Vincent Van Gogh and Robert Walser Discuss “L’Arlésienne”
For our first round of dialogues, we have as our guest the posthumously famous Dutch Post-Impressionist painter Vincent Willem van Gogh. Yes, he of the sunflower paintings and of “L’Arlésienne” fame. Joining him is none other than the man who greatly influenced early 20th-century writers such as Franz Kafka and Hermann Hesse, among others, yet was soon forgotten…the recently rediscovered Swiss author Robert Walser.
We here at Art Twerks thought the pairing of Vincent van Gogh and Robert Walser would be illuminating since both men experienced states of mental instability and depression. Despite (or because of) this adversity, they each had deep insights about life . . . and understood where the other was coming from. This and the fact that they were both intellectually connected via Vincent van Gogh’s painting “L’Arlésienne”.
Before we begin the discussion, you might be wondering why the image we have on display of Herr (mister) Walser is in black and while that of Mijnheer (mister) van Gogh is in color. The explanation is simple – in Herr Walser’s written world there was no color other than black on white; whereas van Gogh’s world was overwhelmingly colorful, to the point of distraction. In fact, his work contained too much color by most New York City art gallery standards.
Our invited guests will be focusing on one of the portraits that Vincent van Gogh painted of a certain Madame Marie Ginoux. At the time van Gogh met her, she and her husband, Joseph-Michel Ginoux, ran the Café de la Gare, in Arles, France. This café was also the subject of several of van Gogh’s paintings produced while he lived in the vicinity; for the latter part of his residence, van Gogh rented a room from the Ginouxs in the very same building.
In the late 1880s, Vincent van Gogh was living in the east wing of the yellow house located across the street from the café. By 1888, with the help of his art dealer brother Theo, Vincent van Gogh was joined by former stockbroker-turned-artist, Eugéne Henri Paul Gauguin. (More on stockbroker art in another article.) This is an important point regarding the portrait of Madame Ginoux, because up until Gauguin’s arrival, van Gogh would only go over to the café when he needed a stiff drink or two, or three, along with an absinthe chaser. After all, he needed something to wash down the toxic lead-based oil paints he’d been nibbling on during the day.
Not until Gauguin showed interest in using Madame Ginoux as a model did van Gogh decide to paint her portrait. At first he used Gauguin’s drawings of her as reference, before sitting with her in person. Van Gogh eventually went on to paint six more versions of her portrait, which he titled “L’Arlésienne” (“Woman of Arles”) – by all accounts outshining his rival.
In this dialogue, we find our guests at a table in the Café de la Gare. Madame Ginoux and her husband, Joseph, are also present and are tending to various customers.
Robert Walser: Mijnheer van Gogh, it’s a pleasure to finally catch up to you. I have had so many questions to ask regarding your work, but in particular about that most marvelous and sentimental painting of Madame Marie Ginoux that you named “L’Arlésienne.”
Van Gogh: Thank you, Herr Walser, for your interest in my work, and for meeting me here at the Café de la Gare. I too am delighted to finally speak with someone who shares my passion for depression.
RW: Yes, that and my obsessive fascination with fir trees has always allowed me to enjoy life…when I was alive, that is. But let us not be so formal. Please call me Robert.
VG: Of course, and you may call me Vincent. You know, Robert, revisiting this place brings back fond memories but also some unpleasant ones. In particular having to deal with that stockbroker, Paul Gauguin. Our interactions started out well, but sometimes I wished my brother Theo hadn’t foisted him upon me. Kept trying to talk me into investing in one silly company or another – as if I had endless money to throw into that pit. But how could I refuse a roof to an ill man?
Besides, I guess I shouldn’t be all that upset about having him around. After all, it was Gauguin who coaxed me into using Madame Ginoux as a subject for the “L’Arlésienne” painting you like so much. I think we were both drunk at the time. And actually, I rather enjoyed seeing the bemused look on Gauguin’s face after he’d spent an hour sketching and erasing and redrawing, while I completed a whole painting of her in that same amount of time. And a good one at that! That was the first version of Madame Ginoux’s portrait in 1888. Mania can have its benefits. How many artists do you know of who can put out as much work as I did in such a short period of time? I’m not saying they were all masterpieces, but a few were decent works.
