Oh, van Gogh!

Vincent van Gogh: When I hear his name I think of sunflowers, olive orchards and wind-swept wheat fields in the south of France. Van Gogh painted his famous sunflowers in 1888 in Arles, working in the house he rented there. Fellow artist Paul Gauguin was coming to stay and van Gogh wanted to decorate…

A lot of what we know about the Dutch artist van Gogh comes from the letters that flowed between him and his younger brother, Theo. As a twenty-one-year-old Vincent wrote from London, where he was living and working for a Dutch art dealer:

There are lilacs and hawthorns and laburnums blossoming in all the gardens, and the chestnut trees are magnificent… If one truly loves nature one finds beauty everywhere. Yet I sometimes yearn so much for Holland, and especially Helvoirt… I’m doing a lot of gardening and have sown sweet peas, poppies and reseda, now we just have to wait and see what comes of it.” (1874)

Often what comes of gardening is art – take Monet, for instance. Life as an artist for van Gogh began in earnest in 1880, when he was living in Belgium and sketching local workers. In 1883 back in the Netherlands he painted ‘Flower Beds in Holland’, which through the veil of a muted palette (or bad weather) shows the spectacular blanket-like flower fields of his home country. It’s probably safe to say the flowers in the painting are tulips, although the impression van Gogh creates is one of colour, not botanical precision.

Vincent van Gogh (c 1883) 'Flower Beds in Holland', courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington.

They say that van Gogh’s sense of colour lifted when he moved to Paris in 1886 and struck up a friendship with Camille Pissarro, who was an artistic grandfather figure to many of the younger artists and Post-Impressionists. You can see van Gogh’s palette shift in ‘Farmhouse in Provence’ (1888), a painting which coincided with his decision to leave Paris and start a life in the countryside in Arles. The pink of the clouds, the blue of the skies – it is as though the ‘Flower Beds in Holland’ have been inverted and sent floating upwards.

Vincent van Gogh (1888) 'Farmhouse in Provence', courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington.

The sunflowers arrived later, in August 1888: “I am hard at it, painting with the enthusiasm of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse, which won’t surprise you when you know that what I’m at is the painting of some sunflowers,” Vincent wrote to Theo at the time. “If I carry out this idea there will be a dozen panels. So the whole thing will be a symphony in blue and yellow. I am working at it every morning from sunrise on, for the flowers fade so quickly. I am now on the fourth picture of sunflowers. This fourth one is a bunch of 14 flowers.”

There’s momentum and activity in van Gogh’s letters, which he hoped would continue with Gauguin’s visit. His idea was to create an informal artist’s collective to inspire new work and new thinking from both painters. Gauguin arrived in Arles in October 1888 and two months passed before it became obvious that the pairing of personalities – van Gogh’s eagerness and tendency towards depression matched with Gauguin’s arrogance – would be horribly destructive for van Gogh. There were disagreements and nearing the end of December Gauguin prepared to leave Arles. Van Gogh’s response is well known: he cut off his left ear and delivered it to a brothel for safekeeping. In turn, Gauguin left.

During his recovery, van Gogh painted ‘Still Life of Oranges and Lemons with Blue Gloves’ (1889). His focus on the fruit seems meditative, his eye drawn to the stillness of the arrangement before him: wicker basket, cypress branches and a pair of feminine gloves, slipped off by the citrus gatherer. In the same year van Gogh ventured outside to see another type of harvest, depicted in ‘The Olive Orchard’. In it the dominant, commercial colours of ‘Still Life of Oranges and Lemons with Blue Gloves’ are gone, replaced with near-transparent greens and greys.

Vincent van Gogh (1889) 'Still Life of Oranges and Lemons with Blue Glove', courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington.
Vincent van Gogh (1889) 'The Olive Orchard', courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington.

In May 1890 Vincent moved north of Paris to Auvers-sur-Oise, where he painted ‘Green Wheat Fields, Auvers’ (1890). His oil paint, though dry now for well over a hundred years still looks wet, the brushwork still moving, the grasses still whipped up by the breeze. The landscape van Gogh depicts is truly connected within itself. His sky leans in to graze on the countryside, so full of health and richness. The lone figure of ‘Girl in White’ (1890) seems to have sprouted up amongst the grasses from the same soil.

Sadly the robustness of these two paintings was not reflected in van Gogh’s inner mind. He took his own life some months later, but what he left we embrace: grassy fields, olive orchards and sunflowers.

Vincent van Gogh (1890) 'Green Wheat Fields, Auvers', courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington.
Vincent van Gogh (1890) 'Girl in White', courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington.