In April 1889, Vincent Van Gogh booked himself into the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole Asylum in Saint-Rémy, in the South of France. The previous months had been a tumultuous period for the artist.
His dream of establishing an artist’s colony in his Yellow House in Arles was in tatters following his violent attack on his friend Paul Gauguin and his now legendary act of self-mutilation. Although Van Gogh’s 444 days in Arles had been a period of unrivalled creativity, by April, he was severely depressed and in desperation sought refuge under the care of Dr Félix Rey.
The strict regimen of the hospital provided him with structure and security, enabling him to produce almost 150 paintings over the next 12 months. Initially, he was able to paint in an adjoining cell and within the walls, but when finally allowed to paint in the countryside surrounding the asylum, Van Gogh became enthralled by the gnarled, scarred olive trees that were just beginning to bear fruit. In the next six months, he painted this grove of olive trees on 18 separate occasions.
In his fragile condition, the strong, enduring trees with their anguished limbs seemed to echo Christ’s suffering and, unsurprisingly, they also became a metaphor for his own struggles. A symbol of life eternal, the olive trees’ gnarled trunks and twisted limbs recorded every ordeal of their long existence.
Each tree became the subject of a sermon, their individual messages illustrated in paintings and drawings and illuminated in a stream of letters to his brother Theo, his mother and sister and his artist friends Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard.
In a letter to Theo written on the 19th November 1889 he explained,
If I remain here I wouldn’t try to paint a Christ in the Garden of Olives, but in fact the olive picking as it’s still seen today and then giving the correct proportions of the human figure in it, that would perhaps make people think of it all the same.
Van Gogh did remain and almost immediately began a series of paintings of olive pickers, working in luminous groves that sparked with energy. He produced three versions of the same subject, three women using a ladder to pick the higher berries, possibly for their own use.
The first version was in the artist’s words “coloured with more somber tones” as winter approached and the last fruit gathered. The second version of this painting was painted in the studio in “a very discreet range” of colours, while the final version, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which he painted for his mother and sister would, he hoped, “be a little to your taste.”
Without explicitly showing Christ amongst the olive trees, Van Gogh embeds the message of the Garden of Gethsemane that salvation is available to those that accept God’s will, as the central theme of his painting.
A drawing of the subject had the approval of Paul Gauguin, with whom he was still corresponding, and it echoes his friend’s simplification of form. What identifies it immediately as a Van Gogh is the pulsing brushstrokes that inject a vibrating energy to energise the entire surface.
The final version in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Women Picking Olives shimmers with light. As Vincent described to Theo in another letter written on the 19th December,
… I’m working on a painting at the moment, women picking olives … These are the colours: the field is violet, and further away yellow ochre, the olive trees with bronze trunks have grey-green foliage, the sky is entirely pink, and small figures pink also. There are only two notes, pink and green, which harmonize, neutralize each other, oppose each other. I’ll probably do 2 or three repetitions of it, for, in fact, it’s the result of a half-dozen studies of olive trees.
The nuanced use of colour and its symbolic purpose to reinforce the sense of the divine and the cycle of life was also the catalyst for Olive Grove with two olive pickers. This painting, on loan from the Kröller-Müller Museum, is a more dynamic composition showing a man and a woman locked into the shadows below an irradiated sky.
Once again the complementary nodes, in this case, yellow and blue, create a harmony of opposites. The woman in the foreground is outlined in the same thick, black lines that describe the contorted trees while the man merges with the blue shadows. The pickers and the sinewy olives all strain upward towards the hope of spiritual salvation promised in the fiery yellow and orange brushmarks that singe the tree line.
Just six months later in the middle of summer, Vincent Van Gogh walked out into a wheat field and shot himself in the stomach. The hope these paintings embodied was no longer able to sustain him.
NGV International’s Van Gogh and the Seasons runs from 28 April – 9 July.