In front of this picture one has all kinds of thoughts, and to someone absorbed in it many questions occur, questions at once so simple and so strange and so disconcerting that they seem to be unanswerable. In the picture, many questions find their finest, most subtle, most delicate significance–which is that they cannot be answered. When, for instance, a lover asks his lady, “Can I still have hopes?” and she doesn’t answer, then this absence of an answer sometime signifies a heavenly Yes. That is how it is with everything that puzzles us, everything great, and here is a picture full of puzzles, full of greatness, full of deep and beautiful questions, and likewise full of deep, majestic, and beautiful answers. It is a wonderful picture, and one is amazed that a human being of the nineteenth century was capable of painting it, for it really is painted as if a primitive Christian master had been its author.
As grand as it is simple, as gripping as it is calm, as humble as it is ravishingly beautiful- such is the picture of the woman of Arles, whom one would like to approach without fluster, as a supplicant, with the question: ‘Tell me, have you suffered much?’ One moment it is the portrait of woman as such, and then again it is the picture of life’s cruel riddle in the shape of the woman who served as the painter’s model, his model woman.
Everything in the picture is painted with the same solemn Catholicism, the same unswervingly faithful, earnest, and austere love, the sleeve as much as the headgear, the chair as the red-rimmed eyes, the hand as much as the features, and the mysterious, powerful stroke and flourish of the brush are altogether so leonine that one cannot help but feel, before something so titanic, defenseless. And yet it is still just a picture of a woman in everyday life, and precisely this mysterious quality is that the grandeur that grips and shakes you. The background of the picture is like the inevitability of hard fate itself. Here a human being is pictured exactly as she lives, breathes, has her being as necessity long ago accustomed her to emotions she must quietly keep to herself, while she has to endure, set on one side, and overcome. One wants to caress her cheeks, this long- suffering woman. The heart tells one to take off one’s hat before the picture, stand there uncovered,as when one enters the sacred vault of a church. And isn’t it strange, yet really not strange, how the painter who suffered so much (for he did) came to paint the long-suffering woman? She must have appealed to him immediately, boundlessly, and then he painted her. This being, cruelly treated by the world and by fate, who now has perhaps become cruel herself, was a sudden, immense experience for him, an adventure through the soul. Also I’ve heard people say that he painted her several times.
The subject, Marie Jullian (or Julien), was born in Arles June 8, 1848 and died there August 2, 1911. She married Joseph-Michel Ginoux in 1866 and together they ran the Café de la Gare, 30 Place Lamartine, where Van Gogh lodged from May to mid-September 1888. He had the Yellow House in Arles furnished to settle there.
Evidently until this time, Van Gogh’s relations to M. and Mme. Ginoux had remained more or less commercial (the café is the subject of The Night Café), but Gauguin‘s arrival in Arles altered the situation. His courtship charmed the lady, then about 40 years of age, and in the first few days of November 1888 (November 1, or more probably November 2) Madame Ginoux agreed to have a portrait session for Paul Gauguin, and his friend Van Gogh. Within an hour, Gauguin produced a charcoal drawing while Vincent produced a full-scale painting, “knocked off in one hour”
< Vincent van Gogh, L’Arlésienne, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo
While in the asylum at Saint-Rémy, Van Gogh painted another five portraits of Madame Ginoux, based on Gauguin‘s charcoal drawing of November 1888. Of these, one was intended for Gauguin, one for his brother Theo, one for himself and one for Madame Ginoux. (…)
In a letter to his sister Wil, dated 5 June 1890, Vincent set out his philosophy for doing portraits:
“I should like to do portraits which will appear as revelations to people in a hundred years’ time. In other words I am not trying to achieve this by photographic likeness but by rendering our impassioned expressions, by using our modern knowledge and appreciation of colour as a means of rendering and exalting character … The portrait of the Arlésienne has a colourless and matt flesh tone, the eyes are calm and very simple, the clothing is black, the background pink, and she is leaning on a green table with green books. But in the copy that Theo has, the clothing is pink, the background yellowy-white, and the front of the open bodice is muslin in a white that merges into green. Among all these light colours, only the hair, the eyelashes and the eyes form black patches.”
< Vincent van Gogh, L’Arlésienne, São Paulo Museum of Art