Victor Vignon (1847–1909) is one of the lesser-known artists who participated in four of the eight Impressionist Exhibitions that took place in Paris between 1874 and 1886. Like many impressionists, he did not have any formal art training but instead educated himself by studying the works of Old Masters at the Louvre. He also received painting lessons from Camille Corot (1796–1875) around 1869. In the 1870s, Vignon worked regularly with Camille Pissarro (1830–1903) and Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) in the painters’ villages of Pontoise and Auvers-sur-Oise. While he thrived in this progressive environment, his work always remained rooted in the tradition of French landscape painting, evident in his serene village scenes and rural tableaux.
Vignon exhibited at the fifth Impressionist Exhibition in 1880 and continued to be represented in the three subsequent editions, in 1881, 1882 and 1886. One of the nine works he submitted in 1880 was titled Path through the Vineyard, Study (Chemin dans les vignes, étude). This could well be the small painting Woman in a Vineyard in the Van Gogh Museum, probably made en plein air as a study. It features a typical impressionist subject: leisure activity in the countryside outside Paris. The woman depicted in the painting wears a sun hat and a dress, elegant clothing as often seen in impressionist landscape scenes. She carries a shawl in one hand while holding on to the brim of her hat with the other to keep it from blowing off her head. This pose in combination with the slightly ominous cloudy sky in the background further suggests that this work was indeed the study displayed at the Impressionist Exhibition, as a review of the show makes mention of the painting with a ‘stormy sky’ (‘ciel orageux’). The critic Armand Silvestre (1837–1901) wrote unapologetically about the painting in the journal La Vie moderne, stating: ‘His path in the vineyard is bolder [than in Effect of Snow in Montesson, RS] but only betrays a very slight concern with Mr Monet.’ In most other reviews of Impressionist Exhibitions, Vignon’s work is either overlooked or described in a relatively neutral manner.
Remarkably, Vignon’s work garnered significant attention from art dealers and collectors at the time. One notable figure was the Frenchman F. Stumpf (d. 1906), a renowned collector of works by Corot and Jules Dupré (1811–1889). Stumpf amassed an impressive collection of Vignon’s works, owning as many as 150 pieces at the time of his death. Additionally, Vignon’s art found its way into the collections of Georges Viau (1855–1939), Nicolas Auguste Hazard (1834–1913) and his friend Paul Gachet (1828–1909), all of whom collected progressive, contemporary art. The prominent art critics Arsène Alexandre (1859–1937) and Roger Marx (1859–1913) also owned works by Vignon, and in 1894 he was given a substantial exhibition at the Galerie Bernheim Jeune, with Marx contributing the foreword to the exhibition catalogue.
Woman in a Vineyard
Woman in a Vineyard is painted with short, varied brushstrokes, particularly evident in the sky and the soil in the foreground. The various shades of green and the orange roofs form vivid colour accents. However, due to minimal shading and occasional denseness of paint application, the landscape lacks the vibrant vitality found in the works of some of Vignon’s contemporaries. It becomes apparent that the artist did not consistently adhere to the modern aesthetics embraced by other impressionists. This was also noted by a critic at the time: ‘Mr Vignon sometimes forgets that he is uncompromising [intransigeant, the term that impressionists often used for themselves], and executes perfectly finished landscapes.’
Raised in Villers-Cotterêts, a village northeast of Paris, from the second half of the 1870s Vignon spent most of his time in villages around the Oise region, northwest of the French capital. His view of the rural landscape was tinged with nostalgia: ‘I like the countryside: I should like it to be the countryside of the past, far removed from any noise, still filled with the things of yesteryear.’ Not only his paintings but also the etchings he made over the years have rustic subjects . While he occasionally titled his works with specific locations, more often than not they depicted a generic house, path or vista that could be found in any village. Consequently, determining the exact locations and dates of his paintings proves challenging. The possible exhibition date of Woman in a Vineyard in April 1880 probably places it in or before that year. It is known that during this period Vignon primarily worked in and around Auvers.
Winter Landscape and View of a Town
There are two other paintings by Vignon in the Van Gogh Museum’s collection, Winter Landscape and View of a Town. The precise location depicted in the latter picture cannot be determined. However, a postcard of Evecquemont, a village 20 kilometres west of Auvers, closely resembles the view in the painting . Vignon made a number of paintings of this place. It is important to note that his primary focus was on exploring the interplay of architectural elements such as houses and roofs, squares and triangles. This emphasis is evident in View of a Town, where the high perspective creates an appealing image.
