From Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza:
When Vincent van Gogh arrived in Arles in February 1888 seeking the luminous atmosphere of the French Midi, he eschewed pointillist and Impressionist methods in favour of more synthetic forms and louder colours. The Stevedores in Arles , which clearly evidences this stylistic change, is painted with thick, elongated brushstrokes and marked colour contrasts. It shows a view of the Rhone with a blazing sunset in which the motifs of the composition— clearly influenced by Japanese art — stand out against the light. “I saw a magnificent and strange effect this evening,” wrote Vincent to his brother Theo from Arles at the beginning of August 1888. “A very big boat loaded with coal on the Rhône, moored to the quay. Seen from above it was all shining and wet with a shower; the water was yellowish-white and clouded pearl gray; the sky, lilac, with an orange streak in the west; the town, violet. On the boat some poor workmen in dirty blue and white came and went carrying the cargo on shore. It was pure Hokusai.”
The impression this sight made on the artist spurred him to depict it shortly afterwards in three paintings. The first of them, Boats with Sand , features two moored boats viewed from a very oblique, high perspective, as if captured from a very tall quay from which some men unload sand, not coal, in full daylight. Later, perhaps at the end of August, he painted two similar pictures, this time showing the sunset: Coal Barges and the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza Stevedores in Arles. The high viewpoint of the first painting is replaced by a composition closer to the ground and its forced perspective by a more frontal view. This new focus enables him to depict a broad, orange-tinged atmosphere in which the dark foreground boats and buildings on the other side of the river stand out against the light. The likening of the darkness of night to the blackness of the coal unloaded from the vessels was no coincidence. Van Gogh did not settle merely for appearances but strove to seek meanings and used colour to express certain feelings.
In his comparative study of the painting in the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection and that belonging to the private collection, Ronald Pickvance states that although both were painted from memory in his studio in the place Lamartine using the same rapid, confident brushstrokes, there are substantial differences not only in their size but also in the handling of the composition. Furthermore, as in other works painted in Arles, the work in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza displays the lengthwise marks caused by the manner in which the canvas was rolled up to be moved at some point.
The Stevedores was exhibited in summer 1905 with the title Zonsondergang in the Van Gogh retrospective at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, in which his sister-in-law Johanna van Gogh-Bonger brought to light most of the artist’s Estate. Later, from 1910 onwards, it was included in several exhibitions organised by Paul Cassirer in Germany.
To Theo van Gogh. Antwerp, Tuesday, 16 or Wednesday, 17 February 1886.
My dear Theo,
I’m really looking forward to hearing from you. For the time when I have to decide has come.
We only have about 10 days until the end of the month, and I do need to know what’s what.
But anyway, for my part I’ve decided — only it would be pleasant for me if you could see it the same way as I do.
If you agree that the plan of coming to Paris should go ahead as soon as possible — in other words after I’ve been in Brabant for a short while — then I’ll send you from here the studies and drawings I have here.
I wanted to get on with that, though. Because otherwise I’ll have to be here for even longer.
I’d also so very much like to get the work on my teeth finished.
What should I do?
Altogether I’ve got one franc fifty left — and as for food, I’ve still got five francs credit until the end of the month. It’s desirable for so many reasons that we take the step of changing quickly.
You understand that I can’t afford to take painting materials with me from here to Brabant — so I’ll probably be in a double fix there, both for models and for paint. So there’s no choice — for that matter what need is there for a choice, for what’s most pressing has to be done first, and that’s this period of drawing nudes and plaster casts. I write to you rather curtly, perhaps, but it may not be put off.
For the rest, it actually goes without saying that there can’t be a single objection to finding a temporary garret in Paris right away, on the very first day I arrive — and then I can go to the Louvre or L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts for that drawing, and that way it’ll be all the more successful at Cormon’s. So let’s not delay or get involved in long-winded discussions.
We have to put our backs into it; well then, we’ll do that.
If we ever want to do anything good, depend upon it that it will increasingly come down to decisiveness and to quite swift action and that, while despite all the effort one might put in, no one can know with certainty the results of his enterprises in advance, some courage and promptness of action can do no harm.
If it were in any way possible, I’d like to have the second half of that work on my teeth done this month. I’d like to pack up my studies and send them to you, and leave on the last day of this month or even a few days earlier.
But not stay on into March, on account of the rent.
Would there be a possibility of that? Then I can help with the packing at home if it could be of any use to them.
And if I could do a little painting or drawing there, so much the better.
But — the sooner and more energetically we get through that period of drawing in Paris, the better for the whole future. Even what I’ve done in these few weeks here has helped, I feel. And if I didn’t do it, then I would, even though I found it in a different way in nature itself, then I’d always have trouble with fellows who had been at some academy or other — that I couldn’t draw — according to them. I still don’t know how things will turn out for me in the end at the academy here — I wrote and told you recently, didn’t I, about how they’d deliberately picked a quarrel with me.
I heard yesterday that Siberdt — the teacher — had said somewhere that I had a good understanding of drawing and that he’d been rather too hasty. Since he doesn’t come into the class all that often, I haven’t seen him in several days.
I’m working on a female torso at the moment. Regards — but write as soon as you can. My constitution is more or less the same, but still I think it’s beginning to improve. With a handshake.
If I didn’t do it — go to Paris, that is — then I wouldn’t get any better — for I have to do something about earning more. I’m doing myself no good at all now — if nothing had to be taken off, one could live perfectly well on 150 francs, but there’s always too much to come off. But still, my health is improving — and it will come right.