Vincent van Gogh - Mountains at Saint-Rémy with Dark Cottage 1889

Mountains at Saint-Rémy with Dark Cottage 1889
Mountains at Saint-Rémy with Dark Cottage
Oil on canvas 71.8 x 90.8 cm. Saint-Rémy: July, 1889
New York: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Justin K. Thannhauser Collection

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From The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York:
During the years preceding his suicide in 1890, Vincent van Gogh suffered increasingly frequent attacks of mental distress, the cause of which remains unclear. Mountains at Saint-Rémy was painted in July 1889, when Van Gogh was recovering from just such an episode at the hospital of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole in the southern French town of Saint-Rémy. The painting represents the Alpilles, a low range of mountains visible from the hospital grounds. In it, Van Gogh activated the terrain and sky with the heavy impasto and bold, broad brushstrokes characteristic of his late work.
Van Gogh advocated painting from nature rather than inventing a motif from the imagination. On a personal level, he felt that painting outdoors would help to restore his health, a sentiment he often voiced when writing to his brother, Theo. He mentioned this painting several times in his letters, relating it to a passage from Edouard Rod’s Le Sens de la vie. In one note he wrote, “I rather like the ‘Entrance to a Quarry’—I was doing it when I felt this attack coming on—because to my mind the somber greens go well with the ocher tones; there is something sad in it which is healthy, and that is why it does not bore me. Perhaps that is true of the ‘Mountain’ too. They will tell me that mountains are not like that and that there are black outlines of a finger’s width. But after all it seemed to me it expressed the passage in Rod’s book . . . about a desolate country of somber mountains, among which are some dark goatherds’ huts where sunflowers are blooming.”
Nature had a quasi-religious or transcendental significance for Van Gogh. Unlike the earlier Impressionists, who often painted urban life, the artist felt that the city, in particular Paris, was a place of iniquity, inherently unhealthful. In the face of industrialization and modernization (the Eiffel Tower was built the same year that this canvas was painted), Van Gogh longed nostalgically for a rural environment peopled with good-natured, God-fearing peasants such as those painted by Jean-François Millet, one of his heroes. This utopian ideal, based on a belief in the regenerative capacity of a “primitive” culture, was shared by Van Gogh’s friend Paul Gauguin, who sought redemption farther from home, among the people of Tahiti.
Jennifer Blessing

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

My dear Theo,
When lately I very often think that all the costs of painting weigh on you, you couldn’t imagine what anxiety I have about it. When things like what you describe about Bague in your last letter happen to us, then we must be on the point of selling. Or much rather, we must be on the point of being able to find some help, either from Thomas or from someone else, of the half-dealer, half-collector sort. Thus C.M., even without helping us in any other way, could buy another study from us. I don’t know if you’ve ever read Les frères Zemganno by the De Goncourts, who perhaps loosely retrace their own history. If you know it, you’ll know, more than I’d know how to express to you, that I fear that the effort of obtaining money for us will be too exhausting for you.
If I wasn’t dreadfully, and always, tormented by that anxiety, I would say things were going well, because the work will improve and my health is much better than in Paris. I realize more and more that work goes infinitely better when you feed yourself well, when you have your paint, when you have your studio, and all that. But is my heart set on my work going well? No, and a thousand times no. I’d like to succeed in making you clearly feel this truth, that in giving money to artists you yourself are doing an artist’s work, and that I’d wish only that my canvases might become of such a kind that you aren’t too unhappy with your work.
And that’s not all; I’d also like you to feel that we earn from the money that we transfer, and that by so doing, we’ll achieve a more complete independence than that provided by the trade as such.
And what we’ll do later to revive the trade could well be precisely that dealers live with artists, the one for what one may call the housekeeping side, to supply studio, food, paint &c., the other to produce. Alas, we’re not at that stage with the old trade, which will always follow the old routine that benefits nobody among the living and does no good for the dead, either. But what of it; that may leave us more or less cold, not having a duty to change what exists or to battle against a wall. Anyway, we’d have to get our share of sunshine without vexing anyone. And I always figure to myself that you don’t have your whole share of sunshine, since your work in Paris with the Goupils is too exhausting. So when I think about that, I have a dealer’s rage; then I want to earn money so that you can be freer to go and do what you want. I feel that we’re on the point of selling or of finding help that will give us breathing space.
There you are, perhaps I believe that what may still be far away is nearer than it in fact is, and then I feel this anxiety coming over me, of spending too much. However, paintings come off better if one takes care of oneself and keeps well. But for you, for your work, for your whole life as well, you mustn’t have too many worries. How are those sciatic pains? Have they stopped?
Whatever happens, you’d help me more by keeping well, by living well; even if the consignments of colours had to suffer as a result, than by being too much in straits on my account. I believe that the day will come when people will want the work — well — but perhaps that’s still far away, and meanwhile, don’t be too hard up.
Because business, too, will come to you by itself and as if in a dream, better and more quickly if you take care of yourself than if you make yourself hard up. And look, at our age, surely we can finally have a certain calm, a certain wisdom about doing things. I fear now (and I avoid them) poverty, bad health and all that, and I hope you have the same sentiments. So I almost have a feeling of remorse at having today bought this piece of furniture, although it’s good, because I had to ask you to send me money sooner than if it hadn’t been for that.
Be sure of this. If you were ill or if you had too much pain and trouble, nothing would work any more. And if you are well, business will eventually come to you by itself, and ideas for doing some business will come to you infinitely more by eating well than by not eating enough.
So shout at me to stop if I’m going too far. If not, it’s naturally much better, because for me too, I can of course work much better if I’m comfortable rather than too hard up. But don’t go believing that I’m more attached to my work than to our well-being, or at least to our peace of mind, above all. Once Gauguin’s here he’ll feel the same thing — and he’ll recover.
The day may well come for him when he’ll wish, and will be able, to become the family man again that he really is. I’m very, very curious to know what he has done in Brittany. Bernard writes many good things about it. But doing rich painting is so difficult to do in the cold and in poverty — and possible that in fact his real home will prove to be, when all’s said and done, the warmer and happier south.

