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Elizabeth Taylor’s Van Gogh back on the market - w...

In May 1889 a new patient arrived at a small private hospital for the mentally ill in the French countryside. His state of mind was turbulent, so much so that he was not permitted to leave the grounds of the institution, a former Augustinian monastery situated near the town of Saint-Rémy de Provence.

Nor - at first - was he allowed to paint. As the months passed, however, his condition improved and he began to depict what he could see through the barred window of his room: an enclosed wheat field, bathed in sunlight.

The patient was Vincent Van Gogh. He had admitted himself to the hospital in the hope that his health would stabilise, but despite periods of calm he was still suffering catastrophic seizures of the kind which had led him, following a violent argument with Paul Gauguin, to mutilate his own ear.

During his year at Saint-Rémy Van Gogh painted scores of landscapes, among them one of his most famous works, The Starry Night. Many focus on the cypresses and olive trees of the hospital gardens; some are portraits of people at the asylum. Just one, Vue de l’asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Rémy, portrays the chapel and its adjacent buildings from the outside looking in.

This is because the painter had begun to take short, supervised walks and, by the autumn of 1889, was given permission to work outdoors.

“There are moments when nature is superb, autumnal effects glorious in colour, green skies contrasting with yellow, orange, green vegetation, earth in all shades of violet,” Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo. “Things that make you quite melancholy not to be able to render them.”

He probably painted Vue de l’asile soon afterwards, setting up his easel outdoors under the watchful eye of an asylum attendant, working quickly to capture the transitional half light.

Within a year Van Gogh would be dead. The painting was first shown at a retrospective exhibition held in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1905; two years later Paul Cassirer, a leading German gallerist, bought it from Theo Van Gogh’s widow.

In 1963, Vue de l’asile was bought by the English art dealer Francis Taylor, who paid £92,000 for the painting. It was purchased on behalf of his daughter – Elizabeth Taylor – who was mostly interested in collecting jewellery but also acquired a number of important artworks. One can only assume she empathised with the intense humanity of the painting, whose serene luminosity conceals the tragedy of Van Gogh’s illness and death, for it hung in the living room of her Bel Air home until her own death in 2011.

When Christie’s auctioned Taylor’s estate in 2012, the Van Gogh fetched just over £10 million (€11.3 million). On May 15th, Vue de l’asile will be offered in the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale at Christie’s in New York, alongside works by Marc Chagall and Ferdinand Leger. Estimate? A cool $35 million (€29 million). See

Source: Michael Parsons