first published in As It Ought To Be, August 5, 2009


The Painter on the Road to Tarascon by Vincent van Gogh, 1888.


Laden with his brushes and props, one is struck by the spring in his step, his single-minded purpose. Yet anticipation hovers over the Provencal landscape, for one cannot help but guess what subject the painter will capture later this day. Straw hat firmly on his head, blazing sunlight cascading over the path… One can get thirsty looking at this painting.

But the thick, seemingly wet paint, masks an unexpected truth: The painting does not exist. For though the artist painted it, only technology, the very thing that today spoils the once calm rural landscape depicted, allows us to still view the painting. The original was lost during WW II, believed destroyed when Allied forces bombed Magdeburg, setting fire to the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum where it was housed.

Striding along a row of trees the painter is alone, but for the presence of his shadow that figures prominently in the lower right foreground of the canvas. His bold walking companion could easily pass for a bullfighter, but now runs alongside and only barely keeps up with his friend to whom he’s tethered.

Wearing a broad-brimmed yellow hat and carrying a camp stool and easel strapped to his back, rolled canvas also, and walking cane in his left hand… the painter on the road to Tarascon cuts the very image of the plein-air painter…off to find his ground, to peer at the world from. Painted in July 1888, it prefigures so much for Vincent van Gogh. Within a month Paul Gauguin will join him in Arles. By the end of the year he will suffer his first seizure, and within two years he will both sell his first painting in Brussels, and fatally shoot himself in the chest at Auvers-sur-Oise. Dead at the age of thirty-seven.

This rural thoroughfare then, running north from Arles to Tarascon, is his last peace before so much turmoil envelopes and overtakes him. But that is later… I believe the painter on the road to Tarascon to be content.

Vincent Van Gogh, The Road to Tarascon, pen and reed pen on paper, 1888. Collection of the Guggenheim Museum.

Vincent Van Gogh, Self-portrait with Straw Hat, oil on canvas, 16″ x 12.5″, 1887. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


  1. Kim Knox

    Nice write up, Matt. And it’s nice to have the opportunity to focus on a time that Van Gough was content. I think that there were times while he was a minister in Belgium, when he was happy as well-his paintings of that time reflected some joy.

  2. christian young

    when i was in a pennsylvania state hospital, the doctor asked me all these academic questions, and i couldn’t give correct answers, but there was one question i did know, and it was about van gough. and the doctor said to me, “yes you are bright.” it was a question about the painter’s mental health.

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