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Vincent van Gogh
While living in Paris, Vincent van Gogh made frequent excursions to the suburb of Asnières to escape the urban environment and paint in nature before his subject, a method he often advocated to other artists. On these trips he would usually stay at the family home of Bernard, a young painter he advised. In a letter to Bernard from Arles, Van Gogh reiterated his position on the importance of painting from experience rather than from the imagination: “I am getting well acquainted with nature. I exaggerate, sometimes I make changes in a motif; but for all that, I do not invent the whole picture; on the contrary, I find it all ready in nature, only it must be disentangled.”¹ On a late summer day in 1887, the artist set out to record one of the many now-extinct poternes, or underpass and tollhouse structures, that ringed Paris and regulated entry into the city. For Roadway with Underpass (Le viaduc), Van Gogh chose the vantage point of a traveler en route from Asnières, which is suggested by a dim glow at the end of the tunnel. The lone figure clad in black walking into the darkness midway in the tunnel lends a vague air of foreboding.
Van Gogh painted this scene at the beginning of his mature period when he was exploring the technical achievements of the various stylistic idioms current in Paris. The contrasting creamy ocher impasto and chalky blue shadows on the crumbling underpass and the road suggest the heightened palette and divided brushstroke of the Impressionists. Moreover the contrasting complementary colors he employs in the energetic dots and loose dashes that imply the movement of the foliage animated by the breeze on the embankment attest to his hesitant investigations of Divisionist color theory. Roadway with Underpass foreshadows two paintings with similar compositions that Van Gogh would paint in Arles in 1888: The Trinquetaille Bridge (Le pont de Trinquetaille) and The Railroad Bridge (Le pont de Languelois). Like the present painting, these two works present a view through a tunnel from the perspective of a spectator situated diagonally to the right of the bridge; however, the more complex later canvases also include a counterthrusting pathway leading to the left.