A Mysterious Tower in Vincent van Gogh’s Painting of Langlois Bridge, 1888

In an earlier post, I discussed Vincent van Gogh’s works at Langlois Bridge, Arles. Of particular interest is the painting F400 that includes an as-yet unidentified tower ‘T’ on the right hand side of the painting. The illustration below shows a photograph taken in 1902, which does not show the tower ‘T’, together with the relevant section of the painting.

What and where was tower T?

In an interesting comment, Yves Klein suggests two hypotheses to explain the building marked ‘T’. Yves Klein comments:

“1) VvG painted St. Trophime but overestimated its appearance because painting F400 was not accomplished outdoor with a permanent view of the object, but in his studio, using memory and imagination. We know from letter 589 that it was the second attempt after a failure. This time, VvG turned the perspective about 30° anti-clockwise. He gave the black building a size and a shape that he *imagined* to appear if he were on-site. The grey second edge on the left of the building may stand for the north tower of the amphitheatre in the background. The oblique black brush stroke may stand for the main nave of the church. Maybe even the whole is exceptionally meant as a symbolic placeholder for the vaguely imagined buildings.”

In my opinion, tower T is not St Trophime. If VvG had wanted to paint St Trophime he would have done so with precision and exactitude. Turning to the second hypothesis:

“2) VvG painted a building with the correct size and shape, as he usually strived to do, but it was not St. Trophime. “[Agree].
“a. It could be the municipal theatre (though its shape is rather unsimilar)” [Agreed – too unsimilar to receive serious attention.] “or a windmill (though no city map from 1848 to 1914 shows one).” [I return to this idea below].
“b. Or it could be a building that existed at VvG‘s time but has now disappeared: Ste. Croix.”

Yves Klein says: “Seen from VvG’s position in the south, it had a zagged silhouette like the black building in the painting. ..In this scenario, we would identify
B = St. Césaire, J = St. Laurent, T = Ste. Croix.

An engraving of St Croix from 1683:

In my opinion, tower T is unlikely to have been Saint Croix. If VvG had wanted to paint St Croix, I think that he would have painted it much more exactly. But he did not. What VvG seems to have painted is a rough sketch of a building that itself appears unfinished.

Was Tower T a Windmill?

Wooden and stone windmills were a common site around Arles in the late 19th century. Only stone mills survived more than several decades and wooden windmills were not always depicted on maps. We can find clues about the structures in and around Arles in other paintings produced by VvG. The painting ‘Snowy Landscape with Arles in the Background’ (1888) shows almost every tall building in Arles in the early Spring of 1888, just a few weeks before he painted Langlois Bridge.

Snowy Landscape with Arles in the Background (1888)

Many of the structures shown here are possible candidates for tower T. Of particular interest are the three towers on the far right hand side of the painting. These are enlarged and labelled ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ in the detail below.

Notice that both B and C show an oblique chute-like structure going down from the right side of each building. These are reminiscent of tower T at Langlois Bridge. The prominence of structure A also cannot be ignored.

One problem with this hypothesis that we do not know from which direction VvG painted this scene.

A map of Arles from 1892 shows the location of the ‘Langlois Bridge’ and the surrounding area, which remained agricultural. No large buildings that could have been candidates for tower T existed near the bridge, only fields.

Le port d’Arles, 1892. Atlas des ports de France. Imprimerie Sarasin, Paris.

Conclusion

Unless a high definition map can be found showing every mill and tower in Arles of 1888, the identity of tower T must forever remain a mystery.

Published by dfmarks

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