Van Gogh painted several versions of A Wheatfield, with Cypresses during the summer of 1889, while he was a patient in the psychiatric hospital of Saint-Paul de Mausole, in the village of St-Rémy in the south of France. A first version, which he described as a study, was painted on site in late June 1889. The National Gallery’s painting, which was completed in September while Van Gogh was confined to his hospital room, is the finished version. He also made a smaller copy of it for his mother and sister.
The landscape includes typically Provençal motifs such as a golden wheat field, tall evergreen cypresses, an olive bush and a backdrop of the blue Alpilles mountains. Van Gogh wrote of painting outdoors during the summer mistral, the strong, cold wind of southern France, which here seems to animate the entire landscape. Everything is depicted with powerful rhythmic lines and swirling brushstrokes that convey Van Gogh’s sense of nature’s vitality.
On 25 June 1889, just one month after he admitted himself as a patient at the psychiatric hospital of Saint-Paul de Mausole at St-Rémy in the south of France, Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo: ‘The cypresses still preoccupy me, I’d like to do something with them like the canvases of the sunflowers because it astonishes me that no one has yet done them as I see them. It’s beautiful as regards lines and proportions like an Egyptian obelisk. And the green has such a distinguished quality. It’s the dark patch in a sun-drenched landscape.’
Van Gogh produced several versions of A Wheatfield, with Cypresses. Allowed out of the hospital’s grounds if accompanied by a guardian, he painted his first version on site in late June 1889. He viewed that picture (now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) as a first impression or preliminary study for the final painting. In September, while temporarily confined to his room due to a relapse, Van Gogh painted the National Gallery’s picture. The same scale as the initial study, this is the final version, which Van Gogh judged to be one of his best summer landscapes. He also made a smaller copy for his mother and sister (now in a private collection).
Devoid of visible human presence, this landscape includes typically Provençal motifs – a golden wheat field, tall evergreen cypresses, an olive bush and a backdrop of the blue Alpilles mountains. This landscape had a special, even symbolic, meaning for Van Gogh. In particular, the cycle from sowing to harvesting wheat – often represented by the figures of the sower and the reaper – was a metaphor, based on biblical parable, for life and death. Writing to his sister on 2 July regarding people’s responses to events we do not control or understand, he observed, ‘What else can one do … but gaze upon the wheatfields. Their story is ours, for we who live on bread, are we not ourselves wheat to a considerable extent, at least ought we not to submit to growing, powerless to move, like a plant, relative to what our imagination sometimes desires, and to be reaped when we are ripe, as it is?’
Van Gogh wrote of painting outdoors during the summer mistral, the strong, cold wind of southern France. Here we can sense the wind animating not just the wheat and trees but the clouds too, and even the distant mountains, as everything is depicted with powerful rhythmic lines. By painting the landscape again, Van Gogh was able to make this second version slightly more stylised than the first. In this, he was responding to the work of Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard. Noting in his letters that his work was ‘comparable’ in purpose to theirs, their move towards abstraction further encouraged his own break with Impressionism.
Van Gogh also cited Monticelli’s use of impasto as an influence, although he has not applied the paint as thickly here as in the first version. His signature swirling brushstrokes nonetheless both energise and bind together every part of the landscape and convey his abiding sense of nature’s vitality. This dynamic sinuous line has similarities with the serpentine line of Art Nouveau, which was emerging at this time. However, Van Gogh’s line is never merely decorative but is used for expressive ends.
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