The new exhibition of landscapes and still lifes by Vincent Van Gogh at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is aptly entitled Van Gogh Up Close. This impressive exhibition clearly establishes Van Gogh’s love of the natural world, his tremendous powers of observation and mastery of detail. With over forty of Van Gogh’s paintings on display, plus a wide range of supporting material such as a selection of Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints similar to those he collected, art lovers will be able to appreciate Van Gogh’s intense focus on the fields outside his window and the flower beds at his feet.
The magnitude of Van Gogh’s achievement in creating these vivid nature studies is best appreciated by resisting the temptation of immediately analyzing his trademark use of bold, impassioned brush strokes. Instead, stand back and view the works on display from several feet back.
Indeed, if you can manage it in the crowded museum galleries, select a painting, perhaps Wheatfield from 1888, with its characteristic high horizon line. Study it from across the room. Then move closer and you will see an amazing transformation, an act of alchemy, in which the inner life of plants, trees, underbrush, even clouds and drops of rain are revealed.
What Van Gogh created with his scenes from nature were in fact portals to the inner recesses of the cosmos. We see at first window-like views of a field of wheat or a patch of flowers. Then, as if manipulating the lens of binoculars, we focus our attention and, getting closer and closer to the painting, we pass through the portal and enter into a state of communion with the ripening crops or blooming gardens that fill our field of vision. At that point, we are standing on the same spot where Van Gogh stood as he painted these works of art.
This fine exhibition can be enjoyed on many levels. But the ultimate effect of Van Gogh Up Close is to realize the full extent of Van Gogh’s astonishing ability to comprehend and depict the mysteries of nature.
A fitting introduction to Van Gogh’s approach to nature can be found in Field with Flowers near Arles. In a letter to his brother Theo, dated May 12, 1888, Van Gogh described this scene in the south of France as “A little town surrounded by fields completely blooming with yellow and purple flowers; you know, it is a beautiful Japanese dream.”
The identification of Provence with Japan was significant because Van Gogh hoped that the artists’ colony he planned to establish there would enable him and fellow painters to explore the color effects to be found in Japanese woodblock prints. What he found and recorded in this painting is something even more profound. Iris and yellow buttercups are growing wild in a meadow, which Van Gogh told his brother he hoped would not be mowed before he had a chance to paint it again. Here is the power of nature, growing of its own accord. Here was beauty that humans might plow-up, cut-down or harvest, but could not match, except perhaps through the ability of a painter to capture it on canvas. In the same letter, Van Gogh mentions that Arles had been buffeted by the mistral, the strong, sometimes gale force, winds which sweep down the Rhone Valley from the north of France. The effect of these springtime winds can be seen in the turbulent, unsettled surface of Van Gogh’s sky in this painting, created with thick daubs of blue color. The sky is cloudless too. For the mistral, in brushing aside fog and clouds, is the source of Provence’s long, sunny summer.
Or was Van Gogh’s passionate mind the force behind the billowing air currents in this work?
Van Gogh mentioned both the mistral and this particular painting in a second letter, dated May 20, 1888, to his artist friend, Emile Bernard. So, both the flowering meadow and the seasonal winds were much in his thoughts. But it is worthy of note that artists usually seek out subjects which match their emotional needs. Van Gogh may have ventured to Provence looking for “a beautiful Japanese dream.” But in the wind-swept meadows and fields around Arles, he found a setting, prepared by nature itself, for some of his greatest works of art.
Van Gogh had gone in search of the secrets of nature ever since his boyhood treks out onto the moors and peat marshes that surrounded the town of Zundert in the south of Holland where he was raised. Few of his early sketches remain, but in 1883 he created several remarkable pencil drawings of the Dutch countryside that prefigure the later works on exhibit in Van Gogh Up Close. It is regrettable that some of these drawings, like The Kingfisher or Pollard Birches from March 1883, were not included in this exhibit. For they show how deep-seated was Van Gogh’s desire to depict the living essence of nature.
So great was van Gogh’s identification with the natural world that he was often moved to contrast the features of weather-beaten trees and fields with the careworn peasants and villagers who made their livelihood from working the land he painted. In The Road Menders at Saint-Rémy, Van Gogh depicted an avenue of gnarled plane trees towering over the bent backs of workmen repairing a flooded, muddy road. The parallel is even more striking when it is recalled that lines of tree, usually cypresses in the south of France, are planted along the side of roads to serve as protection against the ravaging gusts of the mistral. Trees and men, lashed by storm and by fate, toil together to maintain the infrastructure of daily life.
In one of his most remarkable letters to Theo, dated December 10, 1882, van Gogh evoked the correlation of humans and plants that is apparent in such works as The Road Menders at Saint-Rémy.
Sometimes I long so much to do landscape, just as one would for a long walk to refresh oneself, and in all of nature, in trees for instance, I see expression and a soul, as it were.
A row of pollard willows sometimes resembles a procession of orphan men.
Young corn can have something ineffably pure and gentle about it that evokes an emotion like that aroused by the expression of a sleeping child, for example.
The grass trodden down at the side of a road looks tired and dusty like the inhabitants of a poor quarter. After it had snowed recently I saw a group of Savoy cabbages that were freezing, and that reminded me of a group of women I had seen early in the morning at a water and fire cellar in their thin skirts and old shawls.
