The White House at Night

The White House at Night

"At the moment I have two studies on the go – one a bouquet of wild plants, thistles, ears of wheat, leaves of different types of greenery. One almost red, the other very green, the other yellowing. The second study a white house amid greenery with a star in the night sky and an orange light at the window and dark greenery and a sombre pink note."
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Vincent painted The White House at Night on June 16, 1890, just over a month before he died.  He was also working on Still Life: Wildflowers and Thistles in a Vase at the same time, both while living in the house of Dr. Paul Gachet in Auvers Sur Oise, a suburb about 30 kilometers from Paris.  By 1890, he has achieved a higher level of notoriety and acclaim within the post impressionist painting community and its critics than he has ever known and while it pleases him somewhat, it does nothing to put him at ease.

 

Vincent’s nephew and namesake (who will go on to create the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam) is but a few months old and Vincent is just getting settled after moving from the asylum in Saint Remy de Provence to live under the care of Dr. Gachet.  Theo and Jo have just come out in the weeks prior and brought little Vincent to Auvers on a day trip.  Vincent seems optimistic and hopeful and happy about the short travel distance between him and Theo and Jo and little Vincent.  It is hard to understand how the same man who wrote so engagingly with his brother in June about their plans for future artists colonies abroad could take his own life in an adjacent cornfield in a month’s time.  And less than a year after Vincent died, so too would Theo join him, also from mental illness.  The two brothers now again lie side by side in Auvers as they did in the hospital in St. Remy when Theo visited an ill Vincent and as they did as little boys growing up in the cottage at Nuenen in the Netherlands.

 

In the work, at lower center, a woman in a dress of cobalt blue vertical strokes carries a bag in one hand and an ear of corn or oblong object in the other as she passes in front of Vincent’s subject, a large white house.  Turquoise teal shutters match the shaded side of the building as Vincent uses cloissonist outlines in black to frame the house and walls surrounding it.  The ochre ceiling tiles and chimney tops reach into a diagonally stroked sky of blues, greens, pinks and whites with Venus, the evening “star” illuminating all in its bright yellow radiance.

 

Deep green shrubbery and cypresses are thickly impasto as evening comes to the yellow-brown cobbled streets of Auvers sur Oise, a suburb of Paris.  A light coming from the house can be seen through the trees, echoing the yellows of Venus rising top right.  The modern day Street View of this location shows the same house without shutters but little changed beside the modern world around it.

 

Students from the Texas State University-San Marcos, astronomers Donald Olson and Russell Doescher proposed an exact date for the painting due to the position of Venus in the work.  From their calculations, the “star” Vincent refers to in the painting must be the planet Venus which was bright in the evening sky in mid-June of 1890.

 

This painting will be purchased by German collector Otto Krebs prior to the second world war, and is hidden in his cellar to keep the Nazis from confiscating it once war breaks out.  Krebs dies in 1941 and though the Nazis did not find the work, the Russian army took this and 97 other paintings and 18 statues back to Russia with them.  The work sat in a basement at the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg for almost 50 years before being revealed in a show of confiscated objects in 1995.

 

The exhibition’s catalog (by Albert Kostenevich, the Hermitage’s curator of modern-European painting):

“The paintings in this book were long thought to have been destroyed in the war. Only now has it been revealed that they spent the last half century hidden in the store-rooms of the Hermitage, their existence a carefully guarded state secret … Outstanding paintings include several by van Gogh, among them his remarkable White House at Night painted six weeks before his death and depicting the kind of nocturnal sky seen in his well-known Starry Night … ”        (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/1209192.st)

 

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Vincent writes Theo as he is working on The White House at Night:

 

“It was with pleasure that I made the acquaintance of the Dutchman, who came yesterday. He looks much too nice to be doing painting in the current conditions. If he nevertheless persists in wanting to do it I told him that he would do well to go to Brittany with Gauguin and De Haan, because he’ll live there on 3 francs a day instead of 5 francs, and will have good company. That I myself also hope very much to join them, since Gauguin is going there. I was really pleased to learn that they’re going to renew their attempt there. Certainly you’re right that it’s better for Gauguin than staying in Paris. Very pleased, too, that he likes the head of that Arlésienne.

 

I really hope to do a few etchings of subjects from the south, let’s say 6, since I can print them free of charge at Mr Gachet’s; he’s very willing to run them off for nothing if I do them. It’s certainly a thing that must be done, and we’ll act in such a way that in some way it forms a sequel to the Monticelli publication, if you approve. And Gauguin will probably engrave a few of his canvases in combination with me. His painting which belongs to you, and especially for the rest of the Martinique things.  Which plates Mr Gachet will also print off for us. Of course we’ll leave him free to run off copies for himself. Mr Gachet will come one day to see my canvases in Paris, and then we’d choose the ones to be engraved.

