Van Gogh’s Olive Trees

Frances Fowle

Vincent van Gogh is one of the most mythologised figures in art history. The Dutch Post-Impressionist is usually recalled as a madman, with his bandaged ear, painting in a tortured frenzy.

Art historian and Senior Curator at the Scottish National Gallery, Francis Fowle considers the brilliant and varied artist behind the myth. Van Gogh’s many depictions of olive trees demonstrate the surprisingly studious approach which went into his expressive brushwork, and his thoughtful interest in Impressionist colour theory. Spiritually charged but diligently sketched from life, Fowle sees Van Gogh’s olive grove paintings as a ‘pure vision of the landscape’.

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Van Gogh painted a whole series of Olive Trees in 1889, and this painting in the Scottish National Gallery is one of my absolute favourites. It’s a really pure vision of the landscape and it’s full of energy, and his real passion for his subject. People tend to, I think, read into the painting Van Gogh’s mental state at the time. For example, in 1910, he was described by the critics as ‘a madman’. And this myth evolved of Van Gogh as the madman, which almost, in a way, is responsible for us remembering and celebrating him. But he generally would paint only during a moment of calm. Even though when you look at the painting, it looks like he’s suffering from tremendous anguish, he probably wasn’t at the time. He was probably actually relishing the country, and just looking at the olive groves.

It looks on the surface as if it’s been painted very quickly and in a rather slap-dash manner because he’s got the paint squeezed directly from the tube in places, but it’s actually quite carefully worked out. It’s got this real sense of rhythm, and there’s much more to it as you look into it. Another thing I think is really fascinating is this wonderful, really gnarled shape of the trees themselves. They’re very convoluted shapes and then that works up into the movement of the leaves. You can see the same kind of movement in paintings like Starry Night when you get the sense of the sky, which is very turbulent. But it is quite rhythmic as well.

Van Gogh took quite a long time to develop into an artist. His first career was as an art dealer, and he worked in the Hague for his uncle’s business. He decided he was going to join the church, train to be a minister, taking after his father. And he went and worked as a lay preacher in the Borinage which is an area in Belgium, for a period. Working amongst very poor people, miners, people who are very much working class. And those were the people that he really responded to throughout his life. He always was a bit of an outsider.

He then moved to Paris, and he encountered Impressionism for the first time. Immediately his palette lightened. And then he met the artist Emile Bernard, who had quite an influence on him along with Paul Gauguin. He was also looking at the work of George Seurat, the Pointillist. They were responsible largely for the changes that take place in his work at this time. He paints with these broad strokes, very stabbing brushstrokes and you get this sense of incredible energy. You can see that in the Olive Trees. This was the period after he’d had this terrible crisis when Gauguin was staying with him in Arles and he chopped his ear off.

He then admitted himself to the asylum in Saint-Rémy and was there for nearly a year. He had a view of olive groves from his window. So that became his favourite subject. In November 1889, Van Gogh wrote to his friend Emile Bernard;

[Van Gogh’s letter] So at present, I’m working in present I’m working in the olive groves, seeking the effects of the grey sky against yellow earth, with dark green note of the foliage. Then red ochre earth, and pink and green sky. If I haven’t written for a long time, it’s because having to struggle against my illness and to calm my head, I hardly felt like having discussions and found danger in these abstractions.

The thing that really makes the impact is the fact that the landscape is slipping away, it slips down to the right. You feel like you’re almost losing control. One of the most striking things, I think, is the different layers of the paint. You’ve got these very thick impasto areas where the paint stands up on the surface. So he’s quite experimental in his approach. He’s worked the top of the painting a great deal, so this part’s much more spontaneous. And then you can see this very thick layering up at the top where he’s trying to work out the relationship between the trees and the sky in the background. He talks a lot on the letters about the different contrasting colours between the wonderful silvery olive grey of the trees themselves, and then the colour of the sky.