Van Gogh’s identification of people with plant life might have led him to shallow, even silly, comparisons like the popular 19th century paintings and prints that equated animals with human characteristics. Instead, Van Gogh was motivated to depict the cycle of natural life in its rise, flowering and decay. Van Gogh’s paintings of golden sunflowers are now regarded as his signature works. But the study of two severed, dried-out sunflowers, painted in 1887 and once owned by Paul Gauguin, is not a bouquet of spring blossoms. It is a memento mori.
Many of the paintings in Van Gogh Up Close were painted as intimations of Van Gogh’s own mortality. Following his emotional collapse in Arles in December 1888, the scope for painting was linked to his mental well-being. While under care at the hospitals in St. Rémy and Auvers, Van Gogh’s universe often shrank to what he could see from his window.
Two works in particular highlight Van Gogh’s diminished oeuvre following his break-down in Arles.
The first is Iris, painted in May 1889 while Van Gogh was recovering in the hospital of Saint-Paul-de-Mausolée at Saint-Rémy in Provence. This work was painted in the cloistered garden at Saint-Remy, before Van Gogh was given limited permission to paint outside the walls, as in the case of The Road Menders at Saint-Rémy. Iris, from the collection of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, has the austere beauty of a Japanese floral arrangement. A single iris in full bloom on the left provides a focusing point, but several others, poised on the brink of opening, actually occupy the dominant central space of the picture plane. Yet, the solitary blooming iris creates a powerful symbolic effect. It testifies to the vital energy of nature, the life force that can grow and flower even in the garden of madhouse.
The second of these revelatory works evokes a very different emotional response. Rain, or to use its traditional title Wheat Field in Rain, was painted in early November 1889. It was one of a series showing an enclosed wheat field that was visible from the workroom of the clinic at Saint-Rémy which Van Gogh was allowed to use for his studio.
In Rain, Van Gogh used a nearly monotone palette to convey a sense of late autumn as the desolate, fallow season of the year. Rain may also serve as a symbol of the waning of life’s promise. The defining element in the painting is the yellow ochre fence which snakes its way across the canvas. This barrier cuts Van Gogh and the viewer from the rugged terrain beyond. Only a year before, he had tramped across that wild landscape in searched of scenic viewpoints for his paintings of the countryside around Arles. Now, his freedom – and ours – is restricted to a small patch of already harvested earth.
Van Gogh, however, was able to find a few patches of wilderness even in the confines of the grounds of Saint-Paul-de-Mausolée. He painted a number of views of three trunks and undergrowth in an overgrown garden of the hospital. One of these, Tree Trunks with Ivy is included in the exhibition. But a key feature of these works is that they hearken back to similar scenes that Van Gogh had created before his emotional collapse and confinement. Undergrowth, from 1887, was painted while he was in Paris, prior to his venture to the south of France. This work was not as technically revolutionary as it might appear. It was done in the tradition of sous-bois landscape painting which had been popularized by Barbizon School painters of the 1850’s like Theodore Rousseau.
Van Gogh took this French term literally. Sous-bois means “under wood.” In Van Gogh’s style, majestic trees shrink down to their trunks and the tangle of ground cover on the forest floor becomes a subject in its own right. Also, noteworthy in this 1887 painting is the brilliant way that Van Gogh conveyed the effect of sunlight filtering through the dappled leaves of the bushes and second-growth saplings surrounding the solid bulk of the tree at center.
In 1890, while living at Auvers-sur-Oise, not far from Paris, Van Gogh returned to sous-bois painting. A startling work, that confounds easy explanation, is on display. Van Gogh often painted couples strolling arm-in-arm down wooded paths, as in the beautiful pointillist work, Couples in the Park at Asnieres, painted in the early summer of 1887. But Undergrowth with Two Figures presents a shadowy pair walking through dense underbrush and wild flowers. There is no path in sight and the featureless man and woman, dressed in funereal black and gray, are framed by violet trees that recede into the dark recesses of the forest. Despite Van Gogh’s aversion to the genre of Symbolism, it is hard to resist thinking that the mysterious man and woman in that pathless wood represent some premeditation of death.
But that may be a very misleading interpretation. In a letter to Theo and his wife Jo, Van Gogh merely described the color effect of the painting and sent an accompanying sketch. A few lines down in the letter, Van Gogh stoically addresses the fact that his illness might reoccur and that it was unlikely that he would ever marry. Yet he affirms that “I still love art and life very much.”
Less than a month later, Van Gogh was dead. His death on July 29, 1890 was ruled a suicide. His most recent biographers, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, dispute that verdict. What the works in this exhibition suggest is that while Van Gogh wrestled with loneliness, depression and death, he chose life as his constant theme. That is certainly true of the enchantingly beautiful work that concludes the exhibition, Almond Blossom, which he painted for his nephew and namesake, Vincent, the infant son of Theo and Jo.
The crowded universe of Vincent Van Gogh’s life and mind are open to many theories and explanations. But if you want the most perceptive commentary on the paintings exhibited in Van Gogh Up Close, then the following words of Vincent Van Gogh himself cannot be bettered.
If one studies Japanese art, one sees what it is that an incontestably wise and philosophical man spends his time doing…. He studies a single blade of grass. But that blade of grass leads him on to paint every plant, then every season, rolling landscapes, then at last animals and the human form. That is how he spends his life, and life is too short for him to do it all.
Van Gogh Up Close appears at the Philadelphia Musuem of Art, 26th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA 19130 (February 1 -May 6, 2012).
The exhibition travels to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, 380 Sussex Drive, Ottawa, Ontario, K1N 9N4 (May 25 – September 3, 2012)