GOGH, Vincent van
(b. 1853, Groot Zundert, d. 1890, Auvers-sur-Oise)

L'Arlésienne: Madame Ginoux with Books

November 1888, Arles
Oil on canvas, 91 x 74 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Catalogue numbers: F 488, JH 1624.

Van Gogh's major ambition throughout his artistic career was to be a painter of the figure. He was hindered from realizing this desire by the inadequacy of his artistic education; he had not studied anatomy and other related academic preliminaries to a sufficient degree. Nor was he always able to afford to pay for the hire of models. Despite these drawbacks portraiture became an increasingly important component of his artistic production and a plank in his programme for modern art.

Madame Joseph-Michel Ginoux (Marie Julien, 1848–1911) was the proprietress of the Café de la Gare, where Van Gogh lived in Arles between May and September 1888, before he rent and moved into the nearby Yellow House.

Van Gogh has painted this woman of Arles, resplendent in her local costume - itself reminiscent of the costume of Dutch seventeenth-century burgher ladies - in the format typical of Frans Hals's and Rembrandt's portraits, against a plain background. Gauguin had drawn Madame Ginoux too and van Gogh made a painted copy of his portrait in 1890, but he included two books, as he had in his own 1888 version. In the latter the titles are legible; one is Dickens' Christmas Tales and the other Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. This practice was to become frequent in van Gogh's portraiture. He relied on the added meanings introduced by literature to raise the portrait from a mere record of likeness to the desired status of figure painting.