The Walk: Falling Leaves

The Walk: Falling Leaves

"Now that most of the leaves have fallen the landscape looks more like the north, and then I really feel that if I went back to the north I would see it more clearly than before..."
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Painting Date
2nd of November 1889
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November of 1889 finds Vincent still lodged at the asylum of Saint Paul de Mausole in Saint Remy de Provence.  He has been painting in this garden and beyond its surrounding walls for the better part of a year by this time and he will be leaving for Auvers Sur Oise, his final resting place less than 6 months after creating this Autumn canvas.

When painting the the walk with falling leaves, he is reminded of Gauguin’s arrival in Arles the year before and the pleasant days the two shared painting just after the older artist’s arrival at the Yellow House where Vincent had prepared a room for him.  In that November previous, 1888, Vincent painted the falling leaves over the avenue lined with Roman sarcophagi in Arles, Les Alyscamps.

In this canvas, now at the The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Vincent selects a higher point of view, from up in the trees which are clipped top and bottom in a composition similar to many Japanese floating world prints so treasured by the Van Gogh brothers.  Vincent returns to a palette with red ochre leading the way and comprising the trunks of the trees, seeking the more realistic depiction suggested by Theo rather than the exaggerated colors of the year previous (at Gauguin’s urging).

Greens, yellows and browns are carefully applied in parallel vertical and horizontal strokes as well as in curved and diagonal sets.  Blank canvas is left for its effect, defining this work as more of a study than a painting in Vincent’s eyes.  Dark and thick outlines a la Emile Bernard and Louis Anquetin are also employed for their effect.

The leaves fall as the lone traveller in a cobalt jacket and hat walks under a grey sky with yellowed leaves dropping from a canopy of trees through which he walks, the nearest to him reaching to the top of the canvas in streaks of blue.  Most likely the setting is a nearby path through the forest near the asylum, as the tree trunks are not as orderly in their alignment as those planted within the hospital walls.  These chaotic trunks of nature’s doing combined with the elevated perspective of the viewer create a feeling of change or even discomfort as the fall wind whirls through.  The lone figure to which our eye is drawn might have been Vincent’s view of himself on that November day in 1889, we can never know for certain as he does not mention the walker in his correspondence.



Vincent writes Theo from the asylum in Saint Remy in the first week of November:

“My health is very good – except often a lot of melancholy however – but I feel much much better than when I came here, and even better than in Paris. Also, as for the work the ideas are becoming firmer, it seems to me. But then I don’t quite know if you’d like what I’m doing now. For despite what you say in your previous letter, that the search for style often harms other qualities, the fact is that I feel myself greatly driven to seek style, if you like, but I mean by that a more manly and more deliberate drawing. If that will make me more like Bernard or Gauguin, I can’t do anything about it. But am inclined to believe that in the long run you’d get used to it.

For yes, one must feel the wholeness of a country – isn’t that what distinguishes a Cézanne from something else. And Guillaumin, whom you mention, he has so much style and a personal way of drawing. Anyway, I’ll do as I can.


Now that most of the leaves have fallen the landscape looks more like the north, and then I really feel that if I went back to the north I would see it more clearly than before.  Health is a big thing, and a lot depends on it, as regards work too.  Fortunately those abominable nightmares no longer torment me.  I hope to go to Arles in the next few days.


I’d very much like Jo to see “The Evening”, I think that I’ll send you a consignment shortly, but it’s drying very badly because of the dampness of the studio. Here the houses have scarcely any cellar or foundations, and one feels the damp more than in the north.


At home they’ll have moved by now, I’ll add 6 canvases for them to the next consignment. Is it necessary to have them framed, perhaps not, for it isn’t worth it. Above all, don’t frame the studies I send you from time to time, that can be done later, pointless for them to take up too much room.   I’ve also done a canvas for Mr Peyron, a view of the house with a tall pine tree.


I hope that your health and Jo’s continue to be good.  I’m so happy that you’re no longer alone, and that everything’s more normal than before.
Is Gauguin back, and what’s Bernard doing?
More soon, I shake your hand firmly, and Jo’s, and our friends’, and believe me


Ever yours,


I’m trying to simplify the list of colours as much as possible – thus I very often use the ochres as in the old days.  I know very well that the studies drawn with long, sinuous lines from the last consignment weren’t what they ought to become, however I dare urge you to believe that in landscapes one will continue to mass things by means of a drawing style that seeks to express the entanglement of the masses. Thus, do you remember Delacroix’s landscape, Jacob’s struggle with the angel? And there are others of his! For example the cliffs, and the very flowers you speak of sometimes. Bernard really has found perfect things in there. Anyway, don’t be too swift to adopt a prejudice against it.


Anyway, you’ll see that there’s already more character in a large landscape with pines, red ochre trunks defined by a black line than in the previous ones.”

To Theo. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, on or about Sunday, 3 November 1889


My dear Theo,


Yesterday I sent three packets by parcel post containing studies which I hope you’ll receive in good order. I really must thank you for the 10 metres of canvas, which have just arrived.
Among the studies you’ll find the following, which are for our mother and sister. Olive trees – Bedroom – Reaper – Working with plough – Wheatfield with cypresses – Orchard in blossom – Portrait.


The remainder is above all autumn studies and I think the best one is the yellow mulberry tree against a very blue sky. Then the study of the house and of the park, of which there are two variants. The studies on no. 30 canvases weren’t yet dry and will follow later. They’re giving me a lot of trouble, and sometimes I find them very ugly, sometimes they look good to me – perhaps you’ll have the same impression when you see them. There are a dozen of them, so it’s more substantial than what I’ve just sent.


In spite of the cold I’m continuing to work outside up to now, and I think that it’s good for me and for the work.  The last study I did is a view of the village – where people were at work – under enormous plane trees – repairing the pavements. So there are piles of sand, stones and the gigantic tree-trunks – the yellowing foliage, and here and there glimpses of a house-front and little figures.


I often think of you and Jo, but with a feeling as if there was an enormous distance from here to Paris and as if it were years since I saw you. I hope that your health is good, for myself I can’t complain, I feel absolutely normal, so to speak, but without ideas for the future, and truly I don’t know what it’s going to be, and perhaps I’m avoiding going into this question deeply, sensing that I can do nothing about it.


I’ve finished, or almost, the copy of The diggers too.  You’ll see that there are no more impastos in the large studies. I prepare the thing with sorts of washes with spirits, and then proceed with touches or hatchings of colour with spaces between them. This imparts atmosphere and uses less paint.


If I want to send this letter off today I must hurry, so handshake in thought and warm regards to Jo.


Ever yours,


To Theo van Gogh. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Saturday, 7 December 1889



Painting, Oil on Canvas – 73.5 x 60 cm – size 20 Figure
Saint-Rémy: October, 1889
Van Gogh Museum
Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Europe
F: 651, JH: 1844

Where Vincent Was:
Saint Remy

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