 

At the moment I have two studies on the go – one a bouquet of wild plants, thistles, ears of wheat, leaves of different types of greenery. One almost red, the other very green, the other yellowing. The second study a white house amid greenery with a star in the night sky and an orange light at the window and dark greenery and a sombre pink note.

 

That’s all for the moment. I have an idea for doing a more important canvas of Daubigny’s house and garden, of which I already have a small study.  I was really pleased that Gauguin is going off with De Haan again. Naturally this Madagascar plan seems to me hardly possible to carry out, I would much prefer to see him leave for Tonkin. If, however, he went to Madagascar I’d be able to follow him there. For one should go there in twos or threes. But we aren’t there yet. Certainly the future is very much in the tropics for painting, either in Java or in Martinique, Brazil or Australia, and not here, but you feel that it hasn’t been proved to me that you, Gauguin or I are those people of that future.

 

But certainly once again, there and not here, one day, probably soon, one will see Impressionists working who will hold their own with MilletPissarro. Believing in that is natural, but going there without the means of existence or a relationship with Paris, a mad impulse when for years on end one has rusted away while vegetating here. Well. Thanks again, and good handshake to you and your wife, and good health to the little one, whom I’m really longing to see again.”

 

Yours truly,

 

Vincent.

To Theo. Auvers-sur-Oise, Tuesday, 17 June 1890

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Theo writes back a week later:

 

“My dear Vincent,

 

I have something to write to you which I think will give you pleasure. Yesterday I was first at the Salon with Boch, who then came to lunch, after which we saw your paintings. He likes them very much, and it seems to me that he understands them. As you had said that you would willingly do an exchange with him, when I saw that he preferred the canvas you did after reading Rod’s book, I told him that he could take that one in exchange for a painting of his. He seemed delighted, and put everything he had at your disposal.

 

I went with him to see what he had with him, and among them was a canvas of around no. 20 done at Frameries in the Borinage, depicting the factory of Crachet & Pecry, which perhaps you remember, the whole factory is in smoke and steam and stands out darkly with very bright reflections of the sun on one side against the green wheat. The sky is very luminous.

 

The Mine of Crachet and Percy - Eugene Boch 1890

 

I think that above all the subject and the intention of what he wanted to do are remarkable. It’s neither very skilful nor powerful, but very sincere, like the fellow himself. If you don’t like this canvas he’ll willingly change it for another, but it would astonish me if you didn’t like it at all.

 

The Salon is pitiful, there’s almost nothing there that isn’t profoundly boring. You, though, judged well as regards the Quost. If I had to choose one that’s the one I’d take. It is Easter flowers. It’s very gentle and harmonious, and all the same there’s colour in it. The Jeannins are good too, but they’re full of bluster.
I saw Quost the other day and I spoke to him about you. I was telling him that you liked his talent very much, which pleased him very much, he said. If you come to Paris you mustn’t fail to go and see him, he’ll be very pleased when you come to see him, either in the park or at his place.

 

And now I must tell you something about your etching.  It’s a real painter’s etching. No refinement in the procedure, but a drawing done on metal. I like  1r:4 this drawing very much. Boch also liked it. It’s amusing that Dr Gachet has this press, painters who make etchings are always complaining that they have to go to the printer for the proofs.

 

I think that Auvers has a lot of good, and I would very much like you to be of that opinion. We’re already looking forward with a great deal of pleasure to coming to see you soon.  For different reasons, first to see you, secondly to see your work, thirdly for the beautiful nature, and fourthly because I hope that seeing the countryside will give me strength for being able to work a great deal. The Raffaëlli exhibition is finished, now the people are all going to the country and I’m not losing much by not being there.

 

I’m enclosing 50 francs for you with this letter. Last week Jo had to stay in bed all the time, but fortunately it’s gone now. The little one is well. Warm regards, also from Jo and the little one.”

 

Ever yours,

 

Theo

 

Theo to Vincent. Paris, Monday, 23 June 1890

 

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Views of Auvers Sur Oise as it looked when Vincent lived and painted there:  http://www.auvers-sur-oise.eu/tag/carte-postale

 

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Painting, Oil on Canvas – 59.5 x 73 cm – Size 20 Figure
Auvers-sur-Oise: June 16, 1890
Hermitage Museum
St. Petersburg, Russia, Europe
F: 766, JH: 2031

 

Where Vincent Was:
Auvers Sur Oise

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