Vincent Van Gogh “Painter on the Road to Tarascon” (1888)
approximately 19″ x 16″
In 1888 Vincent Van Gogh moved from Paris, France to Arles, a somewhat seedy town near the Mediterrean coast. He dreamed of founding an artist colony there, a Studio of the South, where the strong sunlight made for vivid colors.
For months Van Gogh lived and worked on his own, exploring the city and neighboring regions for artistic subject matter. There were a number of picturesque Roman ruins in the area, but mostly Van Gogh painted humble still lifes, genre scenes and portraits of friends, very much in keeping with his common man philosophy of art.
In August 1888 Vincent casually wrote to his brother Theo about one of his paintings: “For instance, there is a rough sketch I made of myself laden with boxes, props, and canvas on the sunny road to Tarascon.” The image he referred to came to be called “The Painter on the Road to Tarascon,” along with some other similar variations on the title.
It was shortly after this time that Van Gogh’s life took off into tragedy and legend. The events he is most remembered for happened in rapid succession. By September he had moved into the Yellow House, a shabby rental property he has been using just as a studio.
Vincent Van Gogh “The Yellow House”
A mania of creativity was upon him. He was working compulsively, neglecting his health, drinking to excess. But the momentum was powerful. Vincent created over 300 paintings in the months he spent in Arles, including many of his best know masterpieces.
The painter Paul Gauguin arrived in October, becoming Vincent’s roommate. But far from joining in artistic brotherhood, the two men were soon quarreling and estranged. Van Gogh’s behavior became increasingly erratic. It all came to a head, or maybe an ear, on Sunday December 23. After a bizarre confrontation when Gauguin announced he was leaving Arles, Vincent sliced off his own earlobe with a razor.
By March 1889 Van Gogh was confined in a hospital because of his strange behavior; by May he was moved to an asylum. The dream of a Studio of the South was over.
I’ve posted an image of Van Gogh’s self portrait in a sunny landscape above. Reproductions are all that are left of this work today. During World War II, the painting was plundered by the Nazis. The original ended up being destroyed in a fire after the museum it was stored in was bombed.
Knowing what we know now about Van Gogh’s life gives this seemingly simple work an unexpected edge and atmosphere. He depicted himself as a lone traveler on a journey, hauling along all the awkward equipment needed to make his art. A misshapen shadow-self clings at his heel. It depicts a moment of hope right before it all went so wrong.
With the perspective we have of the course of Vincent’s life and the ultimate loss of this work, the painting feels like an existential comment of the loneliness and demands of the artistic life.
The painter Francis Bacon obviously got the same vibe from the work. Had he seen the original? I can’t locate that answer, but it seems likely. Bacon was all over Europe before the war, a young man already passionate about culture.
In the 1950s Bacon created a series of Van Gogh homages, with the painter appearing as a grotesque ghostly figure, a figure of doom among all the rich colors and dynamic brushwork.
Francis Bacon “Study for a Portait of Van Gogh IV”
Francis Bacon “Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh V”
Francis Bacon “Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh I”
Francis Bacon “Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh III”
This last one is especially significant for me. Once in the 1980s, when I was a teenager, I went with a crew of my punk rock friends into Washington DC. This was our version of a big city; we lived in the suburbs nearby.
My family went to DC a lot for the monuments and museums, but because I was with my buddies we were exploring more than I normally would. We ended up going to the Hirshhorn Musuem, which contained modern art, something I hadn’t really been interested in too much.
Bacon’s “Van Gogh III” was just one piece in a room full of his works, but that was the one that mesmerized me. I didn’t know anything about Bacon or the lost Van Gogh, but it didn’t matter. It was probably the first time a modern work gave me the deep stirring of inexpressible feelings great art evokes. It was my gateway to contemporary art, and possibly even to my career as a painter.
Sometime in the early 2000s I made a painting I quickly realized was the offspring of these earlier works. I was setting out to do a series of paintings based on the Book of Ecclesiastes, the most existential part of the Bible. I’m not sure of the year; I should really keep better records. I also never made any of the other paintings I had in mind for the series. There’s some great images there waiting to be seen.
I had a translation that listed part of Ecclesiastes 12:5 as “and the grasshopper shall be a burden…” Reading this sparked the initial image. But the particular form it took on came as a surprise.
As I started to paint it, the figure in blue quickly evolved into Van Gogh blue; it became inevitable to evoke the man himself. Now the insect, which was part of the original idea, took on all new significances.
The story of Van Gogh and the destroyed painting and the distortions of Bacon were all stored away in my mind and came out before I was really aware of it happening.
In my version the shadow now rides, and has grown a spiny exoskeleton.
I think of the burdens of the artistic life; also, the fable of the grasshopper and the ants. Is being an artist frivolous?
The answer is no. But it’s a question worth asking.
Inspiration is contagious among artists. Catching a glimpse of the right image at the right time can lead to sunny paths of progress. But never lose sight of the corresponding darkness our passage casts.
Richard Bledsoe “The Burdensome Grasshopper” oil on wood panel 24″ x 24″