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Vincent van Gogh painted this picture soon after his release from the hospital, where he was recovering from the disastrous final days of Paul Gauguin’s stay with him in Arles. In a long letter to his brother Theo posted January 23, 1889, he mentions creating this painting alongside several other issues, including the need to make money through picture sales. He likely had the market in mind in painting this still life.
The painter was clearly attracted to the shapes and hues of the citrus fruit arrayed in the wicker basket, and the way their varied orb shapes play against the weave of the dried sticks, the whole set off by the prickly needles of the cypress branches. Van Gogh refers in his letter to an “air of chic” in this picture, prompted perhaps by the inclusion of blue garden gloves. The painting reveals the artist’s extraordinarily original sense of color, as well as his richly expressive paint application as he struggles to evoke the nubby waxen skin of the various fruits, the spiky fur of the branches, and the limp material of the worn gloves.
In the letter to Theo, the artist also describes the melancholic departure of his close friend Joseph Roulin, who was temporarily leaving his family for a new post in Marseilles, and reports a particularly touching moment during which the father bounced his newborn daughter Marcelle on his knee. Van Gogh would return to the hospital within the month following a second mental breakdown.
With its reference to pruning and fruit gathering, the painting was likely a particular favorite of Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, who with her husband Paul Mellon bought the picture in 1962. Bunny Mellon was an ardent horticulturalist, landscape designer, and collector of rare garden books. Although her husband gave the painting to the National Gallery of Art in 1999, she lived with the picture hanging in her home until her own death in March 2014.