Van Gogh's Cypresses
Reviewed by Ed Voves
Original Photography by Anne Lloyd
The ingenuity of museum curators in conceiving and mounting exhibitions is one of the most remarkable aspects of today's art scene. Exhaustive research, savvy display techniques and a sensitive awareness of the relevance of yesterday's art to the concerns of today - these are essential attributes in a curator's toolkit.
Occasionally, though, even the most inventive and perceptive curators can miss the mark. A topic for an important exhibition somehow evades their consideration, leaving this subject "hiding in plain sight." Such was the case of Van Gogh's Cypresses - until recently.
Now in the final days of a hugely popular exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Van Gogh's Cypresses was certainly worth the wait.
Following his emotional breakdown in December 1888, Van Gogh entered the St. Paul Asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, staying there from May 1889 to May 1890. One might have thought that his seclusion in the asylum would have deprived him from viewing the stately cypresses. Instead, from the window of a workroom fitted out for him as a studio, Van Gogh caught sight of the tall, austere, dark green trees and painted them with unforgettable effect.
In a June 1889 letter to his brother, Theo, from Saint-Rémy, Van Gogh commented:
"The cypresses still preoccupy me, I’d like to do something with them like the canvases of the sunflowers because it astonishes me that no one has yet done them as I see them. It’s beautiful as regards lines and proportions, like an Egyptian obelisk. And the green has such a distinguished quality."
Van Gogh was as good as his word. He did treat cypresses as he had previously immortalized sunflowers. And he was right to to be astonished that "no one has yet done them as I see them."
Given the intensive study devoted to Van Gogh's oeuvre - with an eye to a hosting special exhibitions - one can only wonder why it has taken so long to place Van Gogh's depictions of cypress trees on the center stage. Yet, let's give credit where it is due. The curators at the Met saw the potential for a Van Gogh blockbuster and seized the opportunity.
Visually, Van Gogh's Cypresses is a delight to behold. Much of the appeal of this exhibition comes from enjoying a spectacular array of Van Gogh's most beloved paintings, side-by-side. Many of these works have not appeared together since Van Gogh dispatched his finished canvases to be stored in the apartment of his brother, Theo, in Paris.
Yet, Van Gogh's Cypresses, is much more than a beautiful exhibition or an interesting side-bar to the major themes of the Dutch painter's art. Van Gogh's "preoccupation" with cypress trees relates directly to his problematic relationship with nature - and with God.
Cypress trees complicated the issue because, since time immemorial, they had figured as a symbol of death and mourning. In the literature of Greece and Rome, the cypress tree was associated with Hades, god of the Underworld, and the three Fates.
The Hebrew Bible was more upbeat in regarding the cypress tree, which, along with the myrtle, was regarded as a sign of God's favor.
"Cypress trees will grow where now there are briers; myrtle trees will come up in place of thorns," proclaimed the prophet Isaiah (55:13). "This will be a sign that will last forever, a reminder of what I, the Lord, have done."
Van Gogh had turned against organized religion by the time he journeyed to Provence. But his early exposure to Bible-based culture continued to resonate in his work.
Just as the tall cypress trees loomed over the blossoming orchards in several of his works on view in the Met exhibit, so the cypress served as a "reminder of I, the Lord" in Van Gogh's inner-struggle as he sought meaning in the depiction of nature.
Even as Van Gogh dedicated himself to transcribe "the language of nature", a palpable sense of the numinous, the voice of God, asserted its presence. To a varying degree, this spark of divinity radiates from almost every painting in the Met's exhibition. And no work on view, not even Starry Night, expresses this more powerfully than County Road in Provence by Night.
Van Gogh painted this tall, roadside cypress as he prepared to leave Saint-Rémy in May 1890. He had wanted to record its image since coming to Provence and it is easy to see why. Its color, stately shape and position next to a well-traveled country lane make for an image pulsating with life.
