Sunday, January 5, 2014

Into the Fields With Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh,  Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, 1890 at the National Gallery of Art,
a recent gift from the Collection of Mr & Mrs Paul Mellon
Vincent Van Gogh's Green Wheat Fields, Auvers came into Washington's National Gallery of Art on December 20, 2013.  It's a windswept scene that sucks us in with intensity and urgency.    Green Wheat Fields, Auvers is among the 70 or so paintings he did during the two months of 1890 when he lived in Auvers-sur-Oise.  Experts believe he painted it in June, 1890, the month before he died.

Fortunately the new painting entered the museum at the same time Washington's Phillips Collection is hosting an exhibition, Van Gogh Repetitions, until February 2, 2014. The exhibition of 14 paintings examines why the artist repeated compositions in the same format with different colors and very minor design changes. It features several portraits, The Bedroom at Arles and two magnificent Van Goghs owned by the Phillips Collection, The Road Menders, 1889, and The Entrance to the Public Gardens at Arles, 1888.  
Vincent Van Gogh, The Road Menders, 1889, from the Phillips Collection, Washington

Like the National Gallery's new canvas, the paintings from the Phillips Collection are also landscapes with sweeping roads veering to the right side.  They have predominantly yellow-green color harmonies, rushed perspective and ground levels that are tilted.  Although people are included in these paintings, they're small compared to nature.  Trees and rocks are more powerful than the people and nature is a force to behold.  Like many Japanese artists, it seems that Van Gogh felt the power of the natural world more powerful than an individual.
Vincent Van Gogh, The Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles, 1888, Phillips Collection

To gain an historical perspective, he painted The Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles during the period he lived in Arles, and he did The Road Menders during his sojourn in the asylum of Saint- Paul de Mausole in St-Remy de Provence in 1889, the year after his notable breakdown.  The National Gallery's new painting comes from the next year, the last phase of his life, when he returned to northern France.  Most of his landscapes from this time period totally lack figures, as it seems to him that the power of nature, as in Rain, Auvers, was taking over more and more in Van Gogh's view.
Girl in White, 1890 (also called Young Girl
Standing in a Background of Wheat
National Gallery of Art, from
The Chester Dale Collection

Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, had hung in a private residence since 1955, but now it  hangs with other Van Goghs:  a very intense self-portrait, a vase of Roses, The Olive Orchard and Roulin's Baby.   Each of these paintings have variations of the magnificent Van Gogh greens or blues, including olive-greens, chartreuse, lime green, forest green, blue-greens and mint.  Van Gogh's Young Girl Standing Against a Background of Wheat, is from the same year and on the same wall.  Often, I'm left unsatisfied with some of his portraits. In this case, is it because she is is not as harmonious with nature as some of his laborers or working figures? 

Green Wheat Fields, Auvers has the feeling of total immersion that the best Van Gogh paintings have, including The Starry Night.  It's hard to imagine walking in this field without sinking or drowning in it. The road is very irregular and there is a roughness to this place.  Texture is thick and  visibly tactile even in the reproductions. The swirls of clouds feel like the swirls of fields.  A swiftly rushing road on the right suggests the wind also flows from the same direction and brings field and clouds together. Colors of field and cloud are not the same, but they are in the same family of colors, analogous blues and greens.

Van Gogh was swept into this landscape, but a strong upright shaft of wheat in center seems to have brought him back to his center.  It is here the viewers can be brought into focus, because the painting would not hold together as well without this strong vertical focus. 
Van Gogh, Enclosed Field with the Rising Sun, 1889, painted in St-Remy
Private Collection, photo taken from
In the same way,  the power of the sun brings the viewer into focus on Enclosed Field with the Rising Sun, a view he painted looking out of the asylum in Saint-Remy de Provence.   He expanded the natural vista, using a very wide-angle perspective.  Tilted landscapes, openings in the foreground, and exaggerated perspective are some of Van Gogh's best tools for making us feel his perspective.

Jean-Francois Millet, The Sower, 1850
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
He painted wheat fields over and over, but some of the best renditions of man in nature come from his portrayals of The Sower, of which he did several versions, acknowledging the artistic legacy of Jean-Francois Millet.  These are my favorite paintings by Van Gogh because they remind us of mankind's dependence on nature and the interconnectedness of nature.

Vincent Van Gogh, The Sower with Rising Sun, 1888, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo
Van Gogh felt a oneness with the natural world, as if he saw the separate parts of the natural world as one unifying force.  The best of his landscape paintings, are so powerful when they remind us, like Green Wheat Fields, Auvers or The Starry Night, of the interconnectedness of all things.

In the end,  we, the viewers, are swept into his psyche and feel an empathy for him and his vision.  Several videos have circulated on Van Gogh, putting his paintings to lyrics. This video explains him better than I can:


  1. I have always loved Van Gogh and impressionist paintings. This is a very nice review and I love your explanation of the paintings. You are right the video of the paintings and the Vincent song are very beautiful and moving.

  2. Nicely done. I did not notice the upright wheat stems until you mentioned them in the text. Amazing colors and brush strokes. The tilted landscapes make me feel a little bit like I'm at sea.

  3. Thanks for your great work sharing art. The Van Gogh's are beautiful and I enjoyed your thoughts on his composition and color.

    I just completed a post on Berthe Morisot and linked to your interesting post on Morisot and Manet.

  4. Dear Mary,
    Thank you, and thank you for reminding me that today is Berthe Morisot's birthday. The watercolors and paintings on your blog are wonderful. The Constables shine. Your blog is a great resource for artists! Anyone trying to master technique should look to your blog.

  5. An insightful and delightful review as usual! I especially enjoy all the details of composition that you comment upon - it makes me look at it differently and enjoy it anew!


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