This painting was produced around mid-September 1889, while Vincent van Gogh was a patient at the Saint-Paul de Mausole asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. After a particularly serious episode of mental illness and a long period of forced inactivity, at the start of September van Gogh resumed painting "like a maniac," focusing chiefly on portraits. He wrote to his brother Theo, saying, "The desire I have to make portraits just now is terribly intense."
The title of this work, "The Gardener," however, is relatively recent. It first appeared in the Italian-language bibliography of an exhibition of van Gogh's work in Florence in 1945, and does not fully convey the true subject of the painting.
The work was, in fact, reproduced by Émile Bernard in 1911 as "Provençal Peasant." Given the long-standing friendship between the two artists, this would seem to be the more widely documented and correct title, referencing both van Gogh’s time in Provence, in the land "where there is more light and more sun," and his profound fascination with the peasant way of life. The heavy toil of working in the fields and the simple life of peasants, seeming almost to be made of the land that they farm, were the main themes in van Gogh’s painting and his Copies after the great artist J. F. Millet, dating back to his time in Neunen.
This subject, which the Dutch painter never completely abandoned with his evangelical and symbolic connotations, returned with new-found significance in the final, intense months of his life in Saint-Rémy and Auvers.
In contrast to inauthentic and tormented city life, the Provençal peasant, living under the southern sun, is "pure of heart"—emblematic of human beings who live amongst orchards, orange and lemon groves, and olive trees. He lives in harmony with nature, interwoven with it and its immutable processes of life and death, fertility and regeneration.
Even the materials used by the artist portray this synchronicity in the balanced juxtaposition of complementary colors: red and green, yellow and blue, placed next to each other but not blended, with splashes of color that interweave the figure with the landscape. In his serenity, lightly shrouded with melancholy, the Provençal peasant is like an apparition, momentarily capable of overcoming any wound.
Il giardiniere by Vincent van GoghLa Galleria Nazionale