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The subject, Marie Jullian (or Julien), was born in Arles June 8, 1848 and died there August 2, 1911. She married Joseph-Michel Ginoux in 1866 and together they ran the Café de la Gare, 30 Place Lamartine, where Van Gogh lodged from May to mid-September 1888. He had the Yellow House in Arles furnished to settle there.
Evidently until this time, Van Gogh's relations to M. and Mme. Ginoux had remained more or less commercial (the café is the subject of The Night Café), but Gauguin's arrival in Arles altered the situation. His courtship charmed the lady, then about 40 years of age, and in the first few days of November 1888 (November 1, or more probably November 2) Madame Ginoux agreed to have a portrait session for Paul Gauguin, and his friend Van Gogh. Within an hour, Gauguin produced a charcoal drawing while Vincent produced a full-scale painting, "knocked off in one hour".
While in the asylum at Saint-Rémy, Van Gogh painted another five portraits of Madame Ginoux, based on Gauguin's charcoal drawing of November 1888. Of these, one was intended for Gauguin, one for his brother Theo, one for himself and one for Madame Ginoux. The provenance of the version in the Kröller-Müller Museum is not known in detail, but the painting is known to have been previously owned by Albert Aurier, an early champion of Vincent's paintings. The version intended for Madame Ginoux was lost and has not been recovered. This is the version Vincent was delivering to Madame Ginoux in Arles when he suffered his relapse on February 22, 1890. In an unfinished letter to Gauguin that was never sent, Vincent remarked that working on her portrait cost him another month of illness. Gauguin's version was the one with a pink background, currently in the São Paulo Museum of Art. Gauguin was enthusiastic about the portrait, writing:"I’ve seen the canvas of Madame Ginoux. Very fine and very curious, I like it better than my drawing. Despite your ailing state you have never worked with so much balance while conserving the sensation and the interior warmth needed for a work of art, precisely in an era when art is a business regulated in advance by cold calculations."
In a letter to his sister Wil, dated 5 June 1890, Vincent set out his philosophy for doing portraits: "I should like to do portraits which will appear as revelations to people in a hundred years' time. In other words I am not trying to achieve this by photographic likeness but by rendering our impassioned expressions, by using our modern knowledge and appreciation of colour as a means of rendering and exalting character ... The portrait of the Arlésienne has a colourless and matt flesh tone, the eyes are calm and very simple, the clothing is black, the background pink, and she is leaning on a green table with green books. But in the copy that Theo has, the clothing is pink, the background yellowy-white, and the front of the open bodice is muslin in a white that merges into green. Among all these light colours, only the hair, the eyelashes and the eyes form black patches."
Theo van Gogh to Vincent van Gogh. Paris, Tuesday, 22 October 1889.
My dear Vincent,
Enclosed you’ll find 150 francs – for Mr Peyron and for your journey to Arles. I had said in my letters to Mr Peyron that he ought to tell me if he’d had additional expenses, he has never spoken of them. Ask him then, if you will, to tell me if anything is owing to him each time he acknowledges receipt of my monthly letter, then it doesn’t mount up. I hope that you’re still well and that you have good luck with work. I’ve had several people to see your paintings. Israëls’ son, who has been living in Paris for a while, Veth, a Dutchman who does portraits and who writes in De Nieuwe Gids, that journal you’ve perhaps heard about that makes people so indignant but in which good things often appear, and then Van Rijsselberghe, one of the Vingtistes from Brussels, the latter also saw everything there is at Tanguy’s, and your works seem to interest him a great deal. In Belgium they’re already more accustomed to brightly coloured painting, the Vingtistes’ exhibition did a lot of good in that respect, despite the fact that nobody’s buying anything there. The Independents’ exhibition is finished and I have your irises back; it’s one of your good things. I consider that you’re strongest when you’re doing real things, like that, or like the Tarascon diligence, or the child’s head, or the upright undergrowth with the ivy. The form is so well defined and the whole is full of colour. I clearly sense what preoccupies you in the new canvases like the village in the moonlight or the mountains, but I feel that the search for style takes away the real sentiment of things. In Gauguin’s last consignment there are the same preoccupations as with you, but with him there are a lot more memories of the Japanese, the Egyptians etc. As for me, I prefer to see a local Breton woman than a Breton woman with the gestures of a Japanese woman, but in art there are no limits, so it’s quite permissible to do as one sees it. Guillaumin was in Auvergne this summer, from where he brought back some good canvases. He doesn’t search for much that’s new in the coloration. He’s content with what he’s found, and one always finds his same pink, orange and violet blue patches again, but his touch is vigorous and his view of nature is quite broad. Pissarro has left and will be busying himself with that worthy fellow in Auvers. I hope that he’ll succeed, and that next spring, if not sooner, you’ll come to see us. Jo is well, she’s getting considerably bigger and can already feel the child quickening, but that doesn’t cause her too much inconvenience. Mother sent us a letter from Cor. He has arrived in Johannesburg. It’s a very wild country where you have to walk around with a revolver all day. There are no plants, nothing but sand. Except in places that are like oases. My letter must go off. Jo sends her warm regards. Accept a good handshake, and