Vincent van Gogh - The Road Menders 1889

The Road Menders 1889
The Road Menders
Oil on canvas 71.0 x 93.0 cm. Saint-Rémy: November, 1889
Washington: The Phillips Collection

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From The Phillips Collection, Washington:
Vincent van Gogh painted two versions of The Road Menders in 1889. The first variant, the final work of many outdoor scenes of that year, was executed in plein air, and the Phillips version, which followed shortly thereafter, was created in the studio. Both works depict the repaving a street in Saint-Rémy known at the time as the Cours de l’Est. The scene captivated the artist on one of several excursions from the Asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole during the fall and winter of 1889-90. The theme of workers in the landscape had been a prevalent motif of van Gogh’s paintings executed in Holland.
On December 7, van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo in Paris, describing a first version: “The last study I have done is a view of the village, where they were at work – under some enormous plane trees – repairing the pavements. So there are heaps of sand, stones and gigantic trunks – the leaves yellowing and here and there you get a glimpse of a house front and small figures.” The Phillips version, which van Gogh called “a copy,” followed most likely in mid-December. On January 3, 1890, van Gogh referred to both paintings in a list that accompanied a shipment of paintings sent to Theo: “The big plane trees – the chief street or boulevard of Saint-Rémy, study from nature – I have a copy which is perhaps more finished here.” Duncan Phillips ranked the version he acquired as “among the best van Gogh’s.”

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, on or about Thursday, 23 May 1889.
My dear Theo,
Your letter which I’ve just received gives me great pleasure. You tell me that J.H. Weissenbruch has two paintings in the exhibition — but I thought he was dead — am I mistaken? He certainly is one hell of an artist and a good man, with a big heart too.
What you say about the Berceuse gives me pleasure; it’s very true that the common people, who buy themselves chromos and listen with sentimentality to barrel organs, are vaguely in the right and perhaps more sincere than certain men-about-town who go to the Salon.
Gauguin, if he’ll accept it, you shall give him a version of the Berceuse that wasn’t mounted on a stretching frame, and to Bernard too, as a token of friendship.
But if Gauguin wants sunflowers it’s only absolutely fair that he gives you something that you like as much in exchange. Gauguin himself above all liked the sunflowers later, when he had seen them for a long time.

You must know, too, that if you put them in this order: that is, the Berceuse in the middle and the two canvases of the sunflowers to the right and the left, this forms a sort of triptych. And then the yellow and orange tones of the head take on more brilliance through the proximity of the yellow shutters. And then you will understand that what I was writing to you about it, that my idea had been to make a decoration like one for the far end of a cabin on a ship, for example. Then as the size gets bigger, the summary execution gets its raison d’être. The middle frame is then the red one. And the two sunflowers that go with it are those surrounded by strips of wood.
You see that this framing of simple laths does quite well, and a frame like that costs only very little. It would be perhaps good to frame the green and red vineyards, the sower and the furrows and the interior of the bedroom with them too.
Here’s a new no. 30 canvas, commonplace again, like one of those chromos from a penny bazaar that depict eternal nests of greenery for lovers.
Thick tree-trunks covered with ivy, the ground also covered with ivy and periwinkle, a stone bench and a bush of roses, blanched in the cold shadow. In the foreground a few plants with white calyxes. It’s green, violet and pink.
It’s just a question — which is unfortunately lacking in chromos from a penny bazaar and barrel organs — of putting in some style.
Since I’ve been here, the neglected garden planted with tall pines under which grows tall and badly tended grass intermingled with various weeds, has provided me with enough work, and I haven’t yet gone outside.
However, the landscape of St-Rémy is very beautiful, and little by little I’m probably going to make trips into it. But staying here as I am, the doctor14 has naturally been in a better position to see what was wrong, and will, I dare hope, be more reassured that he can let me paint.
I assure you that I’m very well here, and that for the time being I see no reason at all to come and board in Paris or its surroundings. I have a little room with grey-green paper with two water-green curtains with designs of very pale roses enlivened with thin lines of blood-red. These curtains, probably the leftovers of a ruined, deceased rich man, are very pretty in design. Probably from the same source comes a very worn armchair covered with a tapestry flecked in the manner of a Diaz or a Monticelli, red-brown, pink, creamy white, black, forget-me-not blue and bottle green.
Through the iron-barred window I can make out a square of wheat in an enclosure, a perspective in the manner of Van Goyen, above which in the morning I see the sun rise in its glory. With this — as there are more than 30 empty rooms — I have another room in which to work.
The food is so-so. It smells naturally a little musty, as in a cockroach-ridden restaurant in Paris or a boarding school. As these unfortunates do absolutely nothing (not a book, nothing to distract them but a game of boules and a game of draughts) they have no other daily distraction than to stuff themselves with chickpeas, haricot beans, lentils and other groceries and colonial foodstuffs by the regulated quantities and at fixed times.
As the digestion of these commodities presents certain difficulties, they thus fill their days in a manner as inoffensive as it’s cheap. But joking apart, the fear of madness passes from me considerably upon seeing from close at hand those who are affected with it, as I may very easily be in the future.
Before I had some repulsion for these beings, and it was something distressing for me to have to reflect that so many people of our profession, Troyon, Marchal, Meryon, Jundt, M. Maris, Monticelli, a host of others, had ended up like that. I wasn’t even able to picture them in the least in that state.

Well, now I think of all this without fear, i.e. I find it no more atrocious than if these people had snuffed it of something else, of consumption or syphilis, for example. These artists, I see them take on their serene bearing again, and do you think it’s a small thing to rediscover ancient members of the profession.
Joking apart, that’s what I’m profoundly grateful for.
For although there are some who howl or usually rave, here there is much true friendship that they have for each other. They say, one must suffer others for the others to suffer us, and other very true reasonings that they thus put into practice. And between ourselves we understand each other very well, I can, for example, chat sometimes with one who doesn’t reply except in incoherent sounds, because he isn’t afraid of me.
If someone has some crisis the others look after him, and intervene so that he doesn’t harm himself.
The same for those who have the mania of often getting angry. Old regulars of the menagerie run up and separate the fighters, if there is a fight.
It’s true that there are some who are in a more serious condition, whether they be filthy, or dangerous. These are in another courtyard. Now I take a bath twice a week, and stay in it for 2 hours, then my stomach is infinitely better than a year ago, so I only have to continue, as far as I know. I think I’ll spend less here than elsewhere, since here I still have work on my plate, for nature is beautiful.
My hope would be that at the end of a year I’ll know better than now what I can do and what I want. Then, little by little, an idea will come to me for beginning again. Coming back to Paris or anywhere at the moment doesn’t appeal to me at all, I feel that I’m in the right place here. In my opinion, what most of those who have been here for years are suffering from is an extreme sluggishness. Now, my work will preserve me from that to a certain extent.
The room where we stay on rainy days is like a 3rd-class waiting room in some stagnant village, all the more so since there are honourable madmen who always wear a hat, spectacles and travelling clothes and carry a cane, almost like at the seaside, and who represent the passengers there.
I’m obliged to ask you for some more colours, and especially some canvas. When I send you the 4 canvases of the garden I have on the go you’ll see that, considering that life happens above all in the garden, it isn’t so sad. Yesterday I drew a very large, rather rare night moth there which is called the death’s head, its coloration astonishingly distinguished: black, grey, white, shaded, and with glints of carmine or vaguely tending towards olive green; it’s very big.
To paint it I would have had to kill it, and that would have been a shame since the animal was so beautiful. I’ll send you the drawing of it with a few other drawings of plants. You could take the canvases which are dry enough at Tanguy’s or at your place off the stretching frames and then put the new ones you consider worthy of it onto these stretching frames. Gauguin must be able to give you the address of a liner for the Bedroom who won’t be expensive. This I imagine must be a 5-franc restoration, if it’s more then don’t have it done, I don’t think that Gauguin paid more when he quite often had canvases of his own, Cézanne or Pissarro lined.
Speaking of my condition, I’m still so grateful for yet another thing. I observe in others that, like me, they too have heard sounds and strange voices during their crises, that things also appeared to change before their eyes. And that softens the horror that I retained at first of the crisis I had, and which when it comes to you unexpectedly, cannot but frighten you beyond measure. Once one knows that it’s part of the illness one takes it like other things. Had I not seen other mad people at close hand I wouldn’t have been able to rid myself of thinking about it all the time. For the sufferings of anguish aren’t funny when you’re caught in a crisis. Most epileptics bite their tongues and injure them. Rey told me that he had known a case where someone had injured his ear as I did, and I believe I’ve heard a doctor here who came to see me with the director say that he too had seen it before. I dare to believe that once one knows what it is, once one is aware of one’s state and of possibly being subject to crises, that then one can do something about it oneself so as not to be caught so much unawares by the anguish or the terror. Now, this has been diminishing for 5 months, I have good hope of getting over it, or at least of not having crises of such force. There’s one person here who has been shouting and always talking, like me, for a fortnight, he thinks he hears voices and words in the echo of the corridors, probably because the auditory nerve is sick and too sensitive, and with me it was both the sight and the hearing at the same time which, according to what Rey said one day, is usual at the beginning of epilepsy.
Now the shock had been such that it disgusted me even to move, and nothing would have been so agreeable to me as never to wake up again. At present this horror of life is already less pronounced, and the melancholy less acute. But I still have absolutely no will, hardly any desires or none, and everything that has to do with ordinary life, the desire for example to see friends again, about whom I think however, almost nil. That’s why I’m not yet at the point where I ought to leave here soon, I would still have melancholy for everything. And it’s even only in these very last days that the repulsion for life has changed quite radically. There’s still a way to go from there to will and action.
It’s a shame that you yourself are still condemned to Paris, and that you never see the countryside other than that around Paris.
I think that it’s no more unfortunate for me to be in the company where I am than for you always the fateful things at Goupil & Cie. From that point of view we’re quite equal. For only in part can you act in accordance with your ideas. Since, however, we have once got used to these inconveniences, it becomes second nature.
I think that although the paintings cost canvas, paint &c., at the end of the month, however, it’s more advantageous to spend a little more thus, and to make them with what I’ve learned in total, than to abandon them while one would have to pay for board and lodging all the same anyway. And that’s why I’m making them. So this month I have 4 no. 30 canvases and two or three drawings.

But no matter what one does, the question of money is always there like the enemy before the troops, and one can’t deny it or forget it.
I retain my duties in that respect as much as anyone. And perhaps some day I’ll be in a position to repay all that I’ve spent, because I consider that what I’ve spent is, if not taken from you at least taken from the family, so consequently I’ve produced paintings and I’ll do more. That is to act as you too act yourself. If I had private means, perhaps my mind would be freer to do art for art’s sake, now I content myself with believing that in working assiduously even so, without thinking of it one perhaps makes some progress.
Here are the colours I would need
3 emerald green
2 cobalt
1 ultramarine
1 orange lead large tubes.
6 zinc white
5 metres canvas

Thanking you for your kind letter, I shake your hand warmly, as well as your wife’s. Ever yours,