Vincent van Gogh - Spectators in the Arena at Arles 1888

Spectators in the Arena at Arles 1888
Spectators in the Arena at Arles
Oil on canvas 73.0 x 92.0 cm. Arles: December, 1888
St. Petersburg: Hermitage

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From the State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia:
Van Gogh moved to France in 1886 and from February 1888 he was settled at Arles, in Provence, where in just 15 months he produced over 200 canvases. The subject of this painting is a bullfight at the ancient amphitheatre, and yet the arena is barely noticeable, for the main motif is the public, the colourful crowd gathered to watch the popular spectacle. Amongst the viewers we can see the artist's friends and acquaintances that he so often depicted in other canvaes. During the period when this painting was produced, Gauguin was working in Arles alongside van Gogh and the latter was much taken with his fellow artist's painting style. Note the flattened space and the replacement of individual strokes with general patches of colour, outlined with a broad dark contour. Yet in the expressiveness of the painting we see van Gogh's own powerful temperament and his deeply dramatic perception of the world. Having passed through an Impressionist phase, the artist moved on to create his own personal, intense artistic language.

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Emile Bernard. Arles, between Tuesday, 17 and Friday, 20 July 1888.
My dear old Bernard,
Today I’ve just sent you another 9 croquis after painted studies. In this way you’ll see some of the subjects from this nature that inspires père Cézanne. Because La Crau near Aix is roughly the same thing as the surroundings of Tarascon and La Crau here. The Camargue is even simpler, because often there’s nothing left — nothing but poor soil with tamarisk bushes and the coarse kinds of grass that are to these scanty pastures what halfa grass is to the desert.
Knowing how much you love Cézanne, I thought these croquis of Provence might please you. Not that there are similarities between a drawing by me and by Cézanne; oh, no, no more than between Monticelli and me — but I too love the region that they have loved so much, and for the same reasons of colour, of logical design.
My dear old Bernard — by collaboration I didn’t mean that in my view two or more painters should work on the same paintings. By that I meant, rather, works that are divergent but go together and complement each other. Let’s look at the Italian primitives and the German primitives and the Dutch school and the Italians proper, in a word, let’s look at painting in its entirety.
Works unintentionally form a ‘group’, a ‘series’. Now then, at present the Impressionists too form a group, in spite of all their disastrous civil wars, in which people on both sides try to get at each others’ throats with a zeal worthy of a better destination and final goal.
In our northern school there’s Rembrandt — head of the school — since his influence is felt by anyone who comes close to him. We see, for example, Paulus Potter painting animals rutting and impassioned in landscapes that are also impassioned — in a thunderstorm, in sunshine, in the melancholy of autumn — whereas before knowing Rembrandt this same Paulus Potter was rather dry and meticulous. There you have two people who go together like brothers, Rembrandt and Potter. And while Rembrandt probably never touched a painting by Potter with his brush, that doesn’t alter the fact that both Potter and Ruisdael owe to him what’s best in them, that something that affects us deeply when we know how to look at a corner of old Holland through their temperament.
And then there’s the fact that the material difficulties of the painter’s life make collaboration, union among painters, desirable — (just as much as in the days of the guilds of St Luke).
By safeguarding their material life, by liking each other as pals instead of getting at each others’ throats, painters would be happier and anyway less ridiculous, less foolish and less guilty.
However, I don’t insist, knowing that life carries us along so fast that we don’t have the time to discuss and act simultaneously. That’s why at present, while the union exists only very incompletely, we’re sailing on the high seas in our small and wretched boats, isolated on the great waves of our time.
Is it renaissance, is it decline? We have no way of judging that, for we’re too close to avoid being led into error by distortions of perspective. For contemporary events, in our eyes, take on proportions that are probably exaggerated as regards our misfortunes and our merits.
I shake your hand firmly and hope to have news from you soon.
Ever yours,