From National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin:
Vincent van Gogh moved to Paris in February 1886. He painted this view of the city from Montmartre, where he lived with his brother Theo, in the spring of that year.
Van Gogh shows the Paris extending southwards from the Butte de Montmartre with the towers of the Palais de Trocadéro visible in the distance. The painting is one of four related views that he executed at this time and, like the others, it is painted in tones typical of the French naturalist painters Jules Breton and Jean-François Millet, whose work he admired.
Although he was largely self-taught, van Gogh keenly followed Academic methods of art practice by emphasising drawing before colour. From 1881 he often worked with a perspective frame. This stringed, box-like, structure divided a viewed space into sections so that it could be depicted on paper or canvas. In Rooftops in Paris a grey ribbon of horizon divides the composition so that sky and landscape are presented in more or less equal proportions. The painting demonstrates van Gogh's fascination with 'skyscapes' and his interest in the work of John Constable.
Painted in 1886, the year of the final Impressionist exhibition, this work reveals how van Gogh's style was deeply rooted in the Dutch Realist tradition when he first arrived in Paris. Just a few months later he came to know Paul Gauguin, Émile Bernard and other artists of the 'Petit Boulevard' and his paintings began to assume the vigorous impasto and heightened colour that he is best known for today.
To Theo van Gogh. The Hague, Sunday, 15 October 1882.
My dear Theo,
Your letter and the contents, both written and monetary, gave me not a little pleasure and I do thank you for them. Regarding the first, I was especially glad to hear that it needn’t be very long before you come to Holland again. As soon as it’s possible for you to determine whether it will be before or after the New Year, I’d very much like to know that, roughly, in advance. I’m very glad that you’ve sent the studies — I feel so strongly these days while working on many new ones that I must keep the work from the model together. How delightful it would be if I could consult you more often about the work — but we’re too far apart.
The other day I saw, and also have in my collection, a large woodcut after a painting by Roll, A miners’ strike. Do you happen to know this painter and, if so, what have you seen by him? This shows the yard of a coal-mine, in front of which there’s a large group of men, women and children who have evidently stormed the building. They stand or sit around an overturned cart, and are held back by mounted police. One chap throws a stone, but a woman tries to grab his arm. The characters are outstanding, and it’s roughly and boldly drawn, and certainly painted in that way too, entirely as befits the nature of the subject. It’s not like Knaus or Vautier, but done, as it were, with greater passion — almost no details, everything massed together and simplified — but there’s plenty of style in it. There’s a great deal of expression and mood and sentiment in it, and the movements of the figures — the different actions — are masterfully depicted. I was very struck by it, and so was Rappard, to whom I sent one too. It was in L’Illustration, but an old issue.
As it happens, I have another one by an English draughtsman, Emslie, in which the subject is men going into the mine to help the casualties of an accident if possible, while the women stand and wait. For the rest, such subjects are rarely treated. As for the one by Roll, I myself was present at such a scene in all its vivid reality.6 What I find so good in his painting is that as a whole it depicts such a situation so truly, even though one finds few of the details. It reminded me of a remark by Corot — ‘There are paintings in which there is nothing and yet everything is there.’ In the whole thing there’s something grand and classical as in a fine history painting8 — in the composition and the lines, and that’s a quality which is just as rare today as it always has been and will remain. It reminds me a little of Géricault, namely the Raft of the Medusa, and yet at the same time of Munkácsy, for example.
This week I’ve drawn some large heads and some figures of children as well as orphan men.
I agree with what you say about the small drawings — namely, that the one of the bench is done more in the old-fashioned way. Yet I did that more or less deliberately, and may well do it more. However strikingly beautiful I find many paintings and drawings clearly done with an eye to the subtly grey, harmonious colour and to the local tone, I believe nonetheless that many artists who worked less definitely to that end, and are now seen as old-fashioned, will always remain fresh and green because their approach had its raison d’être too and still does. To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t like to be without either the old-fashioned or the newer attitude. There are too many excellent things in both schools for me to be able to give preference systematically to one or the other. And the changes introduced in art by the new people aren’t improvements in every respect, it isn’t all progress, neither in the work nor in the persons of the artists, and it often seems to me that many lose sight of both their starting-point and their target, or in other words don’t stand firm.
