This landscape featuring a field of tulips in the foreground is one of the most impressionistic works by the Danish artist Christian Mourier-Petersen (1858–1945). The scene is illuminated by sunlight: a brilliant blue sky stretches above, while the tree’s foliage casts a cool shadow on the warm, yellow exterior of the house. This shadow is devoid of black paint, composed instead of green and blue tints. In using this technique, the artist embraced the methods of the French impressionists, whose path he had crossed previously. For the diverse elements of the composition, Mourier-Petersen employed apt brushstrokes: elongated, diagonal strokes for the sky, short horizontal strokes for the buildings and loose, free ones for the greenery, as well as for the tulips in white, yellow and red. Consequently, the tulip field assumes a decorative pattern that occupies much of the picture plane.
Mourier-Petersen made the painting in his native Denmark, probably in the countryside near his family estate, Holbækgaard, in Jutland. He painted it shortly after a two-year tour of France. During his time there, he became friends with the Van Gogh brothers: first with Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) in Arles in early 1888 and then with Theo van Gogh (1857–1891) in Paris in the summer of the same year. He kept in touch with them after returning to Denmark in the winter of 1888–89. On 25 January 1889, he informed Vincent of his intention to send something to Theo, and in early 1890 this Tulip Field was finally dispatched to Paris. Since tulips bloom in spring, it is reasonable to deduce that Mourier-Petersen painted the picture a year earlier, in the Danish spring of 1889. In the accompanying letter, dated 25 February 1890, he wrote to Theo: ‘Please accept this painting “A field of tulips” in memory of Chr Mourier-Petersen. May it please you and may the subject remind you of your country, even though I am from Denmark’, and conveyed his regards to his brother.
To understand how this came about, we must go back in time. Mourier-Petersen trained at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen from 1880 to 1883. However, disenchanted with the institution’s conventional and nationalistic policies, he withdrew prematurely. Together with a group of like-minded students, he established the progressive Kunstnernes Frie Studieskoler (Free Study School for Artists), which championed experimentation with colour and form. He was progressive and wanted to look beyond Denmark’s borders. Thus, in October 1886, he embarked on a two-year grand tour of France in search of ‘foreign places and stronger colours’.
With Vincent van Gogh in Arles
The journey began in Paris, where Mourier-Petersen wanted to apprentice in the atelier of the realist artist Léon Bonnat (1833–1922), whose work was an important model for the Kunstnernes Frie Studieskoler and countless other artists. Regrettably, Mourier-Petersen was not admitted because he was unable to demonstrate any of his own work. This did not deter him from delving into the city’s numerous museums, and in commercial galleries he doubtless encountered the work of Barbizon School painters. Some of the landscapes that Mourier-Petersen painted during his time in France echo the styles of Charles-François Daubigny (1817–1878) and Camille Corot (1796–1875), whether in their use of colour or their compositions featuring meandering paths . After Paris, Mourier-Petersen proceeded via Marseilles and Fontvieille to Arles in southern France, arriving there in early summer 1887. Shortly before 10 March 1888, he crossed paths with Vincent, who had been there since 20 February. Over the course of four months, the two artists interacted almost daily. They often met up at a cafe or ventured outdoors to paint side by side.
The two artists rapidly forged a bond, which Mourier-Petersen articulated in a letter to his artist friend Johan Rohde (1856–1935) as follows: ‘I still paint on some things and have pretty interesting company in a Dutch painter, an Impressionist, who has made his home here. Initially I considered him to be mad, but by and by I could note that there is method in what he does. He knows the friends of Jastrau: McKnight, Russell etc.’ In turn, at the end of his intensive collaboration with Mourier-Petersen, Van Gogh wrote to Theo: ‘I liked him well enough because, with his spectacles, he went naively and benignly about this wicked world, and because I presumed he had a heart that was purer than many a heart, and even with more of a leaning towards rectitude than many of the cleverest people have. And as I knew he hadn’t been painting for very long it made not a bit of difference to me that his work was the very height of inanity. And I saw him every day for months.’
