Vincent van Gogh painted two versions of The Road Menders in 1889. The first variant, the final work of many outdoor scenes of that year, was executed in plein air, and the Phillips version, which followed shortly thereafter, was created in the studio. Both works depict the repaving a street in Saint-Rémy known at the time as the Cours de l’Est. The scene captivated the artist on one of several excursions from the Asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole during the fall and winter of 1889-90. The theme of workers in the landscape had been a prevalent motif of van Gogh’s paintings executed in Holland.
On December 7, van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo in Paris, describing a first version: “The last study I have done is a view of the village, where they were at work – under some enormous plane trees – repairing the pavements. So there are heaps of sand, stones and gigantic trunks – the leaves yellowing and here and there you get a glimpse of a house front and small figures.” The Phillips version, which van Gogh called “a copy,” followed most likely in mid-December. On January 3, 1890, van Gogh referred to both paintings in a list that accompanied a shipment of paintings sent to Theo: “The big plane trees – the chief street or boulevard of Saint-Rémy, study from nature – I have a copy which is perhaps more finished here.” Duncan Phillips ranked the version he acquired as “among the best van Gogh’s.”