Portrait of Patience Escalier – Blue Background

Portrait of Patience Escalier – Blue Background

"Because instead of trying to render exactly what I have before my eyes, I use colour more arbitrarily in order to express myself forcefully" Vincent To Theo from Arles, Saturday, 18 August 1888.
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Painting Date
15th of August 1888
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The related portrait with Patience Escalier resting his hands on a cane was done second – a couple weeks after this first work, now housed at the Norton Simon Museum.

While living in Arles, Vincent from time to time visits artists Dodge MacKnight and Eugene Boch (of whom he paints a portrait) in the small village of Fontveille.  Vincent is reminded of Zola and Millet and his love for the working people in the peasantry around the town, especially one old man whom he pursues, Patience Escalier.  He is reminded of his father in the face of Patience and of the years spent in Holland drawing workers in the field and people of the soil.  In August, he pursues him about sitting for a portrait: “I wanted to paint a little old peasant who had an enormous resemblance to our father in his features. Only he was more common, and verged on caricature. Nevertheless, I would have been enormously keen to do him just as he was as a little peasant. He promised to come, and then he said that he ought to have the painting for himself, and so I had to do two the same, one for him and one for me. I told him no. Perhaps he’ll come back some day.”  Vincent to Theo, August 8, 1888 – Arles

Fortunately, within a week the men had struck a deal and Patience Escalier, man of the soil and herder of goats in Fontveille, posed for Vincent.  This is the first of two paintings he completed along with a couple of drawings.  He comes back two weeks after the first rendition and changes the hat, adds a walking stick and alters the color schemes significantly.  In this rendition, a deep blue background is rendered with wider, shorter and thicker brushstrokes with the darkest heavily impasto.  The complimentary orange rim along the glaringly yellow hat rim draws the viewer in.  The eyes are fiercely determined and framed in dabs of light green repeated in his humble coat.  In the second version created in the studio, the addition of the walking stick allows for the pose of the hands and the return of a man of the soil to Vincent’s canvas.

Norton Simon Museum Website:  “This portrait is one of several completed in the few years he lived in Arles, and it is one of two of Patience Escalier, an old gardener and former goatherd. Not dark like his earlier peasant portraits, this work instead presents a spectacular range of pulsating, prismatic color. Van Gogh employed the vibrant palette “as a means of arriving at the expression and the intensification of character”; this approach permanently liberated him from the use of color for purely representational reasons.”

The colour of this portrait of a peasant isn’t as dark as the Nuenen potato eaters — but the very civilized Parisian, Portier, probably so-called because he kicks paintings out of the door — will find himself up against the same question again. You’ve now changed since then, but you’ll see that he hasn’t changed, and really it’s a pity that there aren’t more paintings in clogs in Paris. I don’t believe that my peasant will do any harm, for example, to the Lautrec that you have, and I dare even believe that the Lautrec will, by simultaneous contrast, become even more distinguished, and mine will gain from the strange juxtaposition, because the sunlit and burnt, weather-beaten quality of the strong sun and strong air will show up more clearly beside the face powder and stylish outfit. What a mistake that Parisians haven’t acquired sufficient taste for rough things, for Monticellis, for barbotine. Well, I know that one shouldn’t be discouraged because utopia isn’t coming about. It’s just that I find that what I learned in Paris is fading, and that I’m returning to my ideas that came to me in the country before I knew the Impressionists. And I wouldn’t be very surprised if the Impressionists were soon to find fault with my way of doing things, which was fertilized more by the ideas of Delacroix than by theirs.

Because instead of trying to render exactly what I have before my eyes, I use colour more arbitrarily in order to express myself forcefully. Well, let’s let that lie as far as theory goes, but I’m going to give you an example of what I mean.  I’d like to do the portrait of an artist friend who dreams great dreams, who works as the nightingale sings, because that’s his nature.  This man will be blond. I’d like to put in the painting my appreciation, my love that I have for him. I’ll paint him, then, just as he is, as faithfully as I can — to begin with.  But the painting isn’t finished like that. To finish it, I’m now going to be an arbitrary colourist.
I exaggerate the blond of the hair, I come to orange tones, chromes, pale lemon. Behind the head — instead of painting the dull wall of the mean room, I paint the infinite.
I make a simple background of the richest, most intense blue that I can prepare, and with this simple combination, the brightly lit blond head, against this rich blue background achieves a mysterious effect, like a star in the deep azure.
Similarly, I’ve proceeded in this way in the peasant’s portrait. However, without wishing to evoke the mysterious brilliance of a pale star in the infinite blue in this case.  But imagining the terrific man I had to do, in the very furnace of harvest time, deep in the south. Hence the oranges, blazing like red-hot iron, hence the old gold tones, glowing in the darkness. Ah, my dear brother — — and the good folk will see only caricature in this exaggeration. But what does that do to us, we’ve read La terre and Germinal, and if we paint a peasant we’d like to show that this reading has in some way become part of us.

To Theo van Gogh. Arles, Saturday, 18 August 1888.

Painting, Oil on Canvas
Arles: August, 1888
Norton Simon Museum
Pasadena, California, United States of America, North America
F: 443, JH: 1548
Where Vincent Was:

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