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Olive Trees:


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Vincent van Gogh has long been recognized as one of the outstanding forerunners of modern painting. Olive Trees, one of his late great works, was painted while he was a patient at the Asylum of St. Paul in Saint Rémy. Working outdoors in the bright sunlight of southern France, he created this dynamic and vibrant painting that expresses his own personal emotions and anxieties and the energy and vitality he saw in nature. This painting incorporates the vivid colors, energetic brushstrokes, linearity, and heavy impasto1 that distinguish his mature style.
The eldest of six children born to a Calvinist minister, Vincent van Gogh was born in Groot-Zundert, Holland. As a lay minister in a mining district in Belgium, he was greatly affected by the extreme poverty of the miners. He began to sketch the miners, using reproductions of the works of Millet as examples from which to learn. Familiar with English engravings and the books of Dickens and Eliot, van Gogh believed that the best art depicted the suffering of the poor.

In October of 1880, van Gogh announced to his family that he was going to become a painter. Because his father was not supportive of his goals, van Gogh was dependent on the financial help of his younger brother Theo, an art dealer. Van Gogh studied briefly at an art school in Brussels but left because he was dissatisfied with the traditional teaching method. He set out once again to the country, teaching himself to draw by sketching peasants at work. Living in extreme poverty throughout these years and often in poor health, he finally sought refuge in his father's parsonage at Nuenen in 1884 where he threw himself passionately into his work.

In 1886 at age 33, van Gogh went to Paris to live with Theo, who now had his own gallery. Here he was exposed to the innovations of Manet, Degas, Gauguin, the Impressionists, the Divisionists, the Symbolists, and Japanese woodblock prints. At the urging of Pissarro, he abandoned his dark, gloomy palette for the light, shimmering colors and broken brushstrokes of Impressionism.2 He collected Japanese prints because he admired their color, and in them he discovered the expressive line that would enable him to communicate his own emotions in painting. He painted over 200 pictures including views of Paris, still lifes, and portraits, many of them in imitation of the new styles to which he was exposed.

In February of 1888, he left wintry Paris for the warmth of Arles in the south of France. It was here that van Gogh began to develop his own unique technique and style of painting. A debilitating disease3caused van Gogh to experience great despair and feelings of insanity at times. As his condition grew worse he was hospitalized at Arles, and later he voluntarily committed himself to the asylum at Saint Rémy.

In spite of continuing mental deterioration, van Gogh's creative productivity in periods of lucidity was prodigious. Working between bad periods, he executed over 150 canvases during the last six months of his life. In February of 1890, he received news that his first painting had been sold-the one and only sale of his lifetime. In May of 1890, he checked out of the sanitarium and placed himself under the care of Dr. Paul Gachet in Auvers-sur-Oise, just outside of Paris, where he painted constantly.

Despite the great outpouring of artistic production at this time, his problems overwhelmed him, and tragically, he took his own life on the 27th of July. He had painted for only ten years, the final 15 months of which he was in a private asylum. In a letter to Theo on the day of his death, van Gogh disclosed his attitude toward his art and his relationship to it:

Really, we can speak only through our paintings. In my own work I am risking my life, and half my reason has been lost to it.4
Among the motifs that he painted and sketched while in Provence were the mountains, gardens, wheatfields, and especially, the olive orchards. These motifs were ones that van Gogh wrestled with from June to December of 1889. He saw trees as writhing flames spurting from a troubled earth.
Olive Trees was created in the fall of 1899. It is one of about 15 compositions of olive trees that van Gogh painted. On September 28, he wrote in a letter to his brother that he was struggling to capture them (the trees). On October 12 he wrote to his friend Émile Bernard, ". . . they are silver against a soil of orange and violet hues under the large white sun."5 Late in the season, he had received a letter from his friend Bernard telling of his recent canvas depicting Christ in the Garden of Olives. Gauguin had also made a painting of the same subject. Van Gogh responded to the news by stating that he did not need to draw on traditional sources when he had such a source of inspiration in reality. He asserted that it was better to paint a live orchard that was emotionally and symbolically charged with meaning than any literal rendering of the scene. He wished to express the spirit of the Gospels rather than illustrating them literally.
Christ, as I felt him, has only really been expressed in paint by Delacroix and Rembrandt. . . . After that there's Millet, who painted [not Christ himself, but] Christ's teaching.6
By November 22, he told Bernard that he had just finished five canvases of olive trees.
This month I have been working in the olive groves because their (Gauguin and Bernard) Christ in the Garden with nothing really observed have gotten on my nerves. What I have done is a rather hard and coarse reality beside their abstractions, but it will have a rustic quality and will smell of the earth.
Although he had times of great torment and anguish, van Gogh also experienced periods of tranquillity. It was in the calmer times, that he created his most profound works. Each of his pictures, which he called a "cry of anguish," was an attempt to capture his own reality. For this reason, it is nearly impossible when evaluating the painting to separate the artist's life from the aesthetic qualities of the work of art.

