of July 1890 at Auvers-sur-Oise. He also made a painting of the event. Of course his greatest supporter, his brother Theo, was also there. He died only a few months later.  Vincent was treated by Docteur Gachet, a friend of many painters and an amateur painter himself – who made the portrait of Vincent, beardless, on his deathbed.

Well, one painting by Vincent was sold during his lifetime, a few months before his death, The Red Vineyard, painted in Arles. It was bought by Anna Boch, artist herself and sister of Vincent’s friend Eugène Boch. It was exhibited in Brussels and sold for 400 francs (something like 1500-2000 € or 1800-2400 $ in today’s value?). 


Anonymous said...

This post left me speechless. What a marvel!


Vagabonde said...

What an interesting and informative post. I had never seen these copies that Van Gogh did of Hiroshige’s paintings. Also I did not know that he painted so many self portraits. You did much research to take pictures of places where Van Gogh painted, and this gives a great point de vue. This certainly is the definitive post on Van Gogh’s years in Paris.

Thérèse said...

Superbe, superbe retrospective sur Van Gogh et les endroits qu'il frequenta a Paris, ceux-ci ayant bien change depuis, specialement les emplacements des moulins...
Emile Bernard que je connais moins et que je rattachais plus a Toulouse Lautrec.
Quel plaisir de voir et revoir tous ces magnifiques tableaux.

JudyMac said...

Fabulous post, Peter! Very sad to contemplate that no one would buy his paintings, when today people drop millions to own one. Had I millions, I know I would, as they say, in a New York minute.

Anonymous said...

In the words of Antonin Artaud:

“No, van Gogh was not mad, but his paintings were bursts of Greek fire, atomic bombs, whose angle of vision would have been capable of seriously upsetting the spectral conformity of the bourgeoisie"

Fascinating post, Peter.
Thank you so much!

La Jeune Captive

Tom Sales said...

The obvious best place where we've seen Van Gogh's is in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam where they are displayed in chronological order--enabling you to see his progression. "Van Gogh: The Life" by Naifeh and Smith is a 900+-page book that shows a mental progression of Van Gogh's madness by analyzing his letters and writings. Seeing where he was painting adds a new dimension. His closeness to Bernard really didn't come through as much in that book.

Tom Sales said...

Sorry. One additional comment as I look at these paintings--especially the comparison of Bernard's and Van Gogh's pictures of the railroad bridge. Last night I saw a CNN Film about Roger Ebert which said he could crank out his awesome film reviews in 30 minutes or less. Looking at the detail of Van Gogh's paintings that he was able to accomplish in hours is almost unbelievable. How does he paint each brick and the detail of that train when another painter could barely just color in those areas. Would have loved to see a film of how fast he must have painted while still being able to add that detail. How does he sell just one painting over a lifetime!

PeterParis said...

> Tom: Thanks for your comments! There are tens of theories on Vincent's health, mental and more general. There are also question marks on whether he really did commit suicide or possibly was shot at by some youngsters or.... After the injury, he could still walk back to his hotel room, smoke his pipe... and he died only a day later. Did he talk?

Julie said...


The Gachet drawing of Vincente on his death-bed, shows an acquiline nose, whereas the two photos as a teenager, show that his nose had the appearance of having been punched! The contested image, aged 35, also has a simmilar nose to the death-bed.

Looking at the self-portraits during his 2 year Paris sojourne, you show 25 which is one per month. Was he self-obsessed?

That image talking with Emile, where all we see is his back, shows, to me, a bear of a man. Emile, in comparison, is puny. How big and how solid was Vincente?

Finally, in your first grouping where you show a selection of his works, we go from dark and gloomy to much lighter, brighter, bordering on carefree. Hardly, the work of a painter depressed enough to take his own life.

When I stood in his room in the sanitorium in Arles, I was moved, but it was when I took the few steps to the window and looked out into the walled garden, that I was really overcome.

Thank you for the work that has gone into this post. It is a joy to ponder.


Anonymous said...

Thank you very much


Jeanie said...

Peter, there are so many reasons I love this post I can barely begin. First, thanks for telling the story with the Parisian focus and for sharing so many wonderful images of paintings as well as locales.

And, thank you for the information on Emile Bernard, who also sounds fascinating.

And finally, it brought back many warm memories of a drizzly April day, walking with you down Rue Lepic as you pointed out his house -- I still have photos of course. Quite the loveliest drizzly day in Paris!

Harriet said...

Peter, this is a fabulous post! Thank you for all the research that you have done to share Van Gogh's Paris years with us. I was in Paris and saw the exhibit comparing Hiroshige and Van Gogh. So glad that you included some side by side paintings. And how wonderful to see all of the self-portraits all together. Again many thanks for this most informative and delightful post.