Van Gogh's Tarascon Diligence at the Ashmolean

A rare chance to see an extraordinary painting

Van Gogh’s Tarascon Diligence at the Ashmolean
24th March 2014 Jane Tomlinson

Treasures from the Henry and Rose Pearlman collection

Last week I went to Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum to see treasures from the Henry and Rose Pearlman collection in a show entitled Cezanne and the Modern.  The meat and potatoes of the show were a goodly number of watercolours by Paul Cézanne. There were fine paintings and sculptures by Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet, Degas and Modigliani to admire. The Gauguin rough carved wooden panel was an unexpected treat: brutal, potent and horny in a way that only Gauguin can create art.

Spectacular though many of the exhibits were, I really only wanted to clap my eyes on one painting: Vincent van Gogh’s canvas of the ‘Tarascon Diligence’ (F478a, JH1605) painted in Arles in mid-October 1888.

VincentvanGogh-tarascon-diligenceHe was inspired to paint this scene as he and his brother Theo had read Daudet’s popular adventure novel Tartarin de Tarascon.  In the book the ‘old diligence’ (a diligence is a stagecoach) speaks and complains about its hard life. Vincent writes to his brother Theo:  “Do you remember in Tartarin the lament of the old Tarascon diligence – that wonderful page? Well, I’ve just painted that red and green carriage in the yard of the inn.”

Jonathan Jones art critic of The Guardian calls the painting ‘hallucinatory’. But he’s so very wrong. This painting is a masterclass of draughtsmanship, a lesson in pure observational drawing with paint.  Vincent’s ability to see and record precisely what he saw is breathtaking, in what is a very difficult subject. He’s applied colour and line without any visible hesitation or deviation. He’s put in what he’s seen – no fiddling and fussing – and moved on to the next bit. Imagine what Vincent would have done with an iPad.

The colours are astonishing. Every reproduction I have seen of it fails dismally to capture its vibrancy, the subtle tones in the grey sand of the foreground, and the dazzling light. You can almost feel the heat coming off that yellow wall.

Magical

And although Vincent has painted the scene objectively, drawing with clarity and confidence, he’s done something else, something magical that all artists aspire to and most of us rarely or never achieve. Somehow, he’s filled the canvas with what a stagecoach means to him, a sense of adventure.’Where next?’ Vincent seems to ask, but at the same time ‘stop, I want to get off now’. Vincent was traveller, rarely settling, always moving on, forever looking for something he never found.

There are sections where Vincent has forgotton to block in the colour, leaving the canvas exposed. He wouldn’t have had much time, the coach would soon move on. He almost certainly knocked it up in a couple of hours.

“Simple foreground of grey sand. Background very simple too, pink and yellow walls with windows with green louvred shutters, corner of blue sky. The two carriages very colourful: green, red, wheels yellow, black, blue, orange.Vincent to Theo, letter 703, Saturday 13 October 1888.

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