Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), L’Allée des Alyscamps, 1888, oil on canvas, on sale at Sotheby’s in New York on 5 May 2015, lot 18, www.sothebys.com
The stellar lot of the Impressionist and Modern Art sale at Sotheby’s on 5 May last was this beautiful landscape with an estimated sale price of over USD 40 million! An exorbitant amount for the common man, yet expected by the experts from the auction house who sold two Van Goghs of that same period last year. In February 2014, Man is at Sea (1889) was sold in London for USD 27.5 million, while Vase with Daisies and Poppies (1890) went for … USD 61.8 million in New York in November 2014 – the highest price ever for a Van Gogh still life.
Regardless of this highly mediatised auction spectacular – public auctions of such rare paintings of this calibre by one of the top artists whose works get the highest prices are exceedingly rare! – this painting has unique qualities. First of all, its subject, L’Allée des Alyscamps, dates back to the period when Van Gogh was living in Arles, painting the light of the Provence using a lush palette in which the fiery tones of orange, yellow and red were contrasting with the cool blue sky. An important, ancient Roman necropolis located outside the walls of Arles, les Alyscamps is a recurring subject in several works by Van Gogh, and also by Gauguin. Both artists actually worked side by side during the autumn of 1888, before violent conflicts arose which made them break up. Gauguin left France for the South Pacific and Van Gogh performed an act of self-mutilation, as depicted in his self-portraits with bandaged ear (1889).
L’Allée des Alyscamps was painted before this crisis, in a creative, inspiring, exciting period when the two men were working together in this historic place, which had become a popular lovers’ lane and parade ground for fashionable people, as can be seen in the painting. Dubbed Allée des Tombeaux, the promenade is lined with a double row of trees as well as the ruins of sarcophagi, clearly visible on the painting. In this scene, the beau monde is nonchalantly strolling through the grounds amidst the blaze of colours. The perspective is breath-taking, the brush strokes are powerful and the subject matter is rich. This is a prosperous period in Van Gogh’s career, resulting in several of his most famous works like L’Arlesienne, Sunflowers, The Night Café and many self-portraits dating from 1888, which can now be admired in the world’s top museums. We truly hope that one of these museums is also the destination of Les Alyscamps…