If you saw the vineyards! There are bunches weighing a kilo, even — the grape is magnificent this year, from the fine autumn days coming at the end of a summer that left much to be desired.
I regret having spent money on this chest of drawers, but it can save us buying a dearer one — the least would have been 35. And when Gauguin comes, he would in any case have to have something there to put his linen in, and anyway his bedroom will be more complete like this.(I notice that this cupboard has panels just like those on which Monticelli painted.)
Once we have a richer moment I’d take this one for myself and he’d take the one at 35 francs. At that price there’s always something second-hand, but not always at the price at which I bought this one.
I’ve been thinking that if at your place there are now beginning to be certain studies that might be taking up too much room at your place and getting in your way, they could be taken off their stretching frames and sent here, where we have enough room to store them. I’m saying that about certain things from the past year, or, indeed, for everything that might be in your way. Paris will be very beautiful in the autumn, all the same. The town here is nothing at night, everything’s dark.
I believe that an abundance of gaslight, which, after all, is yellow and orange, intensifies blue, because at night the sky here seems to me, and it’s very funny, darker than in Paris. And if I ever see Paris again, I’ll try to paint effects of gaslight on the boulevard. Ah, it must be the opposite in Marseille; I imagine that it must be more beautiful than Paris, La Canebière.
I so often think of Monticelli, and when I reflect on what they say about his death it seems to me that not only must we put aside the idea that he died a drinker in the sense of stupefied by drink, but we should also know that, even more than in the north, life is quite naturally spent in the open air and in cafés. My friend the postman, for example, lives a great deal in cafés and is certainly more or less a drinker and has been so all his life. But he’s so much the opposite of stupefied, and his elation is so natural, so intelligent, and then he argues with such a broad sweep, à la Garibaldi, that I’m quite prepared to reduce the legend of Monticelli the absinthe drinker to exactly the proportions of this case of my postman. My paper’s full, write to me as soon as is possible for you. Handshake and good luck.
Ever yours,

One day I’ll perhaps know the details about those last days of Monticelli’s.
One day Mrs de Larebey la Roquette said to me: Monticelli, now, Monticelli, but he was a man who should have been at the head of a big studio in the south.
The other day, you remember, I wrote to our sister and to you that sometimes I believed I had the feeling that I was continuing Monticelli here. Good — but you see now — the studio in question, we’re setting it up.
What Gauguin will do, what I’ll also do myself, will be in keeping with that fine oeuvre by Monticelli, and we’ll try to prove to the good folk that Monticelli didn’t quite die, slumped over the tables of the cafés along La Canebière, but that the little old chap is still alive.
And the thing won’t end with us either; we’re starting it off on quite a solid footing.