The works of Vincent van Gogh (1835-1890) have long been recognized as one of the outstanding achievements of modern painting. In his inspired use of line, pigment, and above all, color, van Gogh's contribution is so significant that no complete understanding of modern art is possible if he is not taken into account. Thus the Institute's acquisition of Olive Trees,
one of his late great works, is an event of major importance. The painting is one of ten done at Saint-Rémy during the early autumn of 1889. From the compositional point of view it is perhaps the most complete of the group, for it depicts not only the olive trees, but the mountains and sun and sky as well. In Saint-Rémy, van Gogh found that the painting of the subtle colors of olive trees brought the same challenge and release that he had experienced in painting the sunflowers at Arles. He expressed a desire to do a series of them; indeed, he conceived the tentative idea of painting various series depicting different aspects of the Midi landscape. It was never carried out, but what he did do constitutes a vivid and dramatic record of his two enchanted and heart-breaking years in the South. Olive Trees
belongs to the heart-breaking year.The acquisition of this work, purchased from the Dunwoody Fund, rounds out the story of modern art as it is now told in the permanent collections. Drawn into the circle of his immediate predecessors, his contemporaries, and his successors, the formal and psychological aspects of van Gogh's work are seen to become a vital part of the development in which they all had a hand. Further observation will reveal that the roots of this group—Degas, Cézanne, Sisley, Gauguin, Matisse, Vlaminck—lie deep in the past: in Delacroix, and Rembrandt, and beyond, and that all are integral elements in the swelling stream of painting as we know it today. Van Gogh's participation in the development fostered by late nineteenth-century painters was dearly purchased. His triumph over the difficult, and finally shattering, conditions under which he worked would have crushed a lesser spirit. But van Gogh, like his great countryman, Rembrandt, painted because of an inner compulsion that would not let him stop. It was only in his work that he found release from mental suffering and only through his work that he could express his intense feeling for man and nature. In the closing years of their lives, both Rembrandt and van Gogh painted in a sort of blind trance, each resigned to the belief that he was a failure. Fame, which promises to be eternal, came to both after death.The Olive Tree
is now in the Institute's collection is a brilliant and moving example of the qualities that make van Gogh's painting unique: the vehement and powerful brush strokes which contribute such vitality to his line, the psychological use of heavy impasto, and an absolute mastery of color. Painted in the last year of his life in Saint-Rémy, it displays him at the peak of his power as an artist. Above the echoes of past experience and performance rise the ripened harmonies of a completely realized art. Vincent, although suffering ever-recurring attacks of the illness which was to lead to his death before twelve months were out, was fully mastered of himself in his painting. Always emotional in his reaction to his surroundings, he displayed his emotions more intensely in the paintings of this period than he had done before. Or so it seems, for an impression of great turbulence results from the fact that he expressed himself in terms of line and linear forms rather than in the blazing color which had enthralled him at Arles. Everything moved. In dynamic landscapes which sometimes give the impression of shifting beneath the feet like the deck of a ship in a heavy sea, the trees twist and swirl and climb, shadows advance, streams plunge headlong, grass flows before the wind, and the stars wheel through a vast blue sky.Sometimes the mood is quieter. Such is the case in the Institute's version of Olive Trees.
