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National Gallery painting comes to life

Issued: May 2011

For the first time ever, a painting is being made into a ‘living wall’ outside the National Gallery. With over 8,000 living plants, General Electric (GE) has brought a masterpiece to life with a version of Van Gogh’s famous painting A Wheatfield, with Cypresses as part of the Gallery’s carbon plan.

Situated on hoarding on the western side of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, the painting will be grown throughout the summer and autumn, remaining in place until the end of October 2011. 'A Wheatfield, with Cypresses' was chosen because the strong bands of colour can be reproduced effectively using living plants.

The living painting has been constructed by specialist horticulture and design company ANS using over 8,000 plants of more than 26 different varieties. To create the artwork, each plant was selected for its unique colour to match the tones of the original painting. It was then hand-planted into its location in one of three modules according to a numbered drawing which replicated the image. The modules were then grown vertically at the nursery ready for installation.

'A Wheatfield, with Cypresses' was painted in September 1889, when Van Gogh was in the St-Rémy mental asylum, near Arles, where he was a patient from May 1889 until May 1890. Writing to his brother Theo early in September, Van Gogh promised to send his brother ‘twelve size 30 canvases’ and it seems likely that 'A Wheatfield, with Cypresses' was one of them.

The painting was probably painted in a single sitting with some minor later additions and it is one of three almost identical versions of the composition. Another painting of the cypresses (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) was painted earlier, in July 1889, and was probably painted directly in front of the subject.

‘The intense stylisation of forms in the National Gallery canvas shows Van Gogh striving to move beyond description to capture the essence of the landscape,’ says Christopher Riopelle, Curator of Post-1800 Paintings at the Gallery.

Van Gogh was committed to working from nature yet he strove to render the ‘inner character’ of the landscape rather than to reproduce its superficial appearance. As a subject, cypress trees appealed both to Van Gogh’s eye and his imagination; the elegant silhouettes were ‘as beautiful of line and proportion as an Egyptian obelisk’. He described them as ‘a splash of black in a sunny landscape’, and while he saw them as tall, beautiful, sculptural objects, they must also have reminded him that these are trees that are frequently sited in graveyards.

The heat of the South of France is quite absent from this painting. The sky, the olive trees and the Mediterranean shrubs all seem to be affected by the wind. Only the glowing field of wheat exudes a warmth as it sways first one way and then the other. The wheat is nearly ready for the reaper. In his letters Van Gogh wrote, ‘I see him as the image of death, in the sense that humanity might be what he is reaping. But there is nothing sad in this death. It goes its way in broad daylight, with a sun flooding everything with a light of pure gold.’

The living painting is a creative manifestation of GE’s commitment to the environment through its ‘ecomagination’ business strategy, which is concerned with meeting customers’ demands for more energy-efficient products. GE is also working to improve the Gallery’s carbon footprint by supplying one of its environmentally-friendly Jenbacher cogeneration heat and power engines (a JG5412), which will contribute significantly to the Gallery’s electricity requirements.

For more information please contact Eloise Maxwell on 020 7747 2420 or

Notes to Editors

About GE in the UK

GE has been operating in the UK since the 1930s. Today its 18,000 employees serve the energy, oil & gas, healthcare, aerospace, financial and media industries. GE has a strong and continuing commitment to the UK economy, having invested £13bn in British businesses since 2001. Its 2009 UK revenues were £4bn. From 60 major locations, including 25 world-class manufacturing and R&D facilities, GE delivers high-tech innovative solutions to the global marketplace. Its locations include London, Aberdeen, Amersham, Cardiff, Cheltenham, Leicester, Nailsea and Southampton.

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