In his attempt to give form to the "things that fill my head and my heart," van Gogh made the discovery that color had inherent expressive powers apart from its descriptive use. The thought came to him that some day color would come into its own through the work of a supreme colorist.7 He expressed the world and everything that he saw and experienced in terms of color in his many letters to his brother. He described the olive trees that he was trying to capture on canvas:

I sought. . . contrasting effects in the foliage, changing with the hues of the sky. At times the whole sky is a pure self-pervading blue. . . then, as the bronzed leaves are getting riper in time, the sky is brilliant and radiant with green and orange. . . or more often. . . when the leaves acquire something of the violet tinges of the ripe fig, the violet effect will manifest itself vividly through the contrasts with the sun taking on a white tint within a halo of clear and pale citron yellow.8
Van Gogh greatly admired the color used in Japanese prints, and from them also learned to simplify and organize, and yet remain close to nature. But he was no less concerned with spiritual values, and from Delacroix he learned that color was the means by which the artist could express them. Starting from the principle that the greater the area of a given color, the greater its expressive value, he did not hesitate to use color in an arbitrary way. It comes as no surprise, then, that he was "absolutely convinced of the importance of absolutely piling on, exaggerating the color."

Van Gogh evolved a technique in which painting and drawing tended to be a single process. He once told Theo that he "would not draw a picture with charcoal. That is no use; you must attack drawing with the color itself in order to draw well." He reveled in thick, pure strokes and daubs, applied with a loaded brush or sometimes straight from the tube. In the MIA painting, the reddish-brown gnarled trunks of the trees explode in vibrant blue-green foliage. The trees twist and writhe under the pulsating yellow sun, whose ochre rays fall upon the blue-gray mountains of the background like shards of broken glass. Although these are summer trees, they cast their blue-black and brown shadows upon an undulating field of gold, rust, and yellow autumn grasses.

The glowing sunlight of Arles had brought forth an explosion of color in van Gogh's work. Although color continued to be a powerful element in his work after he entered the asylum at St. Rémy, line emerged as a dominant force. The impression of great turbulence in this painting results from the fact that he bonded the blazing color to dashed, jagged, undulating lines. As a result, every single thing in the painting is in motion. We feel as if the ground is shifting beneath the trees. Leaves rustle and trees twist while their shadows advance toward us like flowing water. Concentric waves of heat radiate in circles around the sun. The brushstrokes themselves rush across the canvas in a layer of thick short dashes, further adding a sense of urgency and dynamism. One is given the impression that nature is alive and charged. The land glows with color and vibrates with motion.

The movement is controlled in spite of the boldness of the brush strokes and lines. Instead of the violent brushstrokes, thick impasto, and turbulent compositions of the work of his earlier period in Arles, here the brushstrokes are placed in broad, short parallel strokes, creating a unified and harmonious surface. The building up of heavy pigment on the canvas lends it a tangible quality, creating an object that is solid and concrete, reinforcing a sense of reality.

Near and far distance are balanced against one another in the painting. The yellow sun advances toward us, while the blue-gray mountains recede in the distance. The olive trees are bound to the foreground by the bold black outlines. In the distance, the sun is fixed also by the concentric lines. The lines of diminishing trees carry our eyes into the painting to converge at the foot of the mountains, only to be directed up to meet the sun, which in turn is connected to the trees of the foreground. Simultaneously, we experience depth and yet are very much aware that we are looking at the flat plane of the picture.

Van Gogh was one of the first artists to consider the symbolic value of his images as a matter of primary importance. Conditioned by his religious background, he expressed himself both in his letters and in his art, in terms of metaphor. However, the symbolism that he adopted was a personal one rather than that of Christian iconography. Van Gogh's symbolism arose from observation of life and the feelings evoked by it. Farmers sowing or reaping their crops, ravens hovering overhead, the sun shining upon them, sunflowers growing in a field, or an olive orchard were all elements of visual and emotional experience that became part of his personal iconography. The experience of the sun in Arles profoundly influenced his work, becoming the subject of many paintings. (This is the only version of the olive gardens that includes the sun.) The sun represented a powerful symbol of energy to van Gogh, and the sunlight a cosmic manifestation of life. While it is tempting to render specific symbolic meaning to the colors knowing van Gogh's fragile condition at the time, his iconography is a personal one, changing and responding to nature with each new observation and each painting. In December of 1889, he wrote to his friend Bernard,

