Its women were believed the most beautiful in Europe. The blue lagoons were bright with flocks of pink flamingos, and wild bulls still grazed in the marshlands to the west. "Arles en France," the "Rome of Gaul" decreed by Julius Caesar, must have seemed to Vincent van Gogh, that strange young man from Holland, both exotic and mysterious, the sort of otherworldly city one might visit in a dream.
Expecting sun, but finding snow, he arrived in Arles on Feb. 20, 1888. He departed -- partly mad -- for the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole in Saint-Re'my-de-Provence on May 8, 1899.
His 15 months in Arles were prodigiously productive. It is difficult to think of another painter who has done so much so well in so short a time. In 444 days, he painted some 200 brilliant oils, made more than 100 highly detailed watercolors and drawings, and wrote 200 letters. Almost all survive. Some 140 pictures, half of those he did there, have now been brought together for "Van Gogh in Arles," a beautiful exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The show, which opened Thursday, already is so crowded one can hardly see the art. Before his glowing pictures one feels a grief, a guilt, a yearning -- how one wishes one might tell him that his life was not a waste, that the whole world loves his art.
He never got that message. Van Gogh's career went nowhere, though he knew the art world well. He knew Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Seurat, Signac, Pissarro, and was close to Paul Gauguin. Van Gogh's younger brother, Theo, was a dealer for Goupil and Company, an uncle ran the firm, and Vincent, too, had worked in various Goupil branches in The Hague and Brussels, in London and in Paris. His connections did not help.
On Oct. 24, 1888, he wrote forlornly of his hope that his paintings might one day be worth what he'd spent on their paint. Today they go for millions. Only one or two were sold while he was alive.
He drank too much, he smoked too much, he gazed at too much beauty -- or so the story goes. That craziness and genius are like love and hate related is a staple of its plot. Van Gogh's madness has become the stuff of myths and movies -- the glass of absinthe hurled at Gauguin, the silences, the fits, the mutilated ear and the awful bloody package delivered to a whore.
And yet the van Gogh one encounters in the Metropolitan's exhibit is purposeful, clearsighted, competent, productive. "Understand," he writes Theo, "that I am in the midst of a complicated calculation which results in a quick succession of canvases quickly executed but calculated long beforehand." His mind does not wander. His sure, form-forging brushstrokes have the clanging power of a blacksmith's blows.
We see him in this show compiling a record, following a program. He captures in his pictures the countryside, the harvest, beached fishing boats, the streets, the river banks, the postman. He paints the Cafe' de la Gare and the city's bridges, the Langlois Bridge, the Trinquetaille Bridge and the Railroad Bridge as well. With his messy paintbox, his stretched canvases and easel, he prowls Arles and its environs. He paints the Public Garden, the sowers in the fields, sunflowers and sunsets. He paints his small world, too, his Yellow House, his wooden chair, his shoes, his bed, his pipe. He paints his meal of smoked herring and the red-bearded green-eyed face that peers out of his mirror.
He is not depicting nightmares or a drunkard's creepy-crawlies or his feelings for Gauguin. His landscapes portray real trees, his portraits real people. His streetscapes in "Van Gogh in Arles" depict that city, not his soul.
Some of us are tone-deaf. Others hear so sharply that their flesh begins to creep when assaulted by a song played even slightly out of key. Van Gogh in Arles discovered he possessed an almost superhuman sensitivity to color. "The colors of the prism," he wrote Theo, "are veiled in the mists of the North." In Arles those veils vanished. Colors seen in sunlight rule the letters he sent Theo as they rule this show.
Van Gogh went to Arles for "a thousand reasons." Many of his painter friends, Emile Bernard and Paul Gauguin among them, had gone to Brittany, to Pont Aven, to get away from Paris, to find a world more down-to-earth where peasant folk were picturesque and hotels were cheap. Van Gogh dreamed of luring his artist friends to Arles, instead.
What pleases me very much is the gaily multicolored clothes . . . , green, red, pink, Havanah-yellow, violet or blue stripes, or dots of the same colors. White scarfs; red, green and yellow parasols. A vigorous sun, like sulphur, shining on it all. . . July 31, 1888
This country seems to me as beautiful as Japan as far as the limpidity of the atmosphere and the gay color effects are concerned. Water forms patches of beautiful emerald . . . The sunsets have a pale orange color which makes the fields appear blue. The sun a splendid yellow. March 18, 1888
The color is exquisite here. When the green leaves are fresh it is a rich green, the like of which we seldom see in the North. When it gets scorched and dusty, it does not lose its beauty, for then the landscape gets tones of gold of various tints, green-gold, yellow-gold, pink-gold . . . And this combined with the blue -- from the deepest royal blue of the water to the blue of the forget-me-nots . . . Of course this calls up orange. June 16, 1888
My house here is painted the yellow color of fresh butter on the outside with glaringly green shutters; it stands in full sunlight in a square which has a green garden . . . And it is completely white-washed inside, and the floor is made of red bricks. And over it there is the intensely blue sky. In this I can live and breathe, meditate and paint. Sept. 16, 1888
Van Gogh was born in Groot-Zundert in 1853; he died in 1890. He began to draw what he saw around him while working as a preacher with the impovervished miners of Borinage in Belgium. All of his grand paintings come from his last five years. The first are gray and green and gloomy. Think of his "Potato Eaters" of 1885.
