Eternal Patience .
  Resource:wsj   2012-11-26 09:10:45  

A suntanned traveler from Southern California is currently residing in the Frick Collection, thanks to an exchange program between that august New York institution and the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif. Vincent van Gogh's "Portrait of a Peasant," one of two paintings and several drawings of the rough-hewn Patience Escalier that he produced in 1888 in the southern French city of Arles, attests in astonishingly original form to the Dutch artist's ambition to capture in his portraits of rural types the fortitude and quintessential character of the common people of the countryside. To many in late 19th-century France, these rugged denizens of the provinces represented the moral bedrock of the Third Republic.

Escalier was a former oxherd from the Camargue, a region of salt marshes and miry ranch lands that stretches south from Arles to the sea, who toiled in his old age at a farm in the Crau, a rocky area east of Arles immortalized by van Gogh in his landscapes. In letters to his brother, Theo, the painter described his humble subject as a real-life embodiment of the heroic workers who had figured in the pastoral paintings of Jean-François Millet, and as a continuation of his own sober studies of solitary Dutch laborers executed earlier in the 1880s, before he moved to France. The highly literate Van Gogh also drew on such realist novels as Emile Zola's controversial "La Terre," published the year before, which traced the bitter realities of rural life that wedded its rustic inhabitants to the soil.

The painter feared, however, that Parisian viewers would see in his charged, emotional portraits from Arles ("paintings in clogs," he called them, using Millet's words) only caricature or exaggeration, rather than the collective portrayal of humanity in which he hoped to convey, with radiant light and vibrant color, a sense of the eternal.

Van Gogh left Paris for Provence in February 1888, and left behind the naturalism of the Impressionists' optically oriented painting for a new art of flattened forms, emphatic brushwork and potent, Symbolist palettes. "I use color more arbitrarily," he explained to his fellow painter, the poet Eugène Boch, "in order to express myself forcefully." Although it was the panoramic landscape of the South that first drew van Gogh to Arles, which he envisioned as a sweeping, sun-drenched paradise like the exotic world he knew from Japanese woodblock prints, the rigorous terrain and brilliant light of the Midi would shape his portraits there as well as his plein-air views. His paintings of Escalier offer a case in point.

Van Gogh relished the opportunity to paint his subject late that summer, as he explained to Boch, "in the very furnace of harvest time, deep in the south. Hence the oranges, blazing like red-hot iron, hence the old gold tones, glowing in the darkness." The peasant is pictured as one with his Provençal environs.

Susan Grace Galassi, the Frick senior curator who coordinated the painting's presentation in New York, has beautifully described how thick furrows and ridges of paint model Escalier's craggy, weathered face as if it were a landscape, and how the figure's domed, yellow straw hat serves as a blazing, surrogate sun against a contrasting field of cobalt and darker Prussian blues. Van Gogh's heavily impastoed, basketweave strokes, which defy the delicate touches and decorative stippling of his Impressionist peers, make that dense sky palpable. In contrast, the green smock that defines Escalier's torso is evoked with thinner bands of pale blue, emerald and zinc white. The figure's chin is framed with discrete strokes of green, a touch of yellow paint crusts on his lip. Above, a bold lemon stripe and a lighter one in green that the painter Henri Matisse would appreciate streak down the ridge of his nose. We hardly notice Escalier's impossibly projecting shoulder at left, lightly traced with a squiggly blue line, or the absence of a corresponding limb at right, because our attention is focused on the face at dead-center that stares out at us. Concentric circles of paint that surround Escalier's hollowed eyes and touches of molten red in their inner corners make his gaze inescapable, even hypnotic; it freezes us into place before him. With the bold vermillion outline that van Gogh often used to secure his figures amid a maelstrom of tactile paintstrokes, he renders his subject iconic.

In such emotive paintings of rural types that are threaded through Van Gogh's brief but prolific career, the intensity of his empathy and enthusiasm for these remnants of a preindustrial world is captured with unmatched power. The unmodulated, saturated tones and vehement handling of paint that characterize the Pasadena painting seem to reflect in raw pictorial terms what drew van Gogh repeatedly to his subject: In a letter about Escalier written that same August to the artist Emile Bernard, he marveled at "how much of the wild animal there is when you come across someone pure-bred." Yet, as conservators at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles have recently shown, the painting's emotional impact was carefully calculated, its composition built up over a charcoal underdrawing in repeated studio sessions that allowed each sequential layer of pigment to dry. And in a letter to Theo written once the canvas was completed, van Gogh included a meticulous drawing after the portrait that underscored his deliberate process and composition, and even suggested that the painting could hold its own in an exhibition of more stylish Parisian types.

Although landscapes and still lifes still emanated from his studio in the South, van Gogh resolved, as he wrote to Theo, to become to figure painting what Claude Monet was to landscape: It "is the only thing that moves me deeply, and that gives me a sense of the infinite."

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