Van Gogh painted a total of 7 portraits of Madame Ginoux the owner of the Café de la Gare in Arles, France. Van Gogh came to know Madame Ginoux, or Marie Jullian the wife of Joseph-Michel Ginoux, while he took lodging at the café from May to September of 1888 before moving into the Yellow House. In August of 1888, he painted The Night Café which depicts the interior of the Ginoux’s café.
Shortly following the arrival of Gauguin at the Yellow House Madame Ginoux agreed to sit for a portrait for Gauguin and Van Gogh. Within an hour, Gauguin created a preparatory sketch out of charcoal for a later painting while at the same time Van Gogh used thick jute canvas that Gauguin had brought with him to Arles and painted her full portrait. In a letter to Theo on November 6, 1888, Van Gogh said this about the portrait,
“I have an Arlésienne at last, a figure (size 30 Canvas) slashed on in an hour, background pale lemon, the face grey, the clothes black, deep black, with unmixed Prussian blue. She is leaning on a green table and seated in an armchair of orange wood.”
The first version of Van Gogh’s Madame Ginoux portrait, L’Arlesienne: Madame Ginoux with Gloves and Umbrella, is now in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Van Gogh created the second version based on the composition of his first portrait but with a more finished quality. He used a more saturated and thickly applied color and has her seated in front of books rather than the gloves and umbrella. This second version, L’Arlesienne: Madame Ginoux with Books, is now located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
In 1890 during his stay in the asylum at Saint-Remy, Van Gogh produced five more portraits of Madame Ginoux; this time based on Gauguin’s drawing rather than his own portrait. Madame Ginoux was obviously on his mind, in a letter to Theo on February 2, 1890 he wrote,
“I am a little anxious about a friend who, it seems, is still ill, and whom I should like to see. She is the one whose portrait I did in yellow and black, and she has changed very much. She has nervous attacks, complicated by a premature change of life, in short, very painful. She looked like an old grandfather the last time. I had promised to come back in a fortnight, but was taken ill again myself.”
One of the portraits painted while in the asylum was intended for Gauguin, another for Theo, one for Madame Ginoux and one for Van Gogh himself. He wrote to his sister, Wil, on June 5, 1890 and described his aim for his portraits,
“I should like to paint portraits which would appear after a century to people living then as apparitions. By which I mean that I do not endeavour to achieve this by a photographic resemblance, but by means of our impassioned expressions – that is to say, using our knowledge of and our modern taste for colour as a means of arriving at the expression and the intensification of the character.”