Boats on the Beach at Saintes-Maries

Boats on the Beach at Saintes-Maries

"I did the drawing of the boats as I was leaving, very early in the morning, and I’m working on the painting, a no. 30 canvas with more sea and sky on the right. It was before the boats cleared off; I’d watched it all the other mornings, but as they leave very early, hadn’t had time to do it."
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Painting Date
4th of June 1888
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Vincent completed the reed pen and ink on paper drawing of this scene of beached fishing boats on site in less than an hour.  Getting up before dawn on the day he  left Saintes Maries de la Mer, 50 kilometers south of Arles in Provence, he caught the fishermen setting out for the day.  Vincent sets aside the perspective frame he had used with great discipline since Antwerp and tried to allow more freedom in his lines while in the seaside village.  He was pleased with this drawing and the painting it inspired.


Vincent painted three canvases and created seven large drawings over the five days he spent in Saintes Maries.  In Arles, he had seen the passing caravans of gypsies on their annual pilgrimage to honor Saint Sarah, a servant of one of the three Mary’s who are said to have landed on the beach of the village centuries before.  He followed their trail in a stagecoach or diligence for a five hour dusty and bumpy ride to the Mediterranean.


Once he arrived, he painted two canvases of the brightly colored boats and their windswept captains at sea, and one of the cottages outside of town where the same fishermen lived.  Working from the drawing of the boats on the beach he created the day he left, Vincent returns to his Arles studio and paints both a watercolor and the oil on canvas work, Boats on the Beach at Saintes-Maries.  It is a scene of Italian Felucca fishing boats in their bright color schemes with the sea and the sky surrounding them.


The boats have dark outlines and large areas of colors in complimentary and contrasting combinations which enhance and brighten one another.  Vincent was seeking a Japanese feel to his thoughtful selection of colors and brushstroke and succeeded with this synthesized and partly imagined scene.  He follows the color scheme he notes in the reed and ink drawing as he chooses his complementary and contrasting color schemes.  The water color closely follows the drawing (Compare Three) whereas the oil painting is adjusted to include more sky and sea (Compare Two) and some imagined flotsam.


He will send a sketch of the scene to his friend from Paris, Emile Bernard, as the two continue their correspondence through Vincent’s final days.  Vincent names the third boat with its proud high bow at middle center “Amitie” or friendship.  When he gets back in Arles, he sticks strictly to the defined colors of his annotated drawing.  He will use one of the seascape canvases he created in Saintes Maries and borrow the ships at sea as he extends the sky and ocean in the painting as compared to the drawing.  He sneaks his signature on the lower center of two crates that have washed up with the tide as revealed in the detailed image of the work.


The Street View from the Avenue de la Plage fronting the sea is similar today aside from rock jettys that have been constructed along the shoreline in Saintes Maries de la Mer.




“My dear Theo,
If the roll isn’t too big to be accepted at the post office, you’ll receive another large pen drawing that I’d very much like the Pissarros to see if they come on Sunday. I’ve just received part of the order for colours, and I thank you very much for it.
I leave early tomorrow morning for Saintes-Maries, on the Mediterranean; I’ll stay there till Saturday evening.  I’m taking two canvases but I’m a little afraid there could well be too much wind to paint. You go by diligence, it’s 50 kilometres from here. You cross the Camargue, grassy plains where there are herds of bulls and herds of small white horses, half-wild and quite beautiful.
I’m taking everything I need in order to draw, especially. I have to draw a lot, for the very reason you were speaking of in your last letter — things here have so much style. And I want to arrive at a more deliberate and exaggerated way of drawing.”

To Theo. Arles, Tuesday, 29 or Wednesday, 30 May 1888



“My dear Theo,
Many thanks for your kind letter and the 50-franc note that was enclosed with it.  We’ll still have to write to Gauguin. The problem is this bloody journey, since we urge him to make it, and afterwards we’d be in an awkward position if it doesn’t suit him. I think I’ll write to him today and will send you the letter.
Now that I’ve seen the sea here I really feel the importance there is in staying in the south and feeling — if the colour has to be even more exaggerated — Africa not far away from one.  I’m sending you by same post some drawings of Saintes-Maries.

I did the drawing of the boats as I was leaving, very early in the morning, and I’m working on the painting, a no. 30 canvas with more sea and sky on the right. It was before the boats cleared off; I’d watched it all the other mornings, but as they leave very early, hadn’t had time to do it.”


To Theo. Arles, on or about Tuesday, 5 June 1888.




“My dear Theo,
If Gauguin wants to accept, and if the only obstacle to going into business would be the travel, it’s better not to keep him waiting. So I’ve written, although I hardly had the time, having two canvases on the easel.
If you think the letter’s clear enough, send it, if not, it would be better for us, too, to abstain when in doubt. And the things you would do for him shouldn’t upset the plan to bring our sisters over, and especially not our needs, yours and mine. Because if we ourselves don’t keep ourselves in a state of vigour, how can we claim the right to get involved in other people’s troubles? But at present we’re on the way to remaining vigorous, and so let’s do the possible, what’s right in front of us.”

To Theo. Arles, Tuesday, 5 or Wednesday, 6 June 1888


“My dear old Bernard,
I realize that I’ve forgotten to answer your question as to whether Gauguin is still in Pont-Aven. Yes, he’s still there, and if you feel like writing to him am inclined to believe that it will please him. It’s still likely that he’ll join me here shortly, as soon as either one of us is able to find the travel expenses…

…To take a more entertaining subject, let’s imagine a woman dressed in a black and white checked dress, in the same primitive landscape of a blue sky and an orange earth — that would be quite amusing to see, I imagine. In fact, in Arles they often do wear white and black checks.  In short, black and white are colours too, or rather, in many cases may be considered colours, since their simultaneous contrast is as sharp as that of green and red, for example.  


The Japanese use it too, by the way — they express a young girl’s matt and pale complexion, and its sharp contrast with her black hair wonderfully well with white paper and 4 strokes of the pen. Not to mention their black thorn-bushes, studded with a thousand white flowers.
I’ve finally seen the Mediterranean, which you’ll probably cross before me. Spent a week in Saintes-Maries, and to get there crossed the Camargue in a diligence, with vineyards, heaths, fields as flat as Holland. There, at Saintes-Maries, there were girls who made one think of Cimabue and Giotto: slim, straight, a little sad and mystical.
On the completely flat, sandy beach, little green, red, blue boats, so pretty in shape and colour that one thought of flowers; one man boards them, these boats hardly go on the high sea — they dash off when there’s no wind and come back to land if there’s a bit too much. It appears that Gauguin is still ill. I’m quite curious to know what you’ve done lately; I’m still doing landscapes, croquis enclosed.
I’d very much like to see Africa too, but I hardly make any firm plans for the future, it will depend on circumstances. What I’d like to know is the effect of a more intense blue in the sky. Fromentin and Gérôme see the earth in the south as colourless, and a whole lot of people saw it that way. My God, yes, if you take dry sand in your hand and if you look at it closely. Water, too, air, too, considered this way, are colourless. No blue without yellow and without orange, and if you do blue, then do yellow and orange as well, surely. Ah well, you’ll tell me that I write you nothing but banalities. Handshake in thought.
Ever yours,


To Emile Bernard. Arles, on or about Thursday, 7 June 1888


Painting, Oil on Canvas – 64.5 x 81 cm, Size 25 Figure
Arles, France: June 4, 1888
Van Gogh Museum
Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Europe
F: 413, JH: 1460

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