van Gogh (1853-1890) was a master of oil painting who changed the post-impressionism movement, as well as painting holistically, forever. He was largely self taught but was inspired by Gauguin, Pissarro, Monet, and Bernard, living with Gauguin in Paris for a time. To say van Gogh was troubled would be an understatement especially with our cutting edge understanding of mental illness. He dedicated himself to his art and developed a vivid instantly recognisable style which influenced Expressionism, Fauvism and early abstraction and much more besides.
Working at an often furious pace van Gogh produced more than 2,000 works of art, including around 900 paintings and 1,100 drawings and sketches in his 10-year career. However, he sold only one painting during his lifetime and did not become successful until after his death. Artable
I was struck by this piece which was mentioned as an aside in one of the excellent National Gallery videos which explored van Gogh’s devastating sunflowers. What stole my attention first was the vivid nature of the combatting colours in this piece. The blue swirling sky as contrasted with the cloud and the leaning Cypresses. That against the rolling plains, bushes and block represented grass creates a vortex of emotion which pulled me right in. It is no small wonder he painted this at the Saint-Paul psychiatric institution in Saint-Remy, when admitted there for a year in 1889. What must he have been feeling at this time?
The second aspect which stole my attention was the masterfully depicted motion in the painting. This is supported in part by the third aspect which impressed me, that is to say the trademark use of as few and obvious brush strokes as possible. The impressionists tried largely to hide as many brush strokes as possible to give the impression of realism, but quite the opposite can be said of van Gogh.
Van Gogh regarded the present work as one of his “best” summer landscapes and was prompted that September to make two studio renditions: one on the same scale (National Gallery, London) and the other a smaller replica, intended as a gift for his mother and sister (private collection). Met Museum
Van Gogh also produced a study of the Wheat Field with Cypresses in reed pen drawing, which he sent to his brother. This must have been the preliminary study for the final painting and perhaps in part the reason he was able to produce the latter with such speed. Observe the magnificent motion he creates without needing to use elaborate brush strokes or colour. This is truly the work of a master, whose (essentially) sketches evoke almost as much emotion as the final piece.
On 8 May 1889, after months of hospital treatment in Arles, Vincent allowed himself to be committed to the Saint-Paul de Mausole psychiatric institution in Saint-Rémy de Provence. He was treated by Dr Théophile Peyron. In between attacks, Vincent made numerous paintings and drawings, first in the asylum and its gardens and later beyond, among the olive gardens and cypresses, in the Alpilles mountains and in the village. Saint-Rémy served as the setting for many of his most famous works. Van Gogh Route
In the end, Wheat Field with Cypresses is a wonderfully emotive piece in which one can see van Gogh’s fragile emotional state and reflect on what must have been his personal experience during a troubled time in the Saint-Paul institution. But also, in the end, art is to be enjoyed for its own sake as well as within its own context. This is a hopelessly beautiful piece, even when all context is stripped away.
The more textured piece I have reviewed is the Wheat Field with Cypresses which was painted in July 1889, and can be found at the Met Museum in New York.
The below, less defined but no less beautiful, was painted in September 1889 and can be found in the National Gallery in London.