As discussed in exploring earlier Vincent van Gogh paintings, van Gogh invited Gauguin to visit in Arles, France, and the two artists painted and discussed art for nine weeks starting in September, 1888. Tensions between the two rose, however, and van Gogh suffered a psychotic episode, after which he hurled a knife at Gauguin, and later cut off part of his own ear. Gauguin left Arles, where van Gogh stayed in the hospital before voluntarily entering an asylum near Saint-Remy.
4. Vincent van Gogh Paintings from St. Remy, 1889 – 1890
During the period in which van Gogh was forbidden to leave this asylum, he painted still-lifes, the asylum garden, and resumed his practice of painting copies of prints, such as his Pieta (after Eugene Delacroix), left.
The son of a protestant minister, van Gogh distanced himself from formal Christianity and believed he could serve God by being an artist. Although his subject matter often had biblical associations – the sower, the harvester, the olive tree – van Gogh seldom painted biblical subjects, preferring instead to make “translations in colour” of works he felt depicted Christian themes appropriately.
In his Pieta (after Eugene Delacroix), the face of Christ is that of van Gogh – clearly he considered their suffering similar. In a letter to Theo, he stated
“The figure of Christ has only been painted by Delacroix and Rembrandt in the way that I perceive him.”
Van Gogh’s passion for landscape – which he shared with the Impressionists – fully blossomed during his tenure at St. Remy. In his Wheatfield with a Reaper, the arc of the scythe is echoed in the long, undulating lines of yellow wheat.
Vincent explained this work to Theo:
I then saw in this reaper – a vague figure struggling like a devil in the full heat of the day to reach the end of his toil – I then saw the image of death in it, in this sense that humanity would be the wheat being reaped. (…) But in this death nothing sad, it takes place in broad daylight with a sun that floods everything with a light of fine gold.”
Examine this enlargement of the small, powerful brushstrokes of Wheatfield with Reaper.
Interest in van Gogh paintings was slowly developing from fellow artists like Camille Pissarro; Theo sold a painting, The Red Vineyard, at an art exhibition in Brussels; and several favorable reviews of van Gogh paintings were published in newspapers.
5. Final Vincent van Gogh Paintings from Auvers – 1890
Van Gogh checked out of the asylum in May, and at the recommendation of Theo and Camille Pissarro, moved to an artists’ village near Paris, Auvers-sur-Oise. Between May and July, 1890, van Gogh produced nearly a painting a day, writing Theo in July about two canvases:
“They depict vast, distended wheatfields under angry skies, and I deliberately tried to express sadness and extreme loneliness in them.”
At the same time, Vincent added:
“I am almost certain that these canvases illustrate what I cannot express in words, that is, how healthy and reassuring I find the countryside.”
This panoramic landscape (right), one of the last van Gogh painted, exudes the atmospheric intensity of a pending storm. The roiling storm clouds on the left, painted in short, impasto brushstrokes, pull your eyes to the right where they fade into the dark blue-black horizon (use Zoomify to see the array of these hues in Wheatfield under Thunderclouds).
Because Theo was considering starting his own business, he told his brother that their financial situation would worsen; although Vincent became more anxious about the future, he still was painting one work a day. One of these was Wheatfield with Crows, painted in mid-July.
It’s hard to fathom that he found the countryside “healthy and reassuring” here with the cut off, dead-end paths and thickets of crows. According to the van Gogh Museum, however, Wheatfield with Crows was not a premonition of van Gogh’s suicide, which happened in late July, 1890.
I’m more inclined to think that we can’t know.
What do you see in Wheatfield with Crows — a “healthy and reassuring” countryside, signs of his pending self-inflicted death, or what?