During the years preceding his suicide in 1890, Vincent van Gogh suffered increasingly frequent attacks of mental distress, the cause of which remains unclear. Mountains at Saint-Rémy was painted in July 1889, when van Gogh was recovering from just such an episode at the hospital of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole in the southern French town of Saint-Rémy. The painting represents the Alpilles, a low range of mountains visible from the hospital grounds. In it, van Gogh activated the terrain and sky with the heavy impasto and bold, broad brushstrokes characteristic of his late work.
Van Gogh advocated painting from nature rather than inventing a motif from the imagination. On a personal level, he felt that painting outdoors would help to restore his health, a sentiment he often voiced when writing to his brother, Theo. He mentioned this painting several times in his letters, relating it to a passage from Edouard Rod’s Le Sens de la vie. In one note he wrote, “I rather like the ‘Entrance to a Quarry’—I was doing it when I felt this attack coming on—because to my mind the somber greens go well with the ocher tones; there is something sad in it which is healthy, and that is why it does not bore me. Perhaps that is true of the ‘Mountain’ too. They will tell me that mountains are not like that and that there are black outlines of a finger’s width. But after all it seemed to me it expressed the passage in Rod’s book . . . about a desolate country of somber mountains, among which are some dark goatherds’ huts where sunflowers are blooming.”
Nature had a quasi-religious or transcendental significance for van Gogh. Unlike the earlier Impressionists, who often painted urban life, the artist felt that the city, in particular Paris, was a place of iniquity, inherently unhealthful. In the face of industrialization and modernization (the Eiffel Tower was built the same year that this canvas was painted), van Gogh longed nostalgically for a rural environment peopled with good-natured, God-fearing peasants such as those painted by Jean-François Millet, one of his heroes. This utopian ideal, based on a belief in the regenerative capacity of a “primitive” culture, was shared by van Gogh’s friend Paul Gauguin, who sought redemption farther from home, among the people of Tahiti.
Disillusioned with Parisian artists’ café society and the oppressive gloom of the urban winter, Vincent van Gogh left Paris in mid-February 1888 to find rejuvenation in the healthy atmosphere of sun-drenched Arles. When he stepped off the train in the southern city, however, he was confronted by a snowy landscape, the result of a record cold spell. Undaunted, van Gogh paintedLandscape with Snow around February 24, when the snow had mostly melted, just prior to a new inundation.¹ The artist implies the patchy coverage of the snow through daubs of brown paint and by leaving areas of the canvas to the brilliant illumination and feverish colors of the summer harvest paintings van Gogh made later in the year. Here, instead, he presents the looming, purplish light of an impending snowstorm.
A great admirer of Japanese art, van Gogh went to Arles hoping to establish an artistic community in an environment commensurate with his Oriental ideal. He wrote to his brother, Theo, from Arles, “But for my part I foresee that other artists will want to see color under a stronger sun, and in a more Japanese clarity of light.”² This painting may have been inspired by the snowy scenes common to the Japanese prints van Gogh avidly collected, but it also follows conventions of seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painting in its gradation of color from dark greens and browns framing the foreground to blue sky in the distance, and through the diagonal recession of the road in the snowy landscape. But, unlike Dutch panoramas with their broad expanse of sky, the present work shows van Gogh concentrating on the terrain between where he stands and the bright red-roofed cottage in the distance. He paints the scene from a perspective immersed in the landscape, on the same plane as the black-hatted man and bowlegged dog trudging along the path.
This canvas and a similar one painted a day or so later, Snowy Landscape with Arles in the Background (private collection, London), are less detailed than the more elaborate and descriptive landscapes van Gogh made a few months later, thus suggesting the artist’s tentative approach to his recently chosen home.