Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), the Dutch post-impressionist, is one of the most influential figures in Western art. Many say he was a genius.
Van Gogh’s paintings Sunflowers, Cafe Terrace At Night, Irises, and The Starry Night were painted while he was living in the southern French city of Arles. Here I explore Vincent Van Gogh’s works featuring the Langlois Bridge in Arles.
After visits to London and Paris, Van Gogh had travelled south to Arles in February 1888 seeking the sun and colourful landscapes of Provence. I post this on the anniversary of Van Gogh’s arrival in Arles, February 20th. Vincent was fascinated by Japanese prints and had made a large collection with his younger brother, Theo, a Parisian dealer. Upon his arrival, Vincent must have been surprised by a fall of snow, a rarity in the mild but windy climate of the Rhône valley. Vincent wasted little time before he set to work painting and drawing the local scenery and doing portraits whenever he could find willing subjects. Within a month of arrival Vincent discovered a quaint little bridge designed in Holland that must have given him nostalgic memories. The Réginal Bridge was given the name of the bridge keeper, Langlois, which Vincent occasionally mis-spelled as ‘L’Anglais’.
The Langlois Bridge was a pretty Dutch-style drawbridge situated on the Arles-Bouc canal on the outskirts of the city. At Van Gogh’s time, the canal went from the the River Rhône at a point near the western suburb of Roquette to the Port of Bouc. The canal follows the 47-kilometre route of an old Gallo-Roman canal. Its construction began in 1804 as requested by Napoleon Bonaparte. It allowed vessels to avoid the shallow waters of the Rhône delta as they made their way to and from Marseille. Vincent’s first reference to the bridge appears in a letter dated Sunday 18th March 1888 to his friend Émile Bernard:
Perhaps there’d be a real advantage in emigrating to the south for many artists in love with sunshine and colour. The Japanese may not be making progress in their country, but there’s no doubt that their art is being carried on in France. At the top of this letter I’m sending you a little croquis of a study that’s preoccupying me as to how to make something of it — sailors coming back with their sweethearts towards the town, which projects the strange silhouette of its drawbridge against a huge yellow sun.
Vincent continued: “I have another study of the same drawbridge with a group of washerwomen.”
The maps show the canal and bridge today and as they were in Vincent Van Gogh’s era. Note that the position of the canal was diverted in the 20th century to enlargen the entrance at the River Rhöne and make to room for a new autoroute, the N113.
Vincent made several paintings of the Langlois Bridge and also a set of drawings. These works showed different sides of the bridge from the left and right banks of the canal. Here is a work showing the bridge keeper’s house (D) which is known to have been located on the Arles side of the canal as indicated by a photograph taken in 1902. The spire (B) is a well-known landmark in the city.
One of Vincent’s paintings (F400) depicts the bridge in almost exactly the same frame as the photograph above. Vincent’s painting was made in March 1888, during the early part of Spring when the tree was still leafless. The tower (T) in the painting has evidently been masked by a new tree planted between 1888 and 1902 when the photograph was taken.
Vincent was careful to correctly represent the structure and workings of the drawbridge and he made a detailed preparatory drawing. Vincent also made use of a perspective frame, a wooden, mechanical device for scaling the size and position of distant objects in space in a precise manner.
Another of Vincent’s paintings shows two Cypress trees close to the bridge on one side of the canal and the house on the other side (F570). Infrared analysis showed that Vincent had used one of his perspective frames (50 x 45 cm) to precisely delineate the features of the bridge. A small part of the canvas remained unpainted so that one can see a small part of the drawing that lay underneath the rest of the painting, the image of the horse pulling the small carriage.
The bridge itself, the bridge keeper’s house and the Cypress trees are no longer present today. One can reasonably assume they were destroyed before 1931 when a more sturdy bridge was constructed for the increasingly heavy flow of traffic from Arles to Port St Louis.
Vincent’s Different Viewpoints
By researching the terrain surrounding the bridge at the time Vincent made his visits, it has been possible to define Vincent’s different vantage points for his paintings of the bridge. A newly discovered drawing of the bridge given by Vincent to his friend Émile Bernard conforms to the viewpoint looking South. It has been possible to visualize the layout of the terrain and the objects around the bridge as these must have been in 1888.
My drawing of the three viewing positions is shown in the illustration below.
The evidence suggests that Vincent Van Gogh painted the Langlois Bridge landscape as he saw it. Vincent was scrupulously careful to paint what he saw, not what he imagined. The landscape that Vincent knew has changed radically, but it has been possible to re-imagine the scene as he originally encountered it.