You will realize that this combination of red-ocher, of green gloomed over by gray, the black streaks surrounding the contours, produces something of the sensation of anguish. . . .
The inner conflicts of van Gogh's life fueled and animated his work. The struggle he waged with insanity may account in part for his attachment to realism. His personal realism was based on the sentiment that external reality is a potential means of fulfillment for the striving human being, and therefore, is a necessary component of art. When van Gogh described his paintings, he considered the objects and the paint inseparable. He wrote of the "reassuring, familiar look of things;" and in another letter: "Personally, I love things that are real, things that are possible. . . I'm terrified of getting away from the possible. . . ." The building up of heavy pigment on the canvas lent the painted object a tangible quality and created something solid and concrete on the canvas.9 Paradoxically, although he was concerned with real, and not imaginary, things and people, his conception of the real was expressed by unorthodox means: exaggeration, distortion, and an arbitrary use of color.

For, although van Gogh vehemently insisted upon having the subject before him as he painted, he was equally opposed to slavishly copying nature. He once remarked, "I do not care if color is exactly the same, as long as it looks as beautiful on my canvas as it looks in nature." His goals were always aimed toward expressing the feelings he experienced before nature, which were at times best achieved by exaggeration or distortion. He has freely used arbitrary or non-descriptive color whenever it served his needs.

Van Gogh devoted the last days of his life to painting, hoping to achieve success great enough to repay his brother. His hope that his painful striving and achievement, would be of use to the artists who came after him was finally realized after his lifetime. His influence has been widespread both in Europe and America.

In The Minneapolis Institute of Arts collection Van Gogh's influence can be seen most clearly in The Blue House by Vlaminick, but all of the Fauves and their followers (including Matisse, Derain, and Braque) were influenced by van Gogh's use of arbitrary color and the discovery that color had expressive properties in itself. The German Expressionists and their followers (including Beckmann, Schmidt-Rottluff, Kirchner, and Kokoschka) were equally influenced by van Gogh, using many of the same principles as the Fauves to a different end.

Auden, W.H., editor, Van Gogh: A Self-Portrait, Greenwich, Connecticut: NY Graphic Society, 1961.

Pickvance, Ronald, Van Gogh in Saint Rémy and Auvers, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harry N. Abrams.

Use on the following tours:
  • Visual Elements
  • City and Country
  • 19th and 20th Century Art
  • Spirituality and Art
  • Highlights of the Museum's Collection
  • Tours with writing activities

Compare the van Gogh with the Cézanne. Each represents a specific landscape. Both artists were trying to express their feelings evoked by viewing the landscape. How does each artist feel about the scene? How have they used the visual elements to tell us that?

Examine the works of artists who followed and were influenced by van Gogh. What aspects of van Gogh's style can we see in the work of Kandinsky, Derain, Vlaminick, Matisse, and Kirchner?

Compare van Gogh's brushstroke to that of the Impressionists, Renoir and Monet. In what ways are they similar? How do they differ?

Use this on a City and Country tour to show how the landscape painting developed from its early beginnings in the Daddi to the late 19th century.

  1. Impasto refers to paint that has been built up in heavy layers or in thick brushstrokes.
  2. The movement now called French Impressionism grew out of the efforts of a group of artists in the 1860s including Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, and Renoir to paint modern life using new modern approaches. They made light the primary subject of their paintings, breaking it down into its component colors, and rendering its reflection off various surfaces. New chemically produced pigments which were packaged in small, portable tubes allowed them to move their easels out-of-doors and paint directly from nature, producing works that appeared to be quickly executed. The brilliantly colored works were accomplished by laying pure tints down side by side, allowing the mixing to take place in the eye of the viewer (although scientists today tell us this does not actually happen).
  3. Van Gogh's disease has never been adequately diagnosed, although there has been much speculation about it. There is no need to focus on his illness when discussing his art, because his paintings were produced during periods of lucidity æ not during periods of madness.
  4. John Canaday, Mainstreams of Modern Art (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1959), p. 182.
  5. Pickvance, Ronald, Van Gogh in Saint Rémy and Auvers, p. 159.
  6. Vincent Willem van Gogh, The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, (Greenwich, CT, 1958). All quotes in this study, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from Volume III, pp. 169-273.
  7. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin, XL. (October 6, 1951), p. 116.
  8. Pickvance, p. 17.
  9. Jan Bialostocki, "Van Gogh's Symbolism," Van Gogh in Perspective, ed. by Bognomila Welsh-Ovcharov.
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Source: Docent Manual entry for Vincent van Gogh, <i>Olive Trees,</i> The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Education Division (1998).
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009