Van Gogh’s Tarascon Stagecoach has fast become one of my favorite pieces in the Princeton University Art Museum. Through its very texture, this 1888 painting conveys the dustiness of the coach’s sunbaked route. The road is indeterminate and chalky, the rims of stagecoach’s wheels coated in the same striking color. Van Gogh has detailed the street’s surface with considerable impasto, or places where the paint is so thick as to stand out from the canvas. The sliver of cerulean sky that appears in the upper righthand corner is cloudless, while the stagecoach’s short shadow suggests a sun not far off its noontime apex. A pair of green shutters are snugly shut to the left, covering the only window to be found in the painting. Indeed, it is a hot and unrelenting day.
Another stagecoach is parked in the background, but it is distinct, covered by amorphous green canvas, and only partially visible. Van Gogh lavishes attention and character upon this Tarascon stagecoach. Amidst unadorned, white-washed walls and an undifferentiated, unending road on which to travel, the central stagecoach is the only recognizable part of this painting. The reassured viewer senses that while the environs are interchangeable, this stalwart companion will remain constant.
Van Gogh was apparently inspired by Alphonse Daudet’s 1872 novel Tartarin de Tarascon, in which an old stagecoach that used to travel the Tarascon-Nîmes route in France is put to more mundane work in the French colonies in North Africa. Despite its age and taxing employment, though, in Van Gogh’s presentation this stagecoach maintains its dignity. The driver’s footboard angles upward, held tautly by a guy. At the other end, a ladder ascends securely to its roof. These details, along with a tightly-rolled bundle at the front and a tidy rooftop bench, suggest the opposite of dereliction. The coach sports its original bright colors, most notably a red stripe beneath its windows. There, the viewer can still discern “de Tarascon” proudly emblazoned on its side. Although (perhaps because) it is fast becoming outmoded in its home of France, Van Gogh’s subject epitomizes Tennyson’s contention that “Old age hath yet his honour and his toil.”
As was the case with many of his contemporaries, including Monet, Japanese art heavily influenced Van Gogh. In Tarascon Stagecoach, the bold colors and abrupt cropping of the brethren stagecoach evince the effects of Japanese prints. Using Japanese methods to depict a French subject set in North Africa, Tarascon Stagecoach transcends geography to evoke a universal sense of nostalgia.