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MONDAY AT THE ART MUSEUM—THE CYPRESSES OF SAINT-REMY, PART I
The cypresses are always occupying my thoughts….
Vincent van Gogh, letter to brother Theo, June 25, 1889
On May 8, 1889, Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) committed himself to the mental institution of Saint Remy in southern France. Within a week, he was painting the flowering garden around the hospital. Then, by mid-June, he had discovered a new inspiration: the stunning cypresses that towered over the fields and meadows nearby.
Today’s mini-display, The Cypresses of Saint-Remy, will highlight some of the works of art that Vincent produced on this theme including The Starry Night. Countless books, essays, and analyses have been published about this supernova of masterpieces, now hanging at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, from dissecting the artist’s technique to the stars’ astronomical accuracy to theories about whether its imagery is connected to Genesis or Revelations. Yet, Van Gogh only briefly mentioned The Starry Night in correspondence to his brother, Theo and perhaps his colleague Emile Bernard, in contrast to his detailed descriptions of The Potato Eaters, Night Cafe, The Artist’s Bedroom, and Road with Cypress and Star (in the second part of this display), as well as numerous other paintings of his decade long career.
FREEDOM AT LAST
I have just finished a landscape….a field of wheat turning yellow, surrounded by blackberry bushes and green shrubs. At the end of the field a pink house with a tall and somber cypress which stands out against the far-off hills with their violet like and blueish tones, and against a sky the color of forget-me-nots with pink streaks, whose pure hues contrast with the scorched ears which are already heavy, and have the warm tones of a bread crust.
Vincent to sister Willemien, June 16, 1889
Vincent’s vivid written recreation of Wheat Fields, reflects his joy at being released from the confines of Saint–Remy’s walls and allowed to wander freely in the countryside with his paints and easel. Do you think, though, that the colors, especially the pinks, have dimmed with time?
THE CONTINUING MYSTERY OF THE STARRY NIGHT
This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise with nothing but the morning star which looked very big.
Vincent to Theo, around June 6, 1889
However, The Starry Night, is based on the panoramic view of the sky and Alpilles, the foothills of the Alps, from Vincent’s room. Although he probably executed it in a studio that had been set up for him overlooking the garden. So unlike Wheat Felds, which was done on site, he likely created The Starry Night from memory.
Or would it have mattered where The Starry Night was painted? For wasn’t it a work primarily of Vincent’s imagination? As he explained to his brother Theo in a letter dated June 18, 1889:
At last I have a landscape with olive trees and also a new study of a starry night. Although I haven’t seen the latest canvases either by Gauguin or Bernard, I’m fairly sure that these two studies I speak of are comparable in sentiment. When you’ve seen these two studies for a while, as well as the one of the ivy, I’ll perhaps be able to give you, better than in words, an idea of what Gauguin, Bernard and I sometimes chatted about and that preoccupied us. It’s not a return to the romantic or religious ideas. However, by going the way of Delacroix more than it seems, by color and a more determined drawing than trompe l’oeil precision, one might express a country nature that is purer than the suburbs, the bars of Paris.
Almost a year earlier in Arles, Vincent had provided Theo with a colorful account of his first night sky, Starry Night on the Rhone (see: end of blog). Here, Vincent just refers to The Starry Night in the abstract, comparing it to the more symbolic representations of Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard, who were then utilizing exaggerated line and non-naturalistic color.
Why didn’t Van Gogh attempt to describe the extraordinary blue and yellow heaven, swirling with 11 planet-like stars, crescent moon, and galaxy, while below a peaceful village, perhaps rooted in his Dutch heritage, slumbers undisturbed? Only the giant cypresses unite the two opposing spheres, a bridge between the terrestrial realm and the infinite vastness of space. Or was it too impossible a challenge, even for Vincent, to sum up in a few sentences his stellar creation?
The graphic version of The Starry Night, which Vincent depicted a week or two later, seems even more turbulent, as if an earthquake had now shaken the previously stable church and adjacent houses. Where curling trails of smoke seem to be escaping into the air, reinforcing the curving outlines of the cypresses and mountains.
