A Van Gogh painting has been in the news recently, courtesy of a record value sale for the artwork. The artwork, Vue de l'asile de la Chapelle de Remy, sold for £10,121,250, or $15,991,575, nearly $16 million, if we want to keep things simple. The work was part of the late Elizabeth Taylor’s estate, which notably featured other artworks from artists such as Edgar Degas, Monet, Pissarro and Hals. The Van Gogh, however, was by far the most valuable.

The Vue de l'asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Rémy is an oil on canvas work measuring 45.1 x 60.4 cm, painted in Saint-Rémy in Autumn 1889. It is significant because it was produced during a time when Van Gogh was hoping to recover from his most serious bout of depression, moving from a phase of intense insular confinement on doctor’s orders, to being able to move about freely and re-express his emotions (no doubt a constant balancing act for him). As the notes accompanying the auction piece said: “Vue de l’asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Rémy dates from the period after his recuperation, and clearly captures a sense of the release and joy that he felt, once more able to work out of doors and immersed within nature, and perhaps also increasingly coming to terms with his own condition.”

Van Gogh long sympathised with the common Frenchman (for example, ministering to the coal miners), and he was happy to plunge himself into outdoor activity and peasant work. Autumn was a particularly colourful and welcoming season for him and Vincent found himself encouraged by Mother Nature. This can be seen stylistically in Vue de l'asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Rémy. The glowing palette of his Arles works has evolved to a more multifaceted and sophisticated use of colour, something the artist himself consciously noted in a letter to Theo, his beloved brother. “What I dream of in my best moments aren’t so much dazzling colour effects as the half-tones once again. But in these half-tones what choice and what quality!”

Thus the work Vue de l'asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Rémy plays a crucial part in Van Gogh’s oeuvre, an almost evolutionary plank in the evolving stages of his style. The artist understood that greater subtlety and accuracy could be found, even in the common scenes of rural and rugged Arles. Another crucial aspect of Arles was its light intensity and brilliance and Van Gogh would approach light with much the same fervour and respect as the Impressionists. We’ll borrow again from the Christie’s lot notes for words from the horse’s mouth: (Van Gogh, letter 800 to Theo, 5 & 6 September 1889, ibid., p. 82).

“My dear brother, you know that I came to the south and threw myself into work for a thousand reasons. To want to see another light, to believe that looking at nature under a brighter sky can give us a more accurate idea of the Japanese way of feeling and drawing. Wanting, finally, to see the stronger sun, because one feels that without knowing it one couldn't understand the paintings of Delacroix from the point of view of execution, technique, and because one feels that the colours of the prism are veiled in mist in the north”.  Vue de l'asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Rémy was thus the important culmination of intellectual rigour and the fusing of Japanese style, French sentiment, raw Dutch talent and the artist’s admiration for his artistic model, Delacroix.