Winter seems to have been Vignon’s favourite season. The serene and melancholic atmosphere found in Winter Landscape and his other winter-themed works aligns with his overall subdued style and preference for the quiet countryside over the clamorous city. In this painting, too, a path traverses a landscape, though this time devoid of any walkers. The path recedes into the distance, with the furthest parts rendered in blue-grey tones, creating a convincing sense of depth. The soft colours and hints of the light ground, especially at the top of the composition, contribute to the effect of a misty morning. Both paintings are executed with less vibrant colours compared to Woman in a Vineyard and do not appear to have been shown at Impressionist Exhibitions.
Pissarro and Cézanne
Vignon maintained close contact with several artists who showed their work at Impressionist Exhibitions, with a significant role being played by Pissarro, his elder by seventeen years. The latter had probably invited him along with Cézanne to participate in the Impressionist Exhibitions after Vignon had been repeatedly rejected from participating in the Salon exhibitions in the 1870s. However, their relationship was not without its challenges, as is evident from a letter written by Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) to Pissarro in 1882, which suggests some resentment on Vignon’s part: ‘I understand that Vignon bears you some rancour for your advice. Have you met many painters (especially mediocre ones) who accept an observation? All men of genius!’ The use of colour and the open composition featuring an inviting path near a village in Woman in a Vineyard clearly reflect Pissarro’s work. However, the bustle that typifies Pissarro’s village scenes is often absent in Vignon’s paintings. There is also an influence of Cézanne’s style, characterized by compositions built from planes, which can be discerned in Vignon’s View of a Town, while the blotchy depiction of trees in Woman in a Vineyard still seems derived from Corot’s forest landscapes. Marx eloquently captured Vignon’s position between two artistic currents: ‘it was your lot to serve as a link between two schools that succeeded one another and fought, and unbeknownst to yourself, to constitute a transition between what was and what will be, between the art of yesterday and the art of tomorrow’.
Vignon and the Van Gogh brothers
Woman in a Vineyard is believed to be the first painting by an impressionist that Theo van Gogh (1857–1891) purchased. It is quite conceivable that Theo had seen it at the Impressionist Exhibition, considering that he had been living in Paris for several months at the time and had a keen interest in the latest generation of artists. An intriguing receipt in the family collection, notably written up by the artist Henri Guérard (1846-–1897), indicates that on 24 January 1883 Theo paid 200 francs for a painting by Vignon. However, it remains unclear whether this purchase refers to Woman in a Vineyard or his Winter Landscape. In early April 1890, Theo’s wife Jo van Gogh-Bonger (1862–1925) wrote to her parents about paintings then in their possession, mentioning Vignon as the painter ‘of that little winter and that little lady walking – which hangs in our dining room’. The third painting in the family collection, View of a Town, probably has been acquired later in 1890, as suggested in a letter from Vignon to Theo in which a purchase seems to be clinched. He writes confidently about the sold work: ‘I am extremely pleased with this transaction, which I consider to be excellent for you in every respect, and as you mentioned, I sincerely hope it will not be the last. It is unfortunate that Mr Valadon had such a poor impression of this masterpiece.’ It seems that this purchase was made privately and without the knowledge of René Valadon (1848–1921), Theo’s employer and founder of the art gallery Boussod, Valadon & Cie. According to Jo, Vignon had described Theo in warm terms, stating he is ‘a man in whom you can have every confidence; he is a great friend to artists – he is an artist himself’.
Through Theo, Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) also became acquainted with Vignon. In his letters, Vincent expressed concern for the artist on several occasions, as both he and Vignon struggled with poor health: Vignon dealt with heart issues and battled with depression. Vincent even considered Vignon as a possible candidate to join him in creating the dreamed-of artist community at the Yellow House in Arles. Additionally, after Vincent’s admission to the asylum in Saint-Rémy in May 1889, he launched the idea of moving in with Vignon and his family as a paying lodger. However, these plans were never realized. After Vincent’s death, Vignon wrote a letter to Theo offering his condolences, though with no indication of a personal connection with his brother.