There is no lack of movement, but it is superbly controlled despite the violence and urgency of the brush strokes which give life to earth and sky and shadows, and suggest the trembling of the leaves. In Paris, and later, for a time, in Arles, van Gogh had used the small strokes of the Impressionists. But as his knowledge of color and its relationship became more assured, his handling of his brush became freer and more ample. The outlining of forms, derived probably from Japanese prints or mediaeval stained glass, took on new importance.In Saint-Rémy the brush strokes became even more powerful and seem almost to be endowed with a life of their own. Sometimes they are broad and prolonged; at others, as in the Institute's Olive Trees,
they are shorter but always moving in parallel lines that create movement which has, in this instance, a mesmeric quality. The paint, less heavily applied than in some canvases of the period, is still thick, giving an illusion of physical reality. The use of heavy impasto was an important means of expression to van Gogh, especially at this time. In one sense he was a realist, for he was concerned with real, and not imaginary, things and people; it was the reality of objects that served as an anchor to him for the greater part of his life. In a psychological sense, heavy impasto reinforces the reality that in his case was continually threatened. Paradoxically, his conception of the real was expressed by unorthodox means: exaggeration, distortion, and the arbitrary use of color. He was violently opposed to copying nature, realizing, as other of his contemporaries did, that a faithful representation could best be achieved by exaggeration and distortion which revealed, despite, or perhaps because of, their very falseness, the basic truths of character.Almost from the beginning van Gogh had had an arbitrary way with color, and his use of it became more daring and exaggerated when he rejected Impressionist methods soon after his arrival in Arles. Ravished by what he saw in the glowing, sun-drenched Midi, he gave full rein to his emotions in the dizzying gamut of yellows, in vibrant blues, in red and green. He was intoxicated by color, and the thought came to him that someday in the future color would come triumphantly into its own through the work of a supreme colorist. To date, no one has played upon it with the power and audacity displayed by van Gogh in the flaming period at Arles. After he entered the asylum at Saint-Rémy his color became secondary to the linear forms which surge or flow across his canvasses. In the relatively calm landscape of Olive Trees
the colors, lower in key than those of Arles, are eloquent. The beloved yellow, ranging from the palest hues to a band of yellow ochre encircling the sun, persists. Between it and the converging, diagonal lines of the olive trees is a narrow range of blue-grey mountains whose color is repeated in the shadows flowing diagonally toward the spectator over an undulating, ploughed field of iron red and ochre-brown. The leaves, which give only the merest hint of that rustling wherein van Gogh sensed age and mystery, range from greenish-silver to pale cobalt tinged with green.The colors of the painting, as well as the subject, are indicative of van Gogh's melancholy mood at a time when he dreaded renewed attacks of his malady. The predominantly greyed tones suggest resignation, if not yet defeat, and recall a remark once made to his brother. He was begging Theo not to expect the exceptional of him and not to worry over the troubles which were sure to come to them both, and suggested that they think of the future not as wholly black or dazzlingly bright, but to play safe and “trust in the grey.” The sadness prevailing in many of the paintings in Saint-Rémy indicates that Vincent realized, though subconsciously only, perhaps, that his future was to be black after all.This outlook, compounded of despair and a sort of negative hope, is further reflected by van Gogh's peculiarly personal vision of this scene. The symbolical use of color, which was one of the most powerful means of expression and which contributes enormously to his art, here illumines the scene he was seeing with his mind's eye. To him, yellow symbolized love and light, red and green conveyed passion and conflict, blue was infinity, and grey was associated with resignation. Viewed in conjunction with the color, the perspective assumes a psychological aspect that is closely allied with the use of bold outlines. Taking artistic liberty with a scientific element, he seems to have conceived of nearness and distance as elements in perpetual flux, the latter infinite and desirable, the former actual and not yet wholly unendurable. The olive trees, bound to the foreground by the bold, black outlines which became more significant at Saint-Rémy than before, represent reality, the known, the here and now. But the known is dark and threatening. In the remote distance lie light and love, symbolized by the yellow sky in which the huge disk of the sun is also fixed by a bold outline. The eye hastens down the rows of diminishing trees to the converging point at the foot of the blue-grey mountains, where it turns sharply right and upward to meet the sun, infinite and unknown. Vincent is torn between what is and what might be, and the sense of urgency is heightened by the tempo of his line.In