Van Gogh and the Consolation of Trees

It might seem obvious that Vincent van Gogh, the most famous depressive in all of art, adopted the cypresses of the Mediterranean as his motif. Tall, tapered, cone-shaped evergreens have always been associated with sadness and death. It stands guard over Christian, Jewish, and Muslim cemeteries in Southern Europe and the Near East.

Judging by Van Gogh’s own writings, however, his view of the tree was different. “Cypresses still occupy my heart,” he wrote in June 1889 in a letter to his indomitably devoted brother, Theo. “I would like to do something with something like a sunflower canvas because, as I see it, I am surprised no one has done this.”

The tree inspired him to new heights in woodland, as seen in Van Gogh’s Cypresses. The exhibition is a revelatory and captivating green exhibition that begins previewing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art next week before it opens to the public on May 22nd. The climate catastrophe has prompted many contemporary artists to place nature at the center of their work, thinking about the ‘comfort’ (Van Gogh’s favorite word) that trees provide.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art presents 24 paintings, as well as 12 drawings and four illustrated letters, in which cypresses are not necessarily the main subject. The show includes “The Starry Night” (Museum of Modern Art, New York), which happens to feature a long uncelebrated and unnoticed pair of cypresses in addition to the hypnotic rhythms of a swirling sky.

Van Gogh, who committed suicide at the age of 37, began painting cypresses in his later years. At the time, the Dutch-born artist was living in the South of France and was exhibiting some of his most powerful works. The Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition unfolds slowly, initially cypresses emerging as common foliage in his landscape far from Arles. However, he turned his attention to this motif in the summer of 1889, after a mental breakdown and voluntarily entering a psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Initially confined to the hospital grounds, he painted landscapes of the fields outside the barred bedroom windows and studied the blue irises of the gardens.

Within a few weeks, it was determined that he was well enough to venture beyond the walls of the hospital. Armed with a portable easel and a box of paints, he went out into a nearby field and was struck by the sight of individual cypress trees growing wild. As he later said, he wondered how he could capture this.dark Patch in the sun-drenched landscape. (By the way, don’t confuse the cypresses he saw in Provence with the swamps of Louisiana or the bald cypress found in America, a staple of Gothic films.)

In some ways, Van Gogh’s Cypresses may sound flimsy as a premise for the show. Just last year, “Van Gogh and the Olive Grove,” which similarly focused on the period in which Van Gogh was hospitalized in Saint-Remy, was released at the Dallas Museum of Art and elsewhere. While niche exhibitions like this may reflect a post-pandemic contraction in activity, they also represent a welcome aesthetic trend, offering an alternative to the blockbuster parade of the past,1 It enables the macro-enjoyment that can be obtained by appreciating art in micro-units. time.

On a recent April afternoon, I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s preservation studio after receiving an interesting piece of information. One of his cypress paintings had a real bunch of pebbles.

The Sherman Fairchild Painting Conservation Center, as it is officially known, occupies a sprawling high-ceilinged duplex on the mezzanine level. When I arrived, two of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings, both from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, stood upright on wooden easels. Their frames had been removed, and the spectacle evoked the mild shock that comes when you see a masterpiece return from a gilded life to a rustic handcrafted object. Art restorer Charlotte Hale and research scientist Sylvia A. Centeno concluded that the two paintings were within days of June 1889, the “explosive moon” as Hale emphasized in her British book. with visible excitement. accent.

Canvas couldn’t be more different. At 29 inches high and 3 feet wide, the ‘Wheat Field with Cypresses’ offers gleaming views of the Provençal countryside even on windy, hat-wearing days. Yellow wheat stalks bend in the wind. Clouds stream across the sky. The blue-purple limestone hills known as the Alpilles roll in the distance. And on the right side, we have this. Cypress trees, dark emerald foliage contrast with the bright sky.actually make it two cypress tree. It may surprise you to notice a small tree leaning against a tall tree, as if a human were touching the sides.

The painting “Cypresses” on the other easel also features two cypresses, here in dramatic close-up. When the canvas is rotated vertically, the tops of the tall trees are cut off, compressing the shape into a bulky, churning mass that appears to be. Once again, I thought of the two figures and wondered if Van Gogh chose to paint a pair of cypresses to suggest a cozy togetherness.