It was not until he came to Arles -- and his two gifts came together -- that his genius flared.
His first gift was for fiery, Fauve-predicting color; his second was for brushstroke. The brushstokes of Ce'zanne are often shapeless blobs; those of the Pointillists are but repeated dots. But van Gogh's rhythmic brushstrokes sculpture worlds and give form to light.
One sees that here most in his reed pen drawings. They are among the least familiar triumphs of this show.
The reeds grew wild. Van Gogh cut his pens himself. Influenced, it's obvious, by the graphics of Japan, he soon became a master of that humble instrument. His pen, when drawing S-strokes, is able to suggest waves or summer clouds or mown grass in a garden; small V's depict the stubble left by the scythe; dots evoke the surf or skin or the darkness of the sky. Though the drawings here are done in inks of black and brown, one feels bright colors in them. When van Gogh draws the sun, he draws radiating rays so yellow and so hot they seem to burn the eye.
As soon as van Gogh arrived in Arles, he hurled himself into his work. His compositions are so strong, their colors so well tuned, their brushstrokes so decisive, that it is not easy to remember at what speed these works were made. In one week, between June 13 and June 20, 1888, he completed 10 great harvest paintings, among them "Harvest (The Blue Cart)," "Haystacks," "Summer Evening" and "The Sower." Sometimes he completed two paintings in a day. And remember he was living, nearly penniless, in an unfamiliar town. He rents the Yellow House, he buys its chairs and beds, he shops, he reads, he writes his long revealing letters, and all the while he is painting his great works of art. He wrote that he completed his famous portrait of Madame Ginoux, "L'Arle'sienne," in "three-quarters of an hour."
His letters move one still. What a touching man he must have been. He yearns for Gauguin's visit (and prepares for his arrival by decorating Gauguin's bedroom with the landscapes he has painted of "The Poet's Garden.") Van Gogh neglects his health, expresses "constant grief" that his work does not sell, and then glimpses a bold color that makes him sing with joy.
Gauguin arrived in Arles on Oct. 23. Van Gogh is, at first, enormously happy. To save money, the two men agree to eat at home, van Gogh will shop, Gauguin will cook (Gauguin, Vincent writes his brother, "knows how to cook perfectly"). They talk endlessly of painting. They go for walks together (on one of which, writes Vincent, they "see a red vineyard, all red like red wine. In the distance it turned to yellow . . ."). And then the two men clash.
In the intervals between their quarrels, van Gogh writhes in pain and guilt. On Dec. 14, Gauguin paints a portrait of his roommate, "Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers."
"It is certainly I," writes Vincent, "but it is I gone mad."
Finally, on Dec. 23, after a violent shouting match, Gauguin moves out of the Yellow House to spend the night in a hotel. At 11:30 p.m. Vincent appears at the brothel door, asks for a girl called Rachel, and hands her the severed portion of his ear, adding the injunction, "keep this object carefully." He is discovered the next morning, unconscious in his bed, almost dead from loss of blood.
At first it's thought he'll die. But soon his strength returns. Within weeks he has completed his "Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe," a painting that exhibits both structural authority and crystalline intensity. The picture is an exercise in color theory, in complementaries: the fur hat is bright blue, the coat is green, the divided background half orange and half red.
"As far as I can judge," van Gogh writes to Theo two months later, "I am not properly speaking a madman. You will see that the canvases I have done in the intervals are steady and not inferior to the others."
Between his deep depressions, his angry silences, he continues to make pictures in which every brushstroke conjures something solid, the fur of that fur hat, a grain of sand, a leaf. His art is free of doubt.
Van Gogh's early grayish paintings are missing from this show. So are the hallucinatory swirling cypresses and starry nights he'd paint in the weeks before his death. He shot himself in the chest on July 27, 1890. Two days later he was dead.
Scholar Ronald Pickvance, who organized this show, has done a first-rate job retrieving a day-to-day account of van Gogh's stay in Arles.
That van Gogh was somehow able to imply hue with line partially absolves the Metropolitan's exhibit of one of its distressing flaws. It is nagging to discover that "Fishing Boats on the Beach," "Haystacks," "Harvest (The Blue Cart)," and his great sunflowers from London -- all of these must be among the most beloved and beautiful of the oils that he did in Arles -- are missing from the show. They are represented only by the drawings van Gogh did of these paintings.
The absence of these oil paintings is perhaps because it could not be helped. Museums, with good reason, are often loath to lend their masterworks. But the exhibit's other galling flaw -- the sense of greed that hovers around it -- is less easy to excuse.
If you buy your timed admission ticket through Ticketron, it will cost you $5 to get into the show ($4 for admission, plus a $1 service charge); if you buy through Teletron, major credit cards accepted, it will cost you $5.75. And then, after you shell out your cash, the Metropolitan will force you -- not only once, but twice -- to walk through hard-sell van Gogh gift shops peddling catalogues and postcards and assorted tacky wares.
The exhibit will not travel. It closes Dec. 30.