When we look at the Van Gogh Olive Trees, there are associations that Van Gogh makes with the painting of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, but he was not happy to paint a fictitious painting. So, for example, Gauguin had painted Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, and used his own self-portrait as Christ. But Van Gogh was not happy to do that, he wanted to paint what he saw. So he paints here the olive trees as he sees them. But at the same time, he’s trying to express that sense of, perhaps, religious fervour. I think there is quite a profound spiritual element to a lot of his work, but he was very conflicted and especially, you see this developing towards the end of his life. Paintings like The Sower. This idea of the cycle of the seasons, he was very interested in the natural cycle of life.

Van Gogh is popular today, firstly because he’s a great artist, but secondly because we know so much about him, and so everyone knows about the story about the ear. We know him perhaps more often through the reproduction placemat, than we do through actually looking at the paintings. And in some ways, that’s a problem because people have got this very stereotypical view of what represents Van Gogh, of what a Van Gogh painting is. But in fact, he was an incredibly diverse and varied and brilliant artist.

With thanks to

National Galleries of Scotland

 

Archive

Alamy Stock Photo

Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin

Fondation Vincent Van Gogh Arles

Kimbell Art Museum

Kröller-Müller Museum

Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis

Musée d’Orsay

Museum of Modern Art, New York

National Gallery of Scotland

Norton Museum of Art

Pond5

RNK Innovations

Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

Stavros Niarcos

The Courtauld

The Morgan Library & Museum

The National Gallery, London

The Umbrella Shoppe

United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs

Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam


Music

Audio Network

Original composition

 

Full list of images shown: 

Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat

Vincent van Gogh, 1887

Van Gogh Museum

 

The Starry Night

Vincent van Gogh, 1889

Museum of Modern Art, New York

 

Self-Portrait

Vincent van Gogh, 1889

Musée d’Orsay

© Musée d’Orsay, dist.RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

 

Self-Portrait as a Painter

Vincent van Gogh, 1887 – 1888

Van Gogh Museum

 

The Potato Eaters

Vincent van Gogh, 1885

Van Gogh Museum

 

Bird’s eye view of Paris, France

Anonymous photographer, c. 1890s

 

Panorama of the Seven Bridges, Paris, France

Anonymous photographer, c. 1890 – 1919

United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs

 

Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois Paris

Claude Monet, 1867

Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin

© b p k – Photo Agency / Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Jörg P. Anders

 

Paris study: View from Theo’s Apartment

Vincent van Gogh, 1887

Van Gogh Museum

 

Portrait of Emile Bernard

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1886

© The National Gallery, London

 

Self-Portrait

Paul Gaugin, 1885

Kimbell Art Museum

 

Seine at La Grande Jatte

Georges Seurat, 1888

Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

 

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear

Vincent van Gogh, 1889

The Courtauld

© The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

 

Van Gogh Asylum St. Remy de-Provence France

Brian Jannsen, 2009

Alamy Stock Photo

 

Hospital in Saint Remy

Vincent Van Gogh, 1889

Musée d’Orsay

 

Olive Orchard

Vincent van Gogh, 1889

Kröller-Müller Museum

 

Letter from Vincent van Gogh writing from Saint Remy to Emile Bernard, c. 1889 Nov. 26., letter 26 [1v2] Sketches after E. Bernard, Madeleine in the Bois d’Amour and Red poplars.

Thaw Collection

The Morgan Library & Museum: MA 6441.19

 

Women Picking Olives

Vincent Van Gogh, 1889

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0)

 

The Olive Trees

Vincent van Gogh, 1889

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0)

 

Christ in the Garden of Olives

Paul Gauguin, 1889

Norton Museum of Art

 

Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun

Vincent van Gogh, 1889

Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis

 

The Church at Auvers

Vincent van Gogh, 1890

Musée d’Orsay

© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

 

The Sower

Vincent van Gogh, 1888

The Van Gogh Museum

 

Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe

Vincent van Gogh, 1889

Stavros Niarcos

 

Umbrella with Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ print

© 2018 The Umbrella Shoppe

 

The Starry Night (Van Gogh 1889) Dinner Set – 4 Pc

© 2014-2017 RNK Innovations

 

Sunflowers

Vincent van Gogh, 1889

Van Gogh Museum

 

Wheatfield with Crows

Vincent van Gogh, 1890

Van Gogh Museum

 

Olive Trees

Vincent van Gogh, 1889

National Gallery of Scotland

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/4971/olive-trees

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