‘... in all of nature, in trees for instance, I see expression and a soul, as it were’
Peace and solace
Following his notorious breakdown in Arles, Vincent van Gogh admitted himself to the Saint-Paul asylum, in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. When he was allowed to work outside, one of his favourite places to paint was in the nearby olive groves. They inspired him, but also offered him peace, and solace:
‘... it seems to me that nature sees to it that illness is a means of getting us back on our feet, of healing us, rather than an absolute evil’.
Rather outdoors than indoors
Vincent preferred painting outdoors. But that did have its disadvantages, as he was well aware. From the Netherlands, he wrote to his brother Theo:
‘... I must have picked a good hundred flies and more off the 4 canvases that you’ll be getting, not to mention dust and sand &c. – not to mention that, when one carries them across the heath and through hedgerows for a few hours, the odd branch or two scrapes across them’
Wandering the fields of Brabant
Vincent’s love of nature didn’t come out of thin air. In his youth, he went on long walks through the fields and woods near Zundert, the village where he was born. It was here in the Brabant countryside that he developed his lifelong love of nature.
It’s hardly surprising that Vincent’s art also became inseparably linked with nature. Nowhere did he find as much inspiration, peace and solace as outdoors.
‘… if I felt no love for nature and my work, then I would be unhappy’, he wrote to Theo in 1882.
Always continue walking
We know a lot about Vincent, thanks in a large part to the letters that he sent to his brother Theo. As early as 1874, Vincent advised his brother:
‘Always continue walking a lot and loving nature, for that’s the real way to learn to understand art better and better’.
‘It isn’t the language of painters one ought to listen to but the language of nature’.
Vincent believed that an artist should truly know and understand nature. The best way to achieve that was by living and working in the middle of it, in the unspoiled countryside.
From the ‘Parisian furnace’ to the calm of the south
Vincent moved to Paris in February 1886, but after two years of hard work, he grew tired of the busy city. He went to live in the small town of Arles in the South of France, in search of light and peace.
Vincent thought that the fresh green in the South of France was much more intense than in the north. It was even still attractive after it had been scorched: then the landscape came alive in different shades of ‘gold’. Vincent walked for hours looking for subjects for his work.
‘... always dusty, always more laden like a porcupine with sticks, easel, canvas, and other merchandise’
he wrote to his sister Willemien.
In April 1888, Vincent sent an order for canvas and paint to his brother Theo in Paris:
‘… but for Christ’s sake get the paint to me without delay. The season of orchards in blossom is so short, and you know these subjects are among the ones that cheer everyone up’.
A new motif
Arles was a small town, from which a short walk took Vincent into vast landscapes. He wrote to Theo:
‘I have a new subject on the go, green and yellow fields as far as the eye can see, which I’ve already drawn twice and am starting again as a painting...’
Even within the walls, Vincent sought nature
Following his breakdown in Arles, Vincent had himself committed to the asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. At first, he wasn’t allowed to leave the grounds. But even within the walls of the psychiatric hospital, he still found enough inspiration for his art.
Circle of life
‘Through the iron-barred window I can make out a square of wheat in an enclosure...’
A peasant mows the golden wheat stalks under the blazing sun. Vincent saw this as an image of the circle of life. Mowing signified the end. But once the grain was sowed, life started again, colouring the fields a fresh shade of green.
‘... when I’m in the country, it’s not so difficult for me to be alone, because in the country one feels the bonds that unite us all more easily’.
Fields of olive trees
‘There are very beautiful fields of olive trees here, which are grey and silvery in leaf like pollard willows. Then I never tire of the blue sky’, wrote Vincent to his mother in July 1889.
The Provençal sun was yet to reach its full intensity when Vincent painted this work. The fresh green grass and the red poppies reveal that it must have been late spring or early summer.
And yet Vincent himself was not very satisfied with his initial olive groves. A few months later, he wrote to his friend Emile Bernard:
‘The olive trees down here, my good fellow, they’d suit your book; I haven’t been fortunate this year in making a success of them, but I’ll go back to it, that’s my intention’.
Vincent was much more concerned with painting what he observed than from his imagination. If you wanted to paint an olive grove, that is where you should start. He was therefore certainly not a fan of the Biblical scenes ‘Christ in the Garden of Olives’ by his artist friends Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard:
‘… now isn’t the moment to ask me to approve of friend G’s composition – and friend Bernard has probably never seen an olive tree’.
In December 1889, the olive harvest was in full swing. Vincent set up his easel between the trees, and watched the labourers busily picking olives.
Vincent was so pleased with this painting that he later made another version for Theo. And another for his mother and sister. While in Saint-Rémy, Vincent’s thoughts also regularly turned to ‘home’, in the Netherlands.
Reminiscences of Brabant
Vincent drew and painted several reminiscences of his native province of Brabant during his time at the asylum. He thought increasingly about returning to ‘the North’.
Vincent blended past and present in this drawing of Dutch-style houses with low beech hedges, set in the hilly surroundings of the asylum in Saint-Rémy.
Peace and solace in the fields around Auvers-sur-Oise
Vincent painted several sweeping landscapes in the final months of his life: they were an ode to the countryside, to which he added a deeper emotional charge. He hoped that his paintings could express ‘… what I can’t say in words, what I consider healthy and fortifying about the countryside’.
Vincent wrote to Theo and his sister-in-law Jo about his recently painted wheatfields, through which he wanted to express ‘sadness, extreme loneliness’.
‘… a night effect – two completely dark pear trees against yellowing sky with wheatfields, and in the violet background the castle encased in the dark greenery’.
This painting was long believed to be Vincent’s last work. Many people still think it is... A popular myth, but it’s not true.
This is Vincent’s very last painting. A subject from nature: undergrowth in a marl pit, which he painted up close.
On 27 July 1890, Vincent took his last walk out into the wheatfields around Auvers. There, he shot himself in the chest. He died two days later. In his brother’s words, his final resting place is ‘… a sunny spot amid the wheatfields’.