In their technical investigation of Cypress, Hale and Centeno discovered several new things using microscopy and a chemical process known as XRF (X-Ray Fluorescence Mapping). Among these was the presence of surprising rock material in the pigments. Sand and limestone pebbles (the largest being a quarter inch in diameter) are embedded throughout the surface of the canvas, especially in the pasted foreground.

The discovery confirmed what scholars already knew. Hale said most of “Cypresses” was painted outdoors “on the fly,” adding that Van Gogh returned to the studio to finalize the painting. She used a wooden pointer to pick out her four pebbles visible to the naked eye. “I know they are there,” she said. “But we can’t know exactly how they got there.”

Is it possible that Van Gogh intentionally added a handful of sand or pebbles to the paint to thicken the impasto and give it a gritty texture?

“Absolutely not,” Hale replied. “I think what probably happened was that his easel was blown off. It was very windy.”

But, as both restorers stressed, that’s just theory. And no doubt other theories will spring up, especially since most of us prefer to think of our beloved paintings as reflections of the artist’s will, rather than mere weather coincidences.

A few days later, when I told the story of this pebble to an artist friend, he hastily suggested: “I think what happened was that Van Gogh got fed up with the painting and threw a handful of dirt at it.”

Van Gogh’s devotion to paintings from nature and sunlight began in the late 1880s, when avant-garde artists were moving away from Impressionism and pushing their work towards the more subjective styles of Symbolism and Expressionism. By then it had become controversial. There was a strong challenge from Paul Gauguin, Van Gogh’s friend, or rather his frenemy. It has often been told how Van Gogh, a lonely soul longing to meet his friends, invited Gauguin to the Yellow House in Arles. Far from being uplifting for Van Gogh, the visit turned out to be a disaster, leading to the alarming ear-cutting incident and his imprisonment in a psychiatric hospital.

The friction between the two was partly philosophical. Van Gogh’s mud-thick, choppy brushwork irritated Gauguin, who preferred a decorative style based on smooth expanses of color. Gauguin continued to pressure him to be more contemporary, the content of his imagination, rather than recording mundane wheat fields and other visual facts. Painting what you see can be much more original than what you imagine, but Gauguin didn’t want to hear that.

At the same time, Van Gogh wanted to experiment with Gauguin’s approach. The novel idea was that he worked indoors, synthesizing forms into complexes that had essentially no equivalent. This experiment led to the gigantic project Starry Night, arguably the most famous landscape painting in art history.

Admittedly, you might not think of “Starry Night” as a painting of cypresses. It is widely known as a painting of a starry night sky. But his two treetops in the foreground on the left side of the painting provide a burst of vertical energy and a very important symbolic connection between ground and sky. Van Gogh borrowed the tree image from another of his paintings. The canvas cannot be moved out of the world. Prague National Gallery.

For MET exhibition curator Susan Alison Stein, “Starry Night” is “a composite in the fullest sense of the word,” she writes in her catalogue. Perhaps that is why the painting feels more like an ink-blue hallucination rather than a concrete landscape.

Why did Van Gogh often paint two trees connected instead of one tree? It is not written in the catalog.

I called the New York Botanical Garden for answers and was referred to 47-year-old botanist Damon Little, who holds the title of curator of bioinformatics.After all, Little wrote about his 31 species in the genus Cypressus — A cypress tree. I emailed him four reproductions of Van Gogh’s famous paintings and spoke to him on the phone. He said each painting, including the less naturalistic and more abstract “Starry Night,” depicts a pair of cypress trees, one taller than the other. It was certainly a sight Van Gogh might have glimpsed in the landscape, he added.

Cypress seeds have an eccentric shape, the center of which resembles a “thick pancake”. “Their seeds don’t disperse very well, so there’s often a mother tree and offspring around it,” he said.

Mother tree and its offspring? Little’s comments suggest new interpretations, and for a moment the cypresses looked like another tree. Van Gogh unleashed it from his longstanding association with funerals and reinvented it as a masterpiece of emotional connection and nurturing. Is that what Van Gogh meant when he expressed his amazement that “as far as I can see, no one has ever done that”?

Impossible to say. His cypresses are thickly rife with conflicting approaches, from the metaphysical to the serious botany to the issues suddenly brought to the fore by the embedded pebble incident. Let Van Gogh transform the trees you find in the landscape into deep mysteries and breathe new life into ancient symbols.

Van Gogh Cypress

Preview May 16th. Open from May 22nd to August. 27, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave., 212-535-7710; Metmuseum.org.

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