RW: At least you had a real passion for your work. Today it appears that some of those calling themselves artists are more akin to comedians or hucksters and mass-produce works of rather questionable quality in order to satisfy a “market.” You’d think they were selling livestock at a country fair. I heard one of these so-called artists sold a pickled hog in a glass case for a lot of money to some rather gullible passerby. Or maybe it was a large fish?
VG: Mijn God! A hog, you say. I don’t think I could ever seriously paint a hog, let alone pass off a pickled one as art. Ridiculous! What charlatan was this? And people actually took it seriously? He must’ve had shills. Scam artists always do, you know. It gets the unsuspecting bystanders to join in on the game. It sounds as though these people are making an unbelievable wreck of art.
RW: Yes, they are. And I think an American showman named Barnum once said something about gullible folk.
After a few moments lost in thought, Monsieur van Gogh continued:
VG: Come to think of it though, I did send Theo a rather rough sketch of two pigs during my stay at a boarding house in Nieuw-Amsterdam back in 1883 – don’t know what I was thinking. Must have been the overpowering smell of peat in the air. But speaking of getting soused, what would you say to a nice bottle or two of French wine?
RW: I think it’s an excellent idea, Vincent!
VG: (Throwing up his right arm) Madame Ginoux! Two bottles of wine for the table, please.
RW: And by the way, I hear that these days, art dealers are calling themselves “gallerists.” Rather odd wouldn’t you say, Vincent? You now have artists who produce art and gallerists who produce what? Galleries?
VG: Just sounds like more hokum to me. As if they’re the ones making our works. What’s next? Livestock traders calling themselves “cattle-ists”?
Madame Ginoux arrives with the requested bottles.
Madame Ginoux: Oooo, allo Monsieur Vincent. It’s so good to see you again! Your usual, monsieur? And I see you have company this time.
VG: Ah oui, madame. I would like to introduce you to Monsieur Robert Walser. He’s quite famous in certain literary circles. As a matter of fact, my guest and I were just talking about you. He is fascinated by the painting I made of you when Monsieur Gauguin was staying with me, during his convalescence here in Arles.
MG: Ooo, that painting! I should have never let you two draw me, monsieur. Mon Dieu, I don’t even want to think of it.
RW: Vincent, I don’t know if you are aware of it, but in my writings, I have a section in which I muse upon your painting of Madame Ginoux as l’Arlésienne. Upon seeing it for the first time, I had to stand in front of it for some time and could not move, as if paralyzed. It was almost painful, but in a good way.
VG: A case of gout, perhaps?
RW: Perhaps, but I was also entranced by the gaze in her expression that you so masterfully managed to capture. She is like the Mona Lisa or a Madonna icon, except holding a book rather than an infant. Come to think of it, I don’t know if the real Madonna could read.
By the way, just out of curiosity, do you happen to remember what it was Madame was reading? One never knows, but she doesn’t exactly strike me as a bookworm.
VG: (with a rueful shrug) I must admit that in the painting you are referring to, she wasn’t reading anything. I just included the books for effect. I think one was Dickens’s Christmas Tales and the other may have been Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, both of which were popular at the time. But I don’t remember where I got them. They may have been volumes that I borrowed from one of the prostitutes? But I do occasionally like to visit a bookshop, as it reminds me that there are good things in the world. As for Madame’s mysterious gaze, you can ask her yourself, for here she comes to see if we require more wine.
RW: Questions are usually more beautiful, more significant than their resolutions, which in fact never resolve them and are never sufficient to satisfy us – whereas from a question streams a wonderful fragrance. Regardless, I will ask her. (He turns to their hostess.)
RW: Madame Ginoux, if I may, I have a question to ask of you.
MG: But of course, monsieur. What is it you would like to know?