Your description of that evening effect was again very beautiful. Today it looks very different here, but it’s beautiful too in its way, the Rijnspoor yards, for example. In the foreground the cinder road with the poplars that are starting to lose their leaves — then the ditch or canal full of duckweed, with a high bank with withered grass and bulrushes growing on it, then the grey or brown-grey earth of dug-over potato fields or patches planted with greenish purple red cabbage — here and there a really very fresh green of autumn weeds newly shot up, and above them beanpoles with wilting stalks and the reddish or green beanpods — beyond this strip of land the red rusted and black rails in yellow sand — here and there piles of old wood — mountains of coal, disused wagons — above them on the right several roofs and the goods depot — to the left a view of extensive, damp green meadows, cut off at the horizon far away by a grey band in which trees, red roofs and black factory chimneys can be made out. Over it a slightly yellow but still grey sky, very chilly and wintery, which hangs down low and from which a sort of drizzle comes in waves and in which many hungry crows fly. Yet a good deal of light falls on everything, which is especially evident when a few figures in blue or white smocks potter about in the yards, when their shoulders and heads catch the light. However, I imagine that it looks considerably brighter and less chilly in Paris. For the chillness gets into the house, and when you light a pipe there’s something of the drizzle in it, as it were. But it’s very beautiful.
But on such days it would be nice to look up a friend or to be in the company of one, and on such days one sometimes has an empty feeling if one can’t go anywhere and nobody comes.
Yet it’s precisely then that I feel what the work is; how, regardless of approval or disapproval, it gives tone to life, and how on days when one would otherwise feel melancholy one is glad to have a will.
I had a model for a few hours, today a boy with a spade, a builder’s labourer by trade. A very genuine type, flat nose, thick lips, very straight, coarse hair — and yet, when he does something there’s grace in the figure, or rather expression at any rate, and character. I think I’ll get more good models this winter. The boss of the yard has promised to send me the labourers who come to ask for work, as regularly happens now and then in the slack time. I like to give them half a guilder for an afternoon or morning, because that’s just what I need. I see no other way than to work with models. One very definitely shouldn’t snuff out one’s power of imagination, but it’s precisely the constant looking at nature and the struggle with it that sharpens the power of imagination and makes it more accurate.
Next Sunday I hope to get the same boy again. I then want to draw him the way they are when they pull the barges with bricks, which is a common sight on the canal here. Going out of doors to work is all over now — you have to do that sitting still, and it’s too raw — so we must move into winter quarters.
The way I feel, I’m looking forward to the winter, it’s a marvellous season if you can work regularly. I hope that it’ll make more headway.
I don’t need to tell you that I sincerely hope you’ll receive the you know what. As you know, I’ve carried on longer with painting and watercolouring than first planned, and now I must scrimp and save. But we’ll get through that, and even more it can be no reason to slacken off. I’m varying it now by working a good deal with models, though that also mounts up — but I’m filling my portfolios as I empty my wallet. Should you not have all of the normal sum towards the twentieth then send a part, but I would prefer to receive it a day earlier rather than later, since it works out that on that day I have to pay the rent for the week.
I’m still pleased with the house, except that one wall is very damp. Working with a model can be done much better here than in the other studio — I can even work with more than one person at a time, for example two children under an umbrella, two women who stand talking, a man and a woman arm in arm, &c.
But how little spring and summer we’ve had here. It sometimes seems to me as if there has been nothing in between, between last autumn and this one now, but that may be because the time in between was when I was ill. By the way, I feel normal again now, except when I’m very tired, then I sometimes have a day or half a day when I’m indescribably faint and weak, much more so than in the past. But I no longer let it disturb me, for it annoys me too much and is too inconvenient, since there’s too much to do. It often helps, for example, if I take a brisk walk to Scheveningen, or something like that.
Well, do write again towards the twentieth. This time I’ve had to get in Whatman again and brushes. You can’t imagine how many things one needs sometimes. Well, that goes for every painter. In thought a handshake, and believe me