Two important works on paper by Vincent van Gogh entered the permanant collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art on October 8, 1998, under the terms of an unusual bequest of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. Left to the Metropolitan by Ms. Rockefeller upon her death in 1948, her bequest allowed that the Museum of Modern Art, of which she was a founder, was able to borrow the works for a period of up to 50 years. When the 50 years elapsed, the drawings were transferred to the Metropolitan.
The addition of these works — Street in Saintes-Maries (1888), a pen-and-ink drawing, and A Passageway at the Asylum (1889), a vividly colored gouache and black chalk drawing created at Saint-Rémy, add considerably to the Met's already impressive collection of four drawings and 18 paintings by Van Gogh, the largest collection of the artist's work outside the two countries where he lived, Holland and France.
In announcing the acquisition on October 26, 1998, Philippe de Montebello, Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, said: "These two extraordinary works by one of the most beloved and mythologized artistic geniuses of any age substantially enrich the Metropolitan Museum's Van Gogh collection. They are powerful evocations of Van Gogh's unique and often tormented world and convey as well his masterful draftsmanship in creating images of lasting resonance. Of course, this acquisition brings great joy to us at the Met and, fortunately, will keep these superb treasures in New York, as Mrs. Rockefeller intended."
The drawings — which were created late in Van Gogh's brief career, during his stays in Arles and Saint-Rémy in the South of France — greatly enhance the Museum's collection of works on paper by the artist. The Museum already owned two early landscapes, including one from Holland done in 1881 and 1882, as well as a portrait, The Zouave, and a later landscape, Wheat Field, both from 1888. This new strength in late drawings is a propitious complement to the Met's collection of paintings by the artist, which is also particularly strong in the Arles and Saint-Rémy periods.
Street in Saintes-Maries is one of four versions of this scene that Van Gogh created in the summer of 1888 during his stay in Arles. However, it is noteworthy in that it was made after, not in preparation for, a painting of the same scene. Having made a drawing on site in Saintes-Maries in early June, he painted the oil in his studio in mid-July. He sent a sketch of the painting to his friend Emile Bernard, and, as the painting hung drying in his studio, created the Museum's drawing, altering and refining the composition in both subtle and dramatic ways that make it the most distilled of the four compositions.
In contrast to the carefully ordered penstrokes that define the thatched roofs of the evenly spaced cottages at left, the right side of the sheet is dominated by a profusion of natural growth, drawn by the artist in energetic serpentine lines. The road, which stretches into the distance at the center of the composition, is abruptly thwarted by the triangular gable of a cottage. Between this rooftop and another nearby, a tiny wedge of the Mediterranean — to which an even tinier sailboat was added to this version alone — extends the perspective infinitely. Despite the absence of color of the ink medium, the drawing radiates a dazzling sense of Mediterranean sunlight.
A Passageway at the Asylum is one of three gouache drawings in brush and gouache on pink paper that Van Gogh made early in his stay in Saint-Rémy in 1889 and sent to his brother Theo, who was eager for a description of the asylum. The other two works depict the vestibule of the asylum and the window of the artist's studio, which he had set up in one of the 30 empty rooms of the men's ward. The Museum's work fully captures this sense of stranded isolation. The virtually barren corridor recedes into the distance like an enormous cavern. Van Gogh described the place to his brother as architecturally better suited for an exhibition hall than a place of respite. The rich palette of golden yellows, terra-cotta reds, and deep greens is highlighted with brilliant azure, bringing the colors of the Provençal countryside indoors. A solitary figure, who appears to be fleeing through a doorway, is the only sign of life.
George R. Goldner, the Museum's Drue Heinz Chairman of the Department of Drawings and Prints, commented on the acquisition: "These two major drawings greatly enhance the Museum's presentation of Van Gogh's achievement as a draftsman throughout his artistic development. The view at Saintes-Maries reveals the artist's ability to conjure even the most evanescent effects of light and shade, time and place. The wonderful, if foreboding, view of the asylum is a testament to Van Gogh's descriptive genius for combining bold brushwork and blazing color."
# # #
February 1, 1999