RW: (After taking a good sip of wine) I couldn’t help but notice that, in the painting of you by Monsieur van Gogh, you have a certain look on your face that I, and many others, have found mysterious and captivating.
MG: Oh, that. Since I didn’t really know either of the artist gentlemen too well at the time, I couldn’t help thinking that they were bound to make me look fat. And sure enough, they did. (Calling out to her husband at the other end of the café) Isn’t that right, Joseph?
(Joseph mumbles something incoherent without even turning around to look at them.)
That lovely things exist is a lovely thought.
~ Robert Walser
RW: Thank you for satisfying my curiosity, madame. Perhaps a woman’s default thoughts are always a vanity? Doubtless there may be a similarly simple reason for the mysterious half-smile on the face of the Mona Lisa.
MG: Hmmm…can’t say I remember Mademoiselle Lisa coming in here, Monsieur Walser. Now, if you two gents will excuse me, I have other patrons to attend to. And, as is your wont Monsieur Vincent, I will keep the wine coming.
RW & VG: (Simultaneously, smiling with pleasure) Merci, Madame!
RW: Vincent, if you don’t mind me saying so, I do have to agree with Madame Ginoux that you may have portrayed her a little bit heavier than she actually is. But that minor detail aside, the painting itself elicited so much emotion within me that when I first saw it, it actually pained me more than the gout. Of course, I am referring to your second portrait of her. Wonderful colors and composition. And I love the books, even if they were merely props.
VG: I’m sorry to hear about your pain, Robert. As for making her look a little “full-figured,” you’re probably right. Perhaps I should have portrayed her more flatteringly, but I prefer to be honest in my painting. Paul Gauguin and I both found in her something indescribable that we couldn’t resist – a certain provençale magnetism. We were fascinated by her authenticity. Maybe it was just the wine?
RW: Nevertheless, Vincent, since your passing, generations of artists and art aficionados have marveled at your work and see you as a pioneering genius for developing your unique style of painting. And many artists have been trying to emulate you ever since. Especially those calling themselves Fauvists and Expressionists.
VG: What odd names. But I was no pioneer. I painted the way I did because I couldn’t control myself. That’s why I stay in sanitariums.
Honestly, I am baffled by all these projections by critics and others about my intentions and methods. I was just expressing my inner state as best I could. Claiming that I was deliberately creating an artistic style, and then imitating it, is like going around imitating someone with an unusual gimp simply because it has a sort of rhythm to it – as if the injured person had purposely created a new style of dance. It’s ludicrous! These copycats should’ve come up with their own style, their own language of expression. Is that not what it means to be an artist? And they call me mad?
RW: Interesting. Unlike you, after some time I just stopped producing. After all, I was not in the sanitarium to write, but to be mad.
But getting back to that painting, I like the colors you used in “L’Arlésienne.” To be honest, I can’t say the same for your style in other paintings, as my tastes are a bit more traditional. Rembrandt, Watteau, Fragonard…you know? Oh, and of course, I very much like the work of the tragic Karl Stauffer-Bern, who just happened to die in my hometown of Biel when I was but a lad of twelve. Such a sad story, and what an artist! We are such a troubled lot. I think he may have drawn some fir trees. It’s too bad you didn’t paint more fir trees in your landscapes, Vincent. I can think of nothing more glorious than fir trees.
VG: Fir trees? I didn’t see many fir trees in my travels. Cypress trees, yes. Fir trees, not so much. But aaaahhh, back to those colors. Yes! (Waving his arms wildly) Ah, the colors that we could use! I agree with you about the great masters, though. I find it astonishing that they managed to make such superior works, even with their limited color palette. Sadly, I have heard that the chemistry of my time was not up to snuff and many of my glorious colors have faded, and the bright yellows have turned brown.
Normally, I wouldn’t mind that because I originally favored a nice somber color palette, but Theo kept insisting that dark colors were out of vogue due to those happy-go-lucky Impressionists. I guess I too have fallen in with them with my style and bright colors. There were so many so-called Impressionists about in my time. Of course, I eventually came to like the bright colors, but I do still miss a good dark color palette. It harmonizes so nicely with my bouts of depression.
