by Van Gogh A pair of lovers will go on sale at Sotheby’s in London on March 2, with an estimate of £7-10 million. The small painting, just under 13 inches high, is the most important part of a much larger work he left behind.
Vincent sketched the complete painting in a letter to his artist friend Emile Bernard on March 18, 1888. The original painting depicted a landscape view of the canal that connects Arles to the Mediterranean, with a large sun setting on the horizon.
Dissatisfied with the complete painting, Van Gogh destroyed most of it a day or two later. All he kept was a fragment of A pair of lovers, the section with two lovers on the towpath. The woman’s arm rests protectively on the man’s shoulders, as she leans lovingly towards him.
The full landscape, as sketched in the letter, showed a view of the Langlois drawbridge, built in the 1830s on the southern outskirts of Arles (it was sometimes called the Englishman’s Bridge). In the background, on the right, the steeples and smoking chimneys of the city.
The Langlois Bridge was a favorite motif of Van Gogh, in part because it reminded him of Dutch-style drawbridges. In total, he painted four other scene landscapes. In a little-known quotation, the poet Alfred Massebieau recalled in 1893 that he had seen Van Gogh five years earlier painting the “Englishman’s bridge”.
Van Gogh added a description of the landscape for Bernard: “At the top of this letter I am sending you a small sketch [sketch] of a study that concerns me… sailors returning with their lovers towards the city, which projects the strange silhouette of its drawbridge on an immense yellow sun.
But after writing to Bernard, the weather deteriorates and Van Gogh abandons the idea of finishing the painting outside. Instead, he set out to finish it in his studio.
As Vincent explained to his brother Theo: “Rain and wind these past few days, I’ve been working at home on the desk… My goal was to give it colors like stained glass, and a design with full contours. The embracing couple’s palette demonstrates their love of complementary colors: the man’s blue jacket with his companion’s orange headgear and the woman’s red garment with the emerald green of the water.
A few days later, Vincent sends an update to Theo: “As bad weather prevented me from working on site, I completely worked this study to death trying to finish it at home.” Vincent much preferred to work in front of his motif, rather than from his imagination.
Very quickly after abandoning the overworked landscape, Vincent starts again, setting his easel on the towpath: “I started the same subject again immediately afterwards on another canvas, but since the weather was quite different, in a gray palette and without figures. This work, The Langlois Bridgemeasures 24 inches by 29 inches, the same size as the full dropped image.
Meanwhile, Van Gogh had cut out a small rectangle with the figures of the two lovers, representing about one-sixth of the abandoned canvas – and had thrown away the rest. He kept the fragment, planning to use it as a study for figures in another painting.
How the fragment survived remains a mystery. It would seem that he was saved by his friends Marie and Joseph Ginoux, who ran the Café de la Gare near the Yellow House in Arles.
The first firmly registered owner was the Parisian playwright Henri Bernstein, who sold the fragment in 1910. It was then that he was called Eclogue in Provence (eglogue, or eclogue in English, is a classic term for a pastoral poem). It was a surprising title as the factory chimneys in the abandoned part suggest that the towpath was not a rural idyll.
Since the end of the 20th century, the fragment has already been sold three times by Sotheby’s. It is telling to follow the prices: £280,000 in 1986, £2.9m in 2001 and $7.1m (£4.7m) in 2013. Sotheby’s registers the current anonymous seller as a ‘distinguished’ Japanese collector , believing that the work should now sell. £7m to £10m.
Although the complete landscape was destroyed, as early as 1906 a Swiss artist was inspired to try and reconstruct the complete painting from Van Gogh’s sketch, which included his color notations.
Giovanni Giacometti, the father of famous sculptor Alberto Giacometti, set out to visualize the lost landscape of the Langlois Bridge from a 1906 reproduction of the letter sketch in one of the early books on Van Gogh by the historian of German art Julius Meier-Graefe.
Interestingly, the reconstruction imagined by Giovanni Giacometti bears little resemblance to a Van Gogh, neither in brushwork nor in coloring. But in 1906 there were virtually no color reproductions of Van Gogh’s paintings and few had been exhibited in Switzerland.
But considering the surviving fragment of Van Gogh, which is up for sale, there is the intriguing question of whether the fallen male figure could represent the artist?
Van Gogh wears a straw hat in half a dozen of his self-portraits (two are now exhibited at the current exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery). More specifically, in A pair of lovers the man is dressed in the same way as the character of The artist on the road to Tarascona painting probably destroyed in a salt mine at the end of World War II.
Vincent painted the dismembered landscape of the canal scene just a month after arriving in Arles. At this point, he doesn’t seem to have made many friends in town, let alone met any eligible young women. Did the solitary artist dream of finding a lover with whom to stroll along the canal?
A pair of lovers will be visible at Sotheby’s Taipei on March 12 and 13 and from March 22 at Sotheby’s London.
Martin Bailey is the author of Van Gogh finale: Auvers and the artist’s rise to fame (Francis Lincoln, 2021, available in the UK and we). He is a leading Van Gogh scholar and investigative journalist for The arts journal. Bailey has curated Van Gogh exhibitions at the Barbican Art Gallery and Compton Verney/National Gallery of Scotland. He was co-curator of Tate Britain’s The EY exhibition: Van Gogh and Great Britain (March 27-August 11, 2019).
Bailey has written a number of other bestselling books, including The Sunflowers Are Mine: The Story of Van Gogh’s Masterpiece (Frances Lincoln 2013, available in the UK and we), Southern Studio: Van Gogh in Provence (Frances Lincoln 2016, available in the UK and we) and Starry Night: Van Gogh in the Asylum (White Lion Publishing 2018, available in the UK and we). whiskey cream Living with Vincent van Gogh: the houses and landscapes that shaped the artist (White Lion Publishing 2019, available in the UK and we) provides insight into the artist’s life. The Illustrated Letters of Provence by Van Gogh has been reissued (Batsford 2021, available in the UK and we).
Read more on the Martin’s Adventures with Van Gogh blog here.