LIKE THE SUNFLOWERS
But Vincent waited until June 25, before he expressed the impact of these elegant natural landmarks on his eye and emotions to Theo. Envisioning them, like his beloved sunflowers, as the subject of another series.
…..I should like to make something of the cypresses like the canvases of the sunflowers, because it is astonishes me that they have not been done as I see them. It is as beautiful in lines and proportions as an Egyptian obelisk.
Van Gogh decided to begin with two size 30 canvases as well as accompanying drawings (composed afterward which often was his practice) like Cypresses below from the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Is it a rather strange entity, pushing upward in waves of concentric circles from the ground?
While its oil counterpart, also titled Cypresses and belonging to the Metropolitan Museum, is earthier, more recognizable, or as Vincent informed Theo, again on June 25:
….The trees in it are very big and and massive. The foreground, very low with brambles and brushwood. Behind some violet hills, a green and pink sky with a crescent moon, The foreground especially is in heavy imapasto, clumps of brambles with yellow, violet, and green reflections.
The only evidence of the second Cypresses painting as it originally appeared about July 2, is the drawing currently at the Art Institute of Chicago. Except, of course, the vibrant color effect of, in Vincent’s words, a multi-colored Scottish plaid.
For Vincent altered Cypresses II in February, 1890. Can’t you wait to see its final version?
A SPLASH OF BLACK IN THE BLUE
Meanwhile, Vincent continued that summer with at least 2 renditions of Wheat Field with Cypresses, such as the one at London’s National Gallery below. Taking us on an exhilarating walk with the artist as our guide, far beyond the drab corridors of Saint Remy. Where the universe is in perpetual motion, on every level, from the ground to the clouds.
The pair of cypresses, though, dominate the landscape, both green and black, as Vincent notes to Theo,
…..And the (cypress) green is of so distinguished a quality. It is a splash of BLACK in a sunny landscape, but it is one of the most interesting black notes, and the most difficult to hit off exactly that I can imagine. But then you must see them against the blue, IN the blue rather.
A HAUNTING GIFT
The following winter Vincent, after years of neglect and misunderstanding, at last received his first review from an appreciative critic A.G. Albert Aurier, who was especially drawn to the sunflower and cypresses. In gratitude, Van Gogh promised the second Cypresses to Aurier, including adding figures:
In the next batch that I send my brother, I shall include a study of cypresses for you, if you will do me the favor of accepting it in remembrance of your article, I am still working on it at the moment, as I want to put in a figure….
Vincent to A.G. Albert Aurier, February 10, 1890
Vincent also made a new drawing of the revised painting,
and both are part of the Kroller-Muller collection in Vincent’s native Netherlands. The oil is an exquisite tapestry of two women, standing in a wheat field during a mistral according to the artist. Despite being layered in textured pigment, it possesses a soft, haunting quality as if set in a faraway land. A dream, too, like The Starry NIght but without its drama—-and its fame.
TOMORROW: ROAD WITH CYPRESS AND STAR (IN HONOR OF GAUGUIN?)
Starry Night Over the Rhone
Vincent to Theo, September 29, 1889
A square size 30 canvas, finally the starry sky painted at night under a gas jet. The sky is greenish blue, the water royal blue, the ground mauve. The town is blue and violet, the gas is yellow and its reflections are russet-gold down to greenish bronze. On the blue-green expanse of sky, the Great Bear sparkles green and pink, its discreet pallor constrasts with the harsh gold of the gas.
*Cypresses I and Cypresses II are not the formal titles but have been created to help clarify the paintings as well as drawings.
Among the sources utilized for this blog are: Van Gogh in Saint-Remy and Auvers by Ronald Pickvance, catalogue of exhibition published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc. and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1986; The Complete Van Gogh by Jan Hulsker, Harrison House and Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1980, and website The Letters of Vincent van Gogh.
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