I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.
~ Vincent van Gogh
RW: Now you are beginning to sound like Strindberg.
RW: Never mind. Please do go on. The colors.
VG: Yes, colors! In my time there were many bright colors available to choose from. They eventually grew on me, to the point where they excited me so much – sometimes more than the prostitutes I would visit. I was consumed by the paint colors and I consumed them in turn. How could you not? I wanted to be those colors! It was like a spiritual experience.
RW: Yes, I understand that. I have similar feelings about fir trees – though I never tried to eat one. But tell me, Vincent, why did you decide to paint Madame Ginoux after Gauguin?
VG: (After draining his glass of wine and a long pause, he continues but begins slurring his words) Well…partly I felt I had to show off to Gauguin, but also because I was tired of painting the damn sunflowers. Damn stupid sunflowers. What the hell was I thinking of? I did attempt a painting of Madame Ginoux’s goldfish, Francois, but the little bugger wouldn’t sit still. Especially with her silly cat trying to snag him all the time! Thaaat cat.
(Madame Ginoux drops off another bottle of wine, and van Gogh refills the now-empty glasses.)
RW: (After taking a long sip of wine) I find it curious, Vincent, that with all his connections, your brother Theo couldn’t sell more of your works.
VG: Ugh…don’t remind me. I used to complain to him about that. He kept saying he was doing the best he could, under the circumstances. What circumstances? Make up a damn story! That was part of Theo’s problem – he didn’t know how to seduce the collectors. He needed to be more like that guy you mentioned who sold a pickled herring in a glass case or whatever the hell it was, as a work of art.
RW: I can understand your frustration, Vincent. At least you have the willpower and drive to keep moving forward. Like you, I have struggled for years with my condition and with what it means to be an artist, and in my case a writer. At last I no longer care about being what others would call “normal.” In my contemplations during long walks in nature, I have come to see normality as a paved road: It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it.
VG: Very well put, my friend. Very well put. Are you writing anything these days, Robert?
RW: I keep imagining I am writing a new novel. But the novel I am constantly writing is always the same one, and it might be described as a variously sliced-up or torn-apart book of myself. I have so many thoughts. In fact, with all my ideas and follies I could one day found a manufacturing company for the propagation of beautiful but unreliable imaginings.
VG: Yes, I know what you mean. I tried my hand at inventing once. Didn’t go very well. People kept telling me that everything I came up with had already been invented. So I took up painting. It’s not as crucial as engineering, where your mistakes can be disastrous; at least in a structural way.
The two men sit quietly and look about the café, as if smelling the scent of life again. And after a long pause…
VG: (slurring his words quit a bit) Oh, how I do so love Millet’s works. Now there was a painter of the common laborer and the countryside! And of course, there’s Jules Breton. Another master during my time. And several others I would love to engage with. But I also admired and collected some of those recently imported Japanese prints. I think they too have influenced my work.
RW: I think I can see some of that in “L’Arlésienne.”
VG: I must admit, Robert, in those dark places, life sometimes seemed quite senseless, but it was my art that carried me forward, at least for a while.
RW: It is all very senseless, but this senselessness has a pretty mouth, and it smiles.
Eventually, van Gogh starts to slur his words even more and passes out from too much drink; the wine glasses clatter as his head lands heavily on the wooden table.
RW: Vincent…Vincent? Madame Ginoux…the tab, please!
The conversation presented in this post is totally fictitious – partly because it is between deceased persons – and is meant for entertainment purposes only. Art Twerks makes no claims or guarantees as to the accuracy of any elements included in the post. In addition, no offense is intended toward the dearly departed and/or their descendants. And as far as we know, no animals were hurt in the development of this post.
This dialogue was inspired by the writings of Robert Walser, which were brought to my attention by Carol Gaskin, editor at EditorialAlchemy. In particular, the chapter “The Van Gogh Picture” from the book “Looking at Pictures,” co-published by Christine Burgin and New Directions Publishing, 2015.