Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) painted his Portrait of a Peasant (Patience Escalier) in August 1888 during a highly productive fifteen-month stay in Arles in southern France. The opportunity to display this work in New York was the result of a special exchange program between the Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, and The Frick Collection and marked the first time in forty years that the painting had left its home institution.
From the early years of his career in the Netherlands, Van Gogh thought of himself as a “peasant painter.” With his many images of rural laborers in dark, earthen tones, he sought to dignify their modest lives and to associate himself with a long tradition of peasant depictions that stretched from the Old Masters to the nineteenth-century French artist Jean-François Millet. Following a two-year period in Paris, where he adopted the bright palette and rapid, visible brushwork of the Impressionists, Van Gogh left for Arles. He envisioned the Provençal city as an exotic place—in his words, a “Japan in France.” Enraptured by the vivid colors and limpid light of the south, he painted brilliantly colored landscapes in and around Arles. His deeper interest, however, lay in portraiture, and he set out to paint a series of distinctive types of the region. His portrait of Patience Escalier, a gardener and former oxherd from the marshlands of the nearby Camargue, brought him back to his early interest in rural laborers. In this work, color and emphatic brushwork take on greater importance.
In Arles Vincent turned away from the lessons of Impressionism in pursuit of more forceful expression in his paintings. In his Portrait of a Peasant he exploits the power of contrasting colors and the tactility of paint to capture the essential qualities of the man and his environment. Van Gogh depicts his rustic subject in the sun-drenched colors of Provence at the height of summer. The brilliant yellow straw hat brings to mind the blazing sun; the vivid blue background the midday sky; and the cool green jacket the lush vegetation. The ridges and hollows and burnt golden color of the man’s weathered face recall the scorched earth, evoking, in Vincent’s own words, “the very furnace of harvest time, deep in the south."