the last months of his life van Gogh's thought must have dwelt often on the wretched, broken failure that was himself. Perhaps the determination to do away with himself and dare the unknown was already forming in a mind which was more and more often blacked out by the attacks that ended in an agonizing return to reality. It was his complete inability to face any longer the anguish, uncertainty, and failure of his life that prompted him to put an end to it in Auvers, where he had fled from Saint-Rémy. His overwhelming debt to his brother Theo, to whom the world also owed a debt, haunted him; the more so when he realized, during a brief visit to Theo in Paris, that his brother also had arrived at an impasse. That meeting signalled his final defeat and when he returned to Auvers he took his life.Some months before he did so, recognition of his great and original work was given by the critic Aurier, who was the first to see and appreciate van Gogh's stature as a painter. It came too late, for Vincent was beyond caring. His energies, in his lucid intervals, were wholly concentrated on painting, in the hope that some day his work would achieve a success great enough to repay his brother for the financial and spiritual help given unfailingly and uncomplainingly from the beginning. Unhappily, this too came to late; Theo died a few months after Vincent and was buried by his side.But Vincent's fleeting hope that his painful striving and his achievement, however it might finally be regarded, would be of use to the artists who came after him was realized. His influence has been widespread both in Europe and America. The Fauves and their followers and the German Expressionists and theirs are among those whose work bears the imprint of his vision. The former group, including Matisse, Derain, Braque, and Vlaminck, were influenced by the formal aspects of his work: exaggerated color, heavy impasto, and the use of a strong, repetitive line. The latter, including Beckmann, Schmidt-Rottluff, Kirchner, and Kokoschka, were drawn, rather, by the psychological aspects of his work achieved through these same elements. In this connection it is interesting and illuminating to note that van Gogh's expressionistic and psychological aspects were the natural choices for German artists to make. Despite the fact that his most fruitful years were passed in France, van Gogh remained a Dutchman at heart. Toward the end of his life his thoughts turned more and more to Holland, and much of his time in the asylum at Saint-Rémy was spent in painting and drawing from memory the scenes and figures which he had first done there. His art, like modern German art, is emotional and romantic rather than intellectual in the French sense, and it is in the field of modern German painting that his influence is sometimes most strongly felt. It was also in Germany that his pictures were first seriously collected. The Institute's painting passed through several German collections before it came into the possession of the late Mrs. Ralph Harman booth, of Detroit, from whom it was acquired by the Institute.For the purpose of emphasizing van Gogh's role in the development of modern art, the Institute's newly-acquired Olive Trees
is being introduced to the public in a small exhibition entitled Van Gogh and Modern Painting. This exhibition is, in a sense, the long-delayed result of the great van Gogh show assembled by the Museum of Modern Art in 1936 and shown here in the summer of that year. Ever since that time the Institute has hoped to add to its collection a fine example of the artist's work. In Olive Trees
it has succeeded. And thanks to the generous co-operation of museums, private collectors, and dealers, it is privileged to show with this painting a group of works of van Gogh's various periods together with a group of artists who were strongly influenced by him.The van Gogh paintings in the exhibition include: Field of Wheat,
lent by the Toledo Museum of Art; La Berceuse,
lent by The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Landscape near Saint-Rémy,
lent by The Museum of Modern Art; Stairs at Auvers,
lent by The City Art Museum of St. Louis; Stevedores on the Banks of the Rhone,
lent by Mr. and Mrs. Carleton Mitchell, and The Loom,
lent by Wildenstein and Company. Lenders of paintings by artists influenced by van Gogh include: The Phillips Gallery, Washington; Walker Art Center; Mr. and Mrs. Leigh B. Block, Chicago; Mrs. Frederick E. Prytek, New York; Oskar Kokoschka, London; Mr. and Mrs. Harry L. Bradley, Milwaukee; the Carstairs Gallery, the Sidney Janis Gallery, Fine Arts Associates, the Feigl Gallery, and the Buchholz Gallery, all of New York.The exhibition was on view from October 6 to November 4, 1951. During its stay it was to be the subject of several gallery talks an a lecture dealing with van Gogh's contribution to modern painting. The choice of paintings and details is so arresting that it contributes enormously to the understanding and appreciation of this great modern artist, whose work is already widely and favorably known.Referenced Works of Art
- Olive Trees (detail) by Vincent van Gogh. Dutch, 1853-1890. Dunwoody Fund.
- Olive Trees, painted by van Gogh in the autumn of 1889, is one of ten pictures of this subject done at Saint-Rémy.
- Detail of olive trees in one of the most complete of van Gogh's compositions of this subject.