That's my interpretation of this key painting of the Van Gogh Cypresses exhibit. However, several scholars have taken a completely opposite approach to this work. They maintain that there are numerous signs in Country Road in Provence by Night that Van Gogh, still emotionally brittle despite a year of care and therapy, was passing under the shadow of death.
Van Gogh certainly was experiencing depression when he left Saint-Rémy. But it needs to be emphasized that his mental and spiritual state cannot be definitively deduced from one or another of his paintings.
If there are premonitions of death in County Road in Provence by Night, then it should be noted that one of Van Gogh's most life-affirming paintings had been created only a few weeks before. This was Almond Blossom, painted for his infant nephew and namesake who was born in January 1890.
Despite a serious emotional lapse shortly after finishing Almond Blossom, Van Gogh continued to wrestle with his need, "to believe in God, for me is to feel that there is a God, not a dead one, or a stuffed one but a living one, who with irresistible force, urges us toward aimer encore...."
Aimer encore. To love again. Van Gogh wrote those words to Theo in 1881. Nearly a decade later, he was still striving, despite great personal travail, to aimer encore.
In a letter to Theo and his wife, Jo, written less than a month before his death in Jury 1890, Van Gogh affirmed that "I still love art and life very much."
So, what are we to make of Van Gogh's preoccupation with cypress trees?
On November 26, 1889, while still undergoing treatment in Saint-Rémy, Van Gogh wrote to Theo, comparing cypresses to the familiar willow tree back home in the Netherlands:
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.
Van Gogh gained these insights into the nature of the cypress, observing these trees "typical" of the countryside of Provence from the windows of the asylum. He painted a series of views of an enclosed wheat field with a nearby grove of cypresses. This was visible from his bedroom.
I am familiar with the painting in the series, from the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, showing the scene during an autumn 1889 rain shower. The Met's exhibit shows one from the Ny Glyoptek in Denmark. It shows the ears of wheat caressed by the wind with the cypress trees off in the distance.
Introductory image: Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Vincent van Gogh’s County Road in Provence by Night (detail), 1890. Artwork details, see below.
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Vincent van Gogh's Drawbridge, 1888. Oil on canvas: 19 ½ x 25 ¼ in. (49.5 x 64 cm) Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne, Germany.
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Vincent van Gogh's A Wheatfield with Cypresses, 1889. Oil on canvas: 28 3/8 x 35 7/8 in. (72.1 x 90.9 cm) National Gallery, London.
Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890) Illustrated Letter to Theo van Gogh, June 25, 1889. Pen and ink on paper: 8 ¼ x 10 5/8 in. (21 x 27 cm) Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Gallery view of Van Gogh's Cypresses at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Gallery view of Van Gogh's Cypresses, appearing at right is Vincent van Gogh’s Farmhouse among Olive Trees, 1889. Oil on canvas: 27 5/8 x 23 5/8 in. (70 x 60 cm) Private Collection, Larry Ellison.
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Vincent van Gogh’s Still Life with Oranges and Lemons with Blue Gloves, 1889. Oil on canvas: 18 7/8 x 24 ½ in. (48 x 62 cm) National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Vincent van Gogh’s Orchard Bordered by Cypresses, 1888. Oil on canvas: 25 5/8 x 32 in. (64.9 x 81.2 cm) Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands.
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Vincent van Gogh’s County Road in Provence by Night, 1890. Oil on canvas: 35 3/8 x 28 3/8 in. (90.6 x 72 cm) Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands.
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Vincent van Gogh’s The Little Stream, 1889. Oil on canvas: 10 x 13 ¼ in. (25.4 x 33.7 cm) Starr Insurance Companies.
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Vincent van Gogh’s Landscape from Saint-Rémy, 1889. Oil on canvas: 27 ¾ x 34 7/8 in. (70.5 x 88.5 cm) Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.
Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Vincent van Gogh's Trees in the Garden of the Asylum (detail), 1889. Oil on canvas: 26 3/8 x 20 ¼ in. (67 x 51.4 cm) Private collection.