From National Gallery of Art, Washington:
Vincent van Gogh painted this picture soon after his release from the hospital, where he was recovering from the disastrous final days of Paul Gauguin’s stay with him in Arles. In a long letter to his brother Theo posted January 23, 1889, he mentions creating this painting alongside several other issues, including the need to make money through picture sales. He likely had the market in mind in painting this still life.
The painter was clearly attracted to the shapes and hues of the citrus fruit arrayed in the wicker basket, and the way their varied orb shapes play against the weave of the dried sticks, the whole set off by the prickly needles of the cypress branches. Van Gogh refers in his letter to an “air of chic” in this picture, prompted perhaps by the inclusion of blue garden gloves. The painting reveals the artist’s extraordinarily original sense of color, as well as his richly expressive paint application as he struggles to evoke the nubby waxen skin of the various fruits, the spiky fur of the branches, and the limp material of the worn gloves.
In the letter to Theo, the artist also describes the melancholic departure of his close friend Joseph Roulin, who was temporarily leaving his family for a new post in Marseilles, and reports a particularly touching moment during which the father bounced his newborn daughter Marcelle on his knee. Van Gogh would return to the hospital within the month following a second mental breakdown.
To Theo van Gogh. Arles, Tuesday, 31 July 1888.
My dear Theo,
So at last our uncle’s no longer suffering — I received the news from our sister this morning. It seems that they’re more or less expecting you for the funeral, and perhaps you’ll be there now, in fact.
How short life is, and how like smoke. Which isn’t a reason to despise the living — on the contrary.
So we’re right to attach ourselves more to artists than to paintings.
I’m working hard for Russell. I thought I’d do a series of drawings after my painted studies for him; I have a conviction that he’ll look favourably on them, and that, I hope at least, will further prompt him to do a deal.
MacKnight came to look again yesterday, and also found the portrait of a young girl good, and again said that he finds my garden good. I really don’t know if he has money or not. Now I’m working with another model, a postman in a blue uniform with gold trimmings, a big, bearded face, very Socratic. A raging republican, like père Tanguy. A more interesting man than many people.
If we were to push Russell, perhaps he’d purchase the Gauguin that you bought, and if there was no other way of coming to Gauguin’s aid, what would have to be done?
When I write to him at the same time as I send the drawings, naturally it will be to get him to make up his mind.
I’ll say to him, look, you like our painting so much, but I believe that we’ll see even better by the artist; why don’t you act like us, who have faith in the whole man just as he is, and who find everything he does good. I then want to add, of course it would be all the same to us to let you have the large painting, if necessary, but as Gauguin will still very often be in need of money, in his interests should we not keep it until his prices have tripled or quadrupled — which will happen — we believe? If after that Russell wishes to make a clear, firm offer, well.... we could see... And in that case, Gauguin should say that he, even though he let you have it at that price as a friend, he himself absolutely does not wish for it to be given to another art lover at that price. Anyway — let’s finish the drawings; I have 8 of them and I’ll do 12, and let’s wait and see what he says. I’m very curious to know if you were able to go to Holland, yes or no. For the moment I won’t write any more.
The change that I’m going to try to make in my paintings will be to do more figures.
In short, it’s the only thing in painting that moves me deeply and that gives me a sense of the infinite. More than the rest.
On the 17th of this month, my friend the second lieutenant of Zouaves will go to Paris. He has offered to take charge of my consignment that I have to make to you, and I believe I’ll accept that; that way you’ll have them, and without costs, on the 18th.
I’ll write to our sister today; they’ll all be feeling very sad.
Have you received Bernard’s croquis?
As our sister says, from the moment that people are no longer there, we remember only their good moments and good qualities.
However, it’s above all a question of trying to see them while they’re still there. It would be so simple and would explain so well the horrors of life that now amaze us and distress us so if life had another, second hemisphere, invisible, it’s true, but where we arrive when we breathe our last. To those who are making this interesting and solemn journey, our best wishes and our best sympathies.
If you go to Holland, my warm regards to our mother and sister. Handshake.
The week will be pretty hard, having to pay the rent and having a model.
I hope to make some of these croquis after the painted studies for you too; you’ll see that it has a certain Japanese look.
I still have to thank you for yesterday’s 50-franc note, and reply to your letter.
You did well to send the colours and canvases, my supplies being exhausted across the board.
As far as Bing’s concerned, as for being in a hurry: no. Only far from breaking off relations, we should take more on commission as soon as we can pay.
I saw a magnificent and very strange effect this evening. A very large boat laden with coal on the Rhône, moored at the quay. Seen from above it was all glistening and wet from a shower; the water was a white yellow and clouded pearl-grey, the sky lilac and an orange strip in the west, the town violet. On the boat, small workmen, blue and dirty white, were coming and going, carrying the cargo ashore. It was pure Hokusai. It was too late to do it, but one day, when this coal-boat comes back, it’ll have to be tackled.
It’s in a railway yard that I saw this effect; it’s a place that I’ve just found and where there will be plenty of other things to do.
Handshake, because if I want to write more to Holland I’ll have to hurry.
I’ll have difficulty getting all the way through this week.
But I hope to get started on the series of figures.