Van Gogh painted this patch of meadow when he was a patient at the psychiatric hospital at Saint-Paul de Mausole, near the village of St-Rémy in the south of France. While at the hospital he made a number of sketches and paintings that look down at small areas of meadow or undergrowth.
Although there is no horizon or sky, the path near the top of the picture creates an effect of depth. In contrast to the boundary formed by the path, the remaining space is open and potentially extends beyond the sides and bottom of the canvas. The grass is painted with distinct brushstrokes of varying length, laid down in clusters like the clumps they describe.
Van Gogh’s interest in depicting nature in detail may have been encouraged by what he had read about Japanese culture, and his belief that ‘the wise Japanese man...studies a single blade of grass’. But there were also important precedents in Renaissance art and in seventeenth-century Dutch painting.
From May 1889 to May 1890, Van Gogh was a patient at the psychiatric hospital at Saint-Paul de Mausole, near the village of St-Rémy in the south of France. He was initially restricted to working within the hospital’s precincts, although he was pleased to find these included ‘abandoned gardens’ in which ‘the grass grows tall and unkempt, mixed with all kinds of weeds’.
Among the works Van Gogh produced while at the hospital were a number of sketches and paintings that look down at small areas of meadow or undergrowth. Although these patches of nature may have been shaped by human intervention – crops have been sown, grass has been cut, or there may be the suggestion of a path – there is no obvious human presence.
Writing to his brother Theo around 4 May 1890, Van Gogh stated ‘the work is going well, I’ve done 2 canvases of the newly cut grass.’ He provided a sketch of one and the other is presumed to be this painting. The sketch shows a meadow filled with flowers, with two large tree trunks in the left foreground – the view in Pine Trees and Dandelions in the Garden of the Saint-Paul hospital of 1890 (Kröller-Müller Museum, Oterloo). In the National Gallery painting, however, Van Gogh has focused almost exclusively on the grass and some white butterflies. It is as if this picture is an enlarged detail of one of the grassy areas in the Kröller-Müller painting or a detail from one of the enclosed meadows that Van Gogh also painted while at the hospital, such as Field of Wheat Spring at Sunrise (1890), also in the Kröller-Müller Museum.
Although there is no horizon or sky, an effect of spatial depth is created by a path near the top of the picture, which runs almost parallel with the upper left edge of the canvas. The bases of several trees or bushes and the smaller size of the blades of grass in the distance, which are perhaps part of a separate meadow that fills the upper third of the picture, add to this depth. In contrast to the boundary formed by the path, the remaining space is open and potentially extends beyond the other three edges of the canvas. Van Gogh has painted the grass itself using tones of green, yellow, ochre and white interspersed with blue, lilac and purple. He painted the grass with distinct brushstrokes of varying length, laid down in clusters like the clumps they describe. In the distance, these strokes become shorter dashes and dots.
Van Gogh’s interest in depicting nature in detail may have been encouraged by what he had read about Japanese culture. Writing to Theo in September 1888, he explained that the ‘wise Japanese man’ was not interested in astronomy or politics: ‘No, he studies a single blade of grass. But this blade of grass leads him to draw all the plants – then the seasons, the grand spectacles of landscapes, finally animals, then the human figure … isn’t what we are taught by these simple Japanese, who live in nature as they themselves were flowers, almost a true religion?’ Pictorially, however, Van Gogh’s detailed studies of nature, especially of vegetation and flowers, had important precedents in Renaissance art, notably studies by Leonardo and Dürer, and in seventeenth-century Dutch painting.
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