At the end of May in 1888 Vincent van Gogh visited the little fishing village of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer at the Mediterranean Sea. During his one-week-stay he created three paintings and several drawings. One of these paintings, a seascape, gave a good opportunity to find out more about the artist’s practice and the conditions in which he painted when working outside.
Comparing Fishing boats at sea with the Girl in the wood from 1882, it becomes evident that the artist’s skills had progressed very well since his first en plein air painting campaign six years earlier.
The absence of an underdrawing for example indicates that Vincent had no difficulty in transferring the subject onto the canvas. In a letter that he wrote once back in Arles he proudly reports to his brother Theo that he created one of the drawings in Saintes-Maries within one hour and without the perspective frame. We therefore assume that Van Gogh deliberately left this device back in Arles knowing that he would be able to manage without this helping tool.
From another letter we also know that Vincent was fascinated by the colours of the Mediterranean Sea ‘… the Mediterranean – has a colour like mackerel, in other words, changing – you don’t always know if it’s green or purple – you don’t always know if it’s blue – because a second later, its changing reflection has taken on a pink or grey hue’.
When I was on holiday at the Mediterranean a couple of years ago I took this photo – and indeed we can clearly see all the colours which Van Gogh describes and which he implemented so successfully in this painting.
Next to the different shades of the water, ochre coloured brush strokes indicate the sand being swirled up from the ground by the water and stringy white paint impressively imitates the spray of the waves.
I am also very fascinated by the way Van Gogh convincingly created the impression of light falling through the transparent water of the waves: he exploits the even surface of a palette knife to thin the paint layers in order to let the white ground shine through from underneath.
But how do we actually know that this painting was really painted outside and not later once Van Gogh had returned to Arles? He could have for example painted it in his studio using a drawing that he had made in Saintes-Maries for inspiration.
Just as in Girl in the wood, physical evidence was found directly in the paint layers. Except, I did not find leaves but – of course suiting a seascape – countless tiny sand grains, which are trapped in the still wet paint layers.
It must have been quite a windy day on the beach when Van Gogh painted this painting. We were wondering whether he was bothered by all the sand being blown onto his picture, but it doesn’t seem like it as there is no evidence of trying to remove the sand.
I even think that Van Gogh must have been quite satisfied with his result – after all he decided to place a large bright red signature in the foreground of the painting!