Painting side by side but in different styles
On occasion, the two artists depicted the same motif, as is evident in their paintings of a peach orchard on the outskirts of the town ( and ). They probably worked side by side there, a conclusion supported by several of their paintings. Although the light and shadows bear striking resemblances in the two paintings, the viewpoints differ slightly. The execution, however, diverges significantly. Whereas Van Gogh rendered the trees with a generous application of paint, Mourier-Petersen’s approach was less lavish, featuring a vague background against which the branches and bright flowers are more delicately depicted. While Van Gogh’s portrayal creates a potent image of a tree, Mourier-Petersen’s painting is more akin to an exercise, in which he struggled to achieve a compositional balance. In addition to the orchard, both artists portrayed the same model. The girl in Van Gogh’s painting and drawings, titled Mousmé, was also captured three times by Mourier-Petersen ( and ).
As the above quote from Van Gogh suggests, he was indeed quite critical of Mourier-Petersen’s work. He initially denounced the Dane’s ‘dry, correct and timid’ style, but saw slight improvement two months later: ‘His last three studies were better and more colourful than what he was doing before.’ It is evident that Mourier-Petersen aimed to infuse more colour into his art and embrace the style of the impressionists, as indicated by the words he wrote six months later, upon returning to Denmark: ‘As for the Scandinavian painters, I found them the same as before my departure. Among the young ones there are many who want to produce something original and who are close to the Impressionists, but they’ve elected a reactionary and stupid jury which brings all progress to a halt.’ These sentiments reflect a more progressive outlook on art than what is manifested in the art he actually produced.
To Theo van Gogh in Paris
When Mourier-Petersen expressed his desire to shift from Arles to Paris, Van Gogh arranged for him to lodge with his brother Theo, who after Vincent’s departure welcomed company and routinely provided accommodation to artists for a modest compensation. Mourier-Petersen stayed there from approximately 5 June to 15 August 1888. He reportedly paid for his lodging with paintings; however, Tulip Field is the sole work by him to survive in Theo’s collection. It may well be that this gift served as a belated payment. Subsequently, Mourier-Petersen reportedly referred to Theo as the ‘best and most amiable person he had encountered in his long life’. Additionally, Theo connected him with fellow artist friends, enabling Mourier-Petersen to gain insight into the artistic endeavours of those he encountered in the French capital, including John Peter Russell (1858–1930), Edgar Degas (1834–1917) and Camille Pissarro (1830–1903).
Upon his return to Denmark, Mourier-Petersen’s creations evinced a domestic intimacy and photographic cropping strongly reminiscent of Degas’s approach. The light and free touch evident in Tulip Field can also be traced to his experiences during his time in France. However, his Danish work aligns more closely with the serene compositions, marked by clear, cool tones, typical of the Scandinavian school. This style is best represented by his Danish contemporary Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864–1916) . Both Hammershøi and Mourier-Petersen played pivotal roles in founding Den Frie Udstilling (The Free Exhibition), an artists’ association that organized independent exhibitions, in 1891.
The painting that Mourier-Petersen sent to Theo stands out as a notable exception to that stylistic direction. Although still a hushed depiction, it exhibits bolder brushstrokes and a richer palette. Here, he appears to have adopted the style he observed in Vincent’s work during their time together in Arles. A comparison with Van Gogh’s Farmhouse in a Wheatfield, dating from May 1888, illustrates that the Dane opted for a similar composition and painting technique, inspired by his approach . Consequently, upon learning of Van Gogh’s death five months after sending Theo the painting, Mourier-Petersen wrote to him: ‘We got on so well together during our brief acquaintance, and he showed me a very sincere and very unselfish friendship. Also his opinions on art and life have had an unquestionable influence on my development.’
As Mourier-Petersen himself conveyed to Theo, Tulip Field harmoniously intertwines the lives of the three men, encapsulating a quintessentially Dutch scene within the Danish countryside. Furthermore, he captured it in the colourful, impressionist manner that Vincent was eager to nurture in him during their time in the south of France, and one that he could reasonably anticipate would resonate with the Van Gogh brothers.