The Tale and Trail of Tarascon Diligence

Sonny Hardman, M.D.

Fig 1: Vincent (left) and Theo (right) Van Gogh

Writing to his brother Theo in 1888, Vincent Van Gogh confided that “The emotions are sometimes so strong that one works without being aware of working … and the strokes come with a sequence and coherence like work in a speech or a letter.” Vincent moved from Paris to Arles intending to paint without interruptions so that he could sell a few paintings, any painting, to help offset the continual financial support provided by Theo. Vincent used some of the money given to him by Theo to rent a small section of a house in Arles made famous by his painting “The Yellow House”. Desperately lonely and longing for companionship, he pleaded with Paul Gauguin to come to Arles and live in his house. Gauguin very reluctantly agreed. In preparation for his arrival, Vincent, in a frenzied state, completed 15 paintings, five of those simultaneously begun and completed in just five days. One of those five paintings was Tarascon Diligence (Fig. 3). When finished, he hung all of the paintings throughout the house so to impress Gauguin upon his arrival.

In keeping with his painting habits, Vincent was also a frenzied avid reader of numerous technical books and novels, many of which were re-read several times. Continuing in his letter, Vincent asks Theo “Have you reread Tartarin yet? Do you remember that wonderful page in Tartarin, the complaint of the old Tarascon diligence?

Figure 2: Sketch of the stagecoaches in the letter to Theo

Well, I have just painted that red and green vehicle in the courtyard of the inn.” The novel he spoke of was Tartarin of Tarascon, actually a series of comic novels written by Alphonse Daudet and published in 1872 about a fictitious hapless, down-and-out clown who lived in Tarascon. Tarascon is a small village about 10 miles outside of Arles. One of the scenes from this series depicts a dream sequence in which Diligence or stagecoach is transported to Northern Africa to be used as transportation for traveling Arabians. In the dream, the Arabians did not use Diligence after all and as a result, it quickly fell into a state of disrepair and eventually was dismantled for firewood. Which brings us back to the painting. The scene shows two stagecoaches in different stages of disrepair which some believe symbolizes the sadness and loneliness and despair Vincent felt throughout his life.

Figure 3: Tarascon Diligence, 1988

Tarascon Diligence is a rather large painting measuring 72 x 92 cm. Vincent painted it in a single afternoon in October of 1888. It consists of a linen support primed with lead white. He applied paint directly on the canvas from the tube. In the same letter, Vincent describes the painting as having “a simple foreground of gray gravel,… pink and yellow walls, with windows with green shutters, and a patch of blue sky. The two carriages very brightly colored, green and red, the wheels yellow, black blue and orange.” Through the use of x-ray fluorescence analysis, most if not all of the pigments used by Vincent in this painting were cobalt blue, chrome orange, chrome yellow, white lead, emerald green, vermilion and a dash of ultramarine. The result is a brilliantly illuminated impasto masterpiece.

As with a rare fine wine, a painting’s importance and value rests predominantly within its provenance. In this case, provenance is well established by virtue of several well-preserved letters. After completing Tarascon Diligence, Vincent shipped the painting to Theo in Paris. Theo in turned consigned it to Julien Tanguy. Tanguy sold the painting to Medardo Rosso, an Italian sculptor, who then hung it in his art studio. Because of so many complaints from his patrons concerning the painting, Rosso removed it from his studio and placed it in his attic. In 1895, he gifted the painting to his friend, Milo Beretta, a fellow sculptor and painter who then carried it with him on his return to his native country, Uruguay. After Beretta died, his daughters knowing that the painting was valuable put it in a bank vault in Montevideo until they agreed to sell it to a local art dealer. In 1950, Henry Pearlman, a well-connected and avid art collector from New York, received word that Tarascon Diligence was available. Through relatively smooth negotiations, he acquired the painting from an art dealer visiting from Buenos Aires. From that time forward, it has remained in The Henry and Rose Pearlman Foundation collection currently on extended loan to the Princeton University Art Museum.

It is quite remarkable that after 126 years, through multiple transfers of ownership, and thousands of miles traveled, Tarascon Diligence is still alive and well.


  • --------Cezanne and the Modern: Masterpieces of European Art from the Pearlman Collection. New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2014.

  • Gombrich, E.H., The Story of Art. pp. 544-549, New York, Phaidon Press, 2013.

  • Naifeh, S., and Smith, G.W., Van Gogh: The Life. New York, Random House, 2011.

  • --------The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, vol. III, 3rd edition, pp. 77-81. New York, Bulfinch Press; Little, Brown and Company, 2000.

  • Walther, I.F., and Metzger, R. Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings. pp. 441-443, Paris, Taschen, 2002.


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