When van Gogh began painting the olive orchards in Saint-Remy, he stated in a letter that he was interested in depicting the contrast of the color of olive leaves with that of the sky.1
The painter considered the olives, among other plants and geographic features, to be characteristic of the Provençal landscape. He also expressed an interest in portraying the relationship between man and nature in his canvases.
While working on several olive canvases, van Gogh received news from Emile Bernard and Paul Gauguin concerning their respective biblically inspired works. Both painters had completed canvases entitled, Christ in the Garden of Olives, focusing upon the theme of Christ seeking consolation in the Garden of Gethsemene. It is unknown whether van Gogh intended the olive tree paintings to have a particularly religious interpretation or not. However, his strong reaction to what he called Bernard and Gauguin’s "abstractions " suggest that he considered his own worm, depicting a real olive orchard based on nature, to be at least equal to theirs in representing salvation and consolation.
1. The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, v. III, letter 614a. Greenwich, Conn.:New York Graphic Society.