Van Gogh’s Olive Tree Paintings

Olive Grove - Vincent van Gogh (1889) from Metropolitan Museum of Art
Olive Grove by Vincent van Gogh (1889), Metropolitan Museum of Art

One of my blogging hobbies (“blobbies”?) is using CC Search from Creative Commons and the Flickr Commons to look up images connected to my blogging. Most recently, the search term was olives.

Olives were on my mind after a visits to an olive grove and olive oil processing facility. Not surprisingly, I found a handful of advertisements and ephemera, but the real gems were Vincent Van Gogh’s olive tree paintings from 1889. Join me below to learn more about this series of paintings.

Voluntary Admission

It was 1889 and Vincent van Gogh was worried that he would hurt himself or others (this was not long after the incident with the ear), so in May he admitted himself to the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy, France.  There he could receive care and observation (and sharp blades would be locked away).

Once Van Gogh’s mental stability improved, the hospital staff allowed him to leave the building so he could paint on the hospital grounds. Eventually, they even let him make short journeys to nearby locations, like olive groves and hillsides with cypress trees. Despite intermittent bouts of instability — like an incident where he ate a lot of paint and the staff limited his art to pencil drawing — the time in the hospital was an artistically productive period: during the year of his confinement, he produced some remarkable paintings, including Starry Night. He also produced 14 of olive tree paintings (an incomplete list of the paintings is at the bottom of this post).

“…Too Beautiful for Me to Dare Paint…”

Olives had been on Van Gogh’s mind before his admission to the hospital. Just one month earlier, Vincent wrote his brother Theo 1,

Ah, my dear Theo, if you could see the olive trees at this time of year… The old-silver and silver foliage greening up against the blue. And the orangeish ploughed soil. It’s something very different from what one thinks of it in the north – it’s a thing of such delicacy – so refined. It’s like the lopped willows of our Dutch meadows or the oak bushes of our dunes, that’s to say the murmur of an olive grove has something very intimate, immensely old about it.

It’s too beautiful for me to dare paint it or be able to form an idea of it.

A few months later, he reflected on olive trees and his artistic efforts2,

The olive tree is variable like our willow or pollard in the north. You know that willows are very picturesque, despite the fact that it appears monotonous, it’s the tree typical of the country. Now what the willow is in our native country, the olive tree and the cypress have exactly the same importance here. What I’ve done is a rather harsh and coarse realism beside their abstractions, but it will nevertheless impart the rustic note, and will smell of the soil.

Why Did Van Gogh Paint So Many Olive Trees?

What was the attraction of olive trees? Why did he produce 14 paintings while in the hospital? One reason, of course, is that they were nearby, but so were many other subject.  An article3 that might be the first systematic study of Van Gogh’s paintings of olives and cypress proposes a few reasons:

  • He thought them to be characteristic of Provence and wanted to capture them as examples of disappearing rural lifestyle.
  • They allowed “controlled artistic experiments with line, shape, pattern and color”4. As the letter excerpts above and below indicate, olive trees can be challenging to paint.
  • After numerous personal crises and artistic reevaluation, Van Gogh wanted to focus on nature instead of religious subjects or abstractions (the article has extensive details on this decision).
  • Perhaps he identified with the olive tree:  653: the willow and the olive “…needed regular pruning, but, otherwise, it could be and usually was left to look after itself. Both trees were treated as tough outcasts, relegated to marginal land, even though the olive in particular would, apparently, have benefited from and flourished under better conditions.”  5

Comparing a Pair of Van Gogh’s Olive Tree Paintings

Instead of a big gallery of paintings, I thought it would be fun to highlight two paintings of olive pickers with nearly identical compositions.

The Olive Orchard - Vincent Van Gogh (1889). Upper: Metropolitan Museum of Art; Lower: National Gallery of Art
The Olive Orchard – Vincent Van Gogh (1889). Upper: Metropolitan Museum of Art; Lower: National Gallery of Art

The upper image is from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It has colors that remind me of the light just after sunrise: a pink sky, muted pale brown earth.

The lower image is from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.6. The colors here seem more subjective to me, with rather unusual shades for an olive grove: a pale green sky, with yellow and rose features.  It’s as if the weather was cloudy and the sky was reflecting the olive leaves. The ground has a bluish tint.

The pair of paintings are likely a result of Van Gogh’s attempt at “controlled artistic experiments.” He often started a painting in the field to create the basic layout. Back in the studio, he reworked the canvases to reach his desired end point. Writing about another olive tree painting (in the Gothenburg Museum collection), Jirat-Wasiutyński notes that the colors were “a deliberate choice made by Van Gogh in order to evoke a soft, dreamy atmosphere in keeping with his interpretation of the subject.” 7  So it’s a pretty safe guess that Van Gogh was using color to create two interpretations of the same group of olive pickers in the orchard.

We’ll end with another letter that explains more of the motivation behind Van Gogh’s olive tree paintings and how they challenge an artist8:

On the other hand the olive trees are very characteristic, and I’m struggling to capture that. It’s silver, sometimes more blue, sometimes greenish, bronzed, whitening on ground that is yellow, pink, purplish or orangeish to dull red ochre.

But very difficult, very difficult. But that suits me and attracts me to work fully in gold or silver. And one day perhaps I’ll do a personal impression of it, the way the sunflowers are for yellows. If only I’d had some of them this autumn. But this half-freedom often prevents one from doing what one nevertheless feels able to do. Patience, however, you’ll tell me, and it’s indeed necessary.

Other Thoughts

I consulted the Van Gogh letters archive to find the letter excerpts above and identify additional paintings. It’s an impressive resource:  each letter is annotated with links to the paintings discussed in the letter, informational notes are included, cross references to other letters, and so forth.

If you want a reproduction of a Van Gogh oilve grove painting, you will not have trouble finding them (Art.com, for example, has many olive grove paintings).

Some of my unanswered questions include:  How many paintings did van Gogh complete while at the Saint-Rémy hospital? What were his subjects?  Was the collection of 14 olive tree paintings significant when compared with his total output?

An Incomplete List of Olive Paintings by Van Gogh

Image Credits

The items from the Metropolitan Museum of Art were found using Creative Commons CC Search tool.

Works Consulted

Notes

  1. Excerpt of letter to Theo van Gogh, April 28, 1889
  2. Excerpt of letter to Theo van Gogh, November 26, 1889
  3. Jirat-Wasiutyński, “Vincent van Gogh’s Paintings of Olive Trees and Cypresses from St.-Rémy
  4. Jirat-Wasiutyński, page 662
  5. Jirat-Wasiutyński, page 653
  6. This painting was shown at the legendary Armory Show of 1913, which brought modern art to a much wider audience and caused a ruckus in the art world. Two other notable works at the show were Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2″ and Henri Matisse’s “Madras Rouge (Red Madras Headdress).”
  7. Jirat-Wasiutyński, page 664
  8. Excerpt of letter to Theo Van Gogh, September 28, 1889

2 comments

  1. I agree, it could be fun summer or autumn road trip to try to see the olive paintings (but not winter…I wouldn’t want to be in Minneapolis during the winter!).

    Of course, you’d need to check if they are on display first, and not in storage, undergoing conservation, or in a traveling exhibition, especially at museums like the Met, MOMA and the NGA, which have such big and deep collections that they can have a few Van Goghs in storage or traveling. Right now, the websites show that the olive paintings are not on view at MOMA and the NGA. You can find two at the Met, however, in Gallery 822.

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