Painting Mondays: Van Gogh, a Stagecoach to the Sea, and a Gypsy Caravan

In the summer of 1888, Vincent van Gogh took a stagecoach trip to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, a tiny fishing village on the Mediterranean Sea. Inspired by the views and an encounter with gypsies, three of the paintings in Vincent, Theo and the Fox come from that one-week visit.

Vincent, Theo and the Fox, is a story about Vincent van Gogh and growing up (for ages 4-10). It is illustrated with 30 of van Gogh’s paintings. Some readers want to know more about the paintings, so, on Mondays, I blog about them. Today, there are three to discuss.

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“At first, the fox loved the rocking of his boat and the snap of wind in the sails…”

 

 

During the time van Gogh was living in Arles, he made a trip to Saintes-Maries, to recuperate from health-problems and to make some seaside paintings. In May or June of 1888, when he made the trip, the village had less than 100 houses. According to Lucina Ward, International Art Curator for the National Gallery of Australia, the area “was still a sterile salty plain of lagoons and marshes, populated by flamingos, wild bulls and white horses.” Van Gogh was fascinated with the changing colors of the water. He wrote that the “Mediterranean Sea is a mackerel color: in other words, changeable – you do not always know whether it is green or purple, you do not always know if it is blue, as the next moment the ever-changing sheen has assumed a pink or a gray tint” (quote found in Saintes-Maries (Van Gogh series).

The painting above, Seascape at Saintes-Maries, and the one below, Fishing Boats on the Beach at Saintes-Marie, illustrate an early part of the story of Vincent, Theo and the Fox. As young boys, Vincent and his brother, Theo, are chasing a fox to save the creature from a farmer. Before they can catch him, the quick-witted animal manages to steal a boat. Like Vincent and Theo, the fox is young and trying to learn his way in the world. At first, the furry creature thinks he might become a sailor. But it doesn’t take long for the fox to realize he does not belong at sea. The paintings illustrate this part of the story.

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“When the boat drifted to shore the fox jumped out and started running.”

 

The village of Saintes-Maries is named after the three Marys of the Bible (Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome, and Mary Jacobe). It was (and still is) significant to the Romany gypsies of Europe. Each year they make a pilgrimage to the village to honor Saint Sarah (sometimes known as Black Sara). Believed to be the Egyptian servant of the three Marys, she is their patron saint. Van Gogh encountered the gypsies there. Later, after returning to Arles, he made today’s third painting (below), Encampment of Gypsies with Caravans.

This painting comes near the end of the story. Vincent and Theo see the fox find happiness only after he tried–and failed at–different occupations. Young Vincent starts to think about what he will be when he grows up and what he will try as he grows. The range of “respectable” choices is overwhelming and, mentally, Vincent needs a break–a break only fantasies of gypsies can supply.

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“For a short time Vincent even thought about running away to join a gypsy camp.”

 

 

We don’t know how much van Gogh interacted with any of the gypsies during his sojourn to Saintes-Maries but he was undoubtedly drawn to their romantic lifestyle. Like him, they were socially ostracized. To quote Lucina Ward once more, in the gypsy caravan:

“the frieze of figures, vehicles and horses…seems designed to emphasise the flatness of the landscape. Only the tree at right and the scrubby vegetation at left offer refuge from the sun. The empty foreground adds to the feeling of harsh desolation, a suggestion, perhaps, of the peripheral position of gypsy people. The intensity of the light suggests the glorious palette of works to come…”

Three wonderful paintings and more to come as we explore van Gogh’s world. Stay tuned!

– Ted Macaluso

Ted Macaluso writes books for kids that make art more fun. Born in Brooklyn, he was a successful researcher on child nutrition and hunger before turning full-time to writing. His book, Vincent, Theo and the Fox, is a fictional adventure about the young Vincent van Gogh that teaches about growing up and learning from failure (for ages 4 – 10) . He now lives in Reston, Virginia with his wife, son, and kind hearted dog. Find out more at tedmacaluso.com.

Text © 2016 by Ted Macaluso. May be freely reproduced provided attribution back to tedmacaluso.com is included.

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