The painter Ernest Quost (1844–1931) was known for his expertise in capturing flowers, and hollyhocks were his speciality. During his time in Arles, Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) too sought to establish a similar reputation with an association with sunflowers: ‘Quost has the hollyhock, but I have the sunflower, in a way.’ Quost received his training at the Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory, where he honed his skills creating floral decorations, and he briefly attended the Académie Julian in Paris. In addition, he closely studied plants under the guidance of a gardener in Saint-Ouen, located just outside the city. During the 1870s and 1880s, Quost cultivated his own garden in Montmartre, where he worked extensively. Aside from flower still lifes, village scenes and garden landscapes constitute the bulk of his oeuvre.
Hollyhocks in the limelight
The painting Garden with Hollyhocks perfectly illustrates ‘Quost’s magnificent and so-complete Hollyhocks’, which Van Gogh greatly admired. Set against a bright blue summer sky and sunlit white walls, Quost skilfully portrayed a group of spectacular pink and white hollyhocks in a garden teeming with various flowers and plants. At the left, a woman can be seen strolling towards the bushes. Interestingly, another work by Quost depicts the same spot, featuring a woman dressed in the same attire . This second painting provides further clarity, revealing that the sand-coloured foreground in Garden with Hollyhocks actually represents a path, while the plants above it at the right are pumpkins.
The painting exhibits Quost’s use of lively brushstrokes. Beneath the paint layer is a light-coloured primer serving as a base for the composition. In certain areas, such as the central group of hollyhocks, traces of underdrawing can be discerned. The back of the panel provides additional information that goes beyond the artist’s inscription. Notably, the number 10 stands for the standard panel size known as ‘portrait 10’ (55 × 46 cm). For this particular image of a garden, Quost rotated the panel a quarter-turn from its usual vertical format to a horizontal one. Furthermore, the presence of the P. Contet stamp affords insight into the supplier from whom Quost obtained this panel. It allows us to establish that the painting could not have been created before 1886, as that was the year when P. Contet became the new name of an artist’s supply store known as Latouche.
Quost and the Van Gogh brothers
Vincent and Theo van Gogh (1857–1891) probably interacted with Quost during the time the brothers shared an apartment in Paris (February 1886–February 1888). A sketchbook sheet by Vincent from that period bears the address of Quost’s studio, and Vincent also noted his name while visiting the Salon in 1886. This coincides with the year when Van Gogh also painted a still life of hollyhocks in a vase (1886, Kunsthaus Zurich), possibly inspired by Quost’s hollyhock painting, Wildflowers which he must have seen at the Salon. It is possible that Quost may have even provided flowers for Van Gogh’s own still life compositions. In a letter to his mother, Theo wrote: ‘Hardly a day passes without him [Vincent] being invited to visit the studios of famous painters, or otherwise one comes to him. Thus he also has acquaintances from whom he weekly receives a nice shipment of flowers, which can serve him as a model.’
However, Quost’s name does not appear in the brothers’ correspondence until August 1888. In 1890 Theo expressed admiration for Quost’s painting Easter Flowers (1890, La Piscine, Roubaix), exhibited at the Salon. He described it as ‘very gentle and harmonious, and all the same there’s colour in it’. He even suggested displaying it prominently ‘on the boulevard in the window’ at his art firm, Goupil & Cie. Theo wrote to his brother, who was in Auvers, that he had seen ‘Quost the other day and I spoke to him about you. I was telling him that you greatly appreciated his talent, which he said pleased him no end. If you come to Paris you mustn’t fail to visit him, he would be delighted to see you either in the garden or at his place.’ Vincent, equally enthusiastic, responded: ‘I’d very much like to come to Paris for a few days a little later, precisely in order to go and see Quost once, to see Jeannin, one or two others. I’d very much like you to have a Quost, and there would probably be a way of exchanging one.’ After Vincent died, Quost reached out to Theo, expressing his condolences: ‘With all my regrets my dear Mr Van Gogh, your brother had a warm heart and was a true artist.’
The painting Garden with Hollyhocks was acquired by the Vincent van Gogh Foundation from a private collection in 1996. An intriguing inscription on the back of the panel reads: ‘To Theo van Gogh/ This painting that my friend Vincent loves so much/ With warm regards/ E. Quost’. The use of the present tense suggests that the painter intended to give the work to Theo while Vincent was still alive, as he was aware of Vincent’s admiration for this painting. It is possible that Vincent had seen it when he was in Paris in early July 1890. It also may have been part of the exchange he mentioned, implying that Quost’s painting would then come into Theo’s possession. However, it remains unclear whether the painting actually ended up with Theo at the time and, if so, why it was not included in his estate.
The new season
The Van Gogh Museum collection includes not only the painting Garden with Hollyhocks but also Quost’s drawing titled The New Season (La saison nouvelle). It is likely that this drawing did become part of Theo’s collection during the period when he and the artist were in contact with each other. In this drawing, as in the painting, all attention is focused on a ‘framed’ glimpse of nature. The drawing is a preliminary study for the painting The New Season: Flowers, which Quost exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1882 . The painting won a silver medal and was acquired by the French state for the Musée du Luxembourg (). On the whole, the Salon reviews were very laudatory. Le Figaro-Salon even reported that ‘this painting of flowers is one of the prettiest works in the Salon’. The drawing is a study for and largely matches the representation in the painting. On the right is presumably a peach tree and on the left a rhododendron, both in full bloom – entirely fitting for the title of the work. In the left background is a difficult to identify diagonal object, towards which the birds seem to be drawn. According to a description of the painting, grapes can be seen in that corner: ‘A large work by Monsieur Quost brings us a harvest of expansively painted flowers and grapes so flavoursome that one would happily imitate the bird that has come to peck at them.’ Yet the same critic, too, questions this passage: ‘But why this rising background, this lawn that appears to stand up straight like a wall and is as ambiguous in its colour as in its perspective?’
For each type of vegetation, Quost used a different approach in handling the chalk in the drawing: for example, short, thick lines for the peach tree trunk; long, thin lines for the branches; and wavy lines for the blossoms. He even allowed the white paper to play a role in depicting the flowers of the rhododendron. Another sheet, featuring two sketches for this composition, exists in the collection of the Musée du Louvre . The upper sketch consists of numerous exploratory lines and appears to serve primarily as an exercise to achieve the correct composition. In comparison to the initially square format, the final, cropped composition of the upper sketch (which is slightly more elaborate) is more interesting. The fleeting sketch below it seems to represent the intended final result, complete with a frame. With its assured lines and no changes, it served as a clear setup for the drawing in the Van Gogh Museum. The framing line around the composition gives the work an independent character. This drawing was reproduced on the front page of an issue of the magazine La Presse dedicated to the Salon exhibition . It can be inferred from the accompanying commentary that Quost himself had suggested this preliminary study for that purpose: ‘the reproduction of a sketch, unfortunately too cursory, that we owe to the kindness of the artist and which replicates his submission to the Salon’.
Nature as a starting point
In addition to the drawing and sketches, some separate studies of rhododendron flowers by Quost have survived. He explicitly valued all stages of the working process to arrive at a ‘well-stocked memory’ (‘mémoire garnie’): ‘One must make many sketches and rapid studies so as to store away as many memories of nature as possible in one’s mind. These are the memories that one recites, so to speak, when searching for a composition.’ Quost also stressed the importance of a personal impression of nature: ‘See nature, nothing else. Remember nature, nothing else. Follow your own sensation, and nothing else.’ The two works in the Van Gogh Museum are excellent examples of how Quost took nature as the starting point for his compositions. Above all, they express his love for all that blooms.