'I’m lucky to have gazed on this picture often. I could live with it and never tire of it.'
The Old Peasant Patience Escalier, 1888, by Vincent van Gogh (1853–90), 27in by 22in, Private Collection
Lord Hindlip says:
This picture has grandeur out of all proportion to Patience’s humble circumstances; it’s more majestic than any princely or papal portrait. Van Gogh succeeds in showing not only what the old peasant looked like, but how he felt in the furnace that is Provence in August. The glow is achieved by strong colours: oranges and yellows against the blue and violet of his smock, and ‘old gold’ and red in the shadows, often juxtaposed with delicate touches of green. It vibrates like few others. The composition is equally subtle. The stick on which Patience rests his hands is vertical, but he himself leans to the right, his careworn face and body bowed not just by the harshness of Provence, but by poverty and relentless toil. I’m lucky to have gazed on this picture often. I could live with it and never tire of it.
Lord Hindlip is the former chairman of Christie’s. His book, An Auctioneer’s Lot, was published this month.
John McEwen comments on The Old Peasant Patience Escalier:
Van Gogh’s most famous paintings were done in Provence, where he spent only two years—the last of his life, bar the final summer. He left Paris for Arles with a Danish artist, Christian Mourier-Petersen, for the good of his health and pocket and with the dream of founding an artists’ colony.
His first intentions were soon satisfied. In April, he wrote to his ever-supportive younger brother Theo, the Paris-based art dealer: ‘The air here certainly does me good… one effect it has on me is comical enough; one small glass of brandy makes me tipsy here, so… there will be less strain on my constitution.’
The year in Arles proved astonishingly productive—200 paintings and more than 100 drawings and watercolours, among them his Chair and Bedroom in Arles, The Night Café, the ‘sunflowers’ series and this. In mid August, he wrote to Theo: ‘You are shortly to make the acquaintance of Master Patience Escalier… formerly cow-herd of the Camargue, now gardener at a house in the Crau… I do not think it would be an insult to the Lautrec you have to put my peasant beside it… because that sun-steeped, sun-burnt quality, tanned and swept with air, would show up still more beside all that rice powder and elegance.’
Always guilty about the financial burden he imposed on Theo, he wrote: ‘I must reach the point when my pictures will cover what I spend, and even more than that, taking into account so much spent in the past. Well, it will come.’ Never was there a truer word. No painter has more pictures in the 50-most-expensive-ever-sold list.