Van Gogh’s Cypresses Take Center Stage in Exhibition: Interpretation Left to the Viewer
Vincent Van Gogh’s Artistic Obsession: The Deep Connection between Cypresses and His Visionary Works
In April 1888, Vincent Van Gogh, the Dutch post-impressionist painter, wrote to his art dealer brother Theo expressing his need for “a starry night with cypresses”. This phrase would become a defining motif in Van Gogh’s work, particularly in his masterpiece “Starry Night”, painted in September of the same year. The towering cypress trees also stood as a prominent feature in another one of his works from the same year, “Orchard (in Blossom) Bordered by Cypresses”. The obsession with cypresses in Van Gogh’s art has fascinated art enthusiasts for decades and this article explores the significance of this connection between the artist and these evergreen trees, which continue to captivate audiences today.
The Haunting Symbolism of Cypresses in Vincent Van Gogh’s Final Years
In a poignant letter to French art critic Albert Aurier, written just months before his tragic suicide, Vincent Van Gogh spoke about the overwhelming emotions that nature triggered in him. He explained that when confronted with nature’s beauty, his emotions were so intense that he sometimes fainted, leaving him unable to work for up to two weeks at a time. Despite this, Van Gogh felt compelled to paint the cypresses, proclaiming his intention to “return to the fray to attack the cypresses.”
It was widely believed that Van Gogh’s love for cypresses began during his stay at the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole mental asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. However, the evergreen trees appeared in several of his paintings from his time living in Arles, where he resided for fifteen months after leaving Paris. Van Gogh referred to cypresses as “characteristic of Provence,” a fitting symbol for the artist’s complex relationship with the region and his own mental illness. The haunting symbolism of cypresses in Van Gogh’s final years serves as a testament to his unparalleled artistic vision and enduring legacy.
Van Gogh was particularly drawn to the cypresses in the town of Saint-Rémy, where he stayed at the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole for a year. In his letters to Theo, he described the cypresses as “majestic” and “mysterious,” and elaborated on their significance to him as symbols of eternity and of the human struggle against the transient nature of life.
Van Gogh’s obsession with the cypresses led to the creation of several paintings featuring the trees, including the iconic “The Starry Night” which depicts cypress trees silhouetted against a swirling, starry sky. The painting is now one of the most recognized and celebrated works of modern art.
Through his use of vivid color and bold brushstrokes, Van Gogh imbued the cypress trees with a sense of energy and movement, capturing the essence of their twisted and gnarled trunks and branches. His depictions of these trees showcase his unique creative vision and his ability to elevate humble subjects to the status of enduring works of art.
Van Gogh’s interest in cypresses developed gradually over time, with the trees eventually becoming something of an obsession for him. He was drawn to their lines and proportions, which he described as beautiful and likened to Egyptian obelisks. He was particularly fascinated by the cypresses in the town of Saint-Rémy, where he stayed at the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole for a year.
In his letters to his brother Theo, Van Gogh described the cypresses as “majestic” and “mysterious,” and elaborated on their significance to him as symbols of eternity and of the human struggle against the transient nature of life. He called their shapes and colors “fascinating,” and wrote that capturing their essence in his works was a great challenge.
Van Gogh’s fascination with the cypresses was reflected in several of his paintings, including the iconic “The Starry Night,” which features twisting cypress trees silhouetted against a starry sky. Through his use of vivid color and bold brushstrokes, Van Gogh captured the energy and movement of the cypress trees, imbuing them with a sense of life and power that continues to captivate viewers to this day.
While we may not know for certain whether the cypresses held any deeper meaning for Van Gogh beyond their aesthetic qualities, there is no doubt that they were a source of great inspiration and fascination for him, and that his depictions of these trees continue to inspire and move audiences around the world.
The exhibition seeks to shed new light on Van Gogh’s fascination with cypresses and his time in Provence, examining both the aesthetic and symbolic aspects of his depictions of the trees. Through a careful curation of works from different periods in Van Gogh’s career, the exhibition traces the evolution of his artistic style and explores how his experiences in Provence influenced his work.
The first gallery of the exhibition features works from Van Gogh’s early days in Provence, when he first began experimenting with cypress trees as a subject. These works reveal the artist’s initial fascination with the shapes and lines of the trees, as well as his experiments with color and texture.
The second gallery showcases Van Gogh’s mature style, characterized by bold brushstrokes and intense colors. Here, the cypress trees take on a new energy and vitality, as Van Gogh captures the movement and vibrancy of the natural world around him. Works such as The Starry Night and Wheat Field with Cypresses demonstrate the artist’s mastery of his craft and his ability to imbue his subjects with a powerful emotional resonance.
The final gallery of the exhibition explores the more complex symbolic meanings that cypresses held for Van Gogh. Through works such as Country Road in Provence by Night, the exhibition reveals how the trees came to represent larger themes such as the passage of time, the struggle for personal salvation, and the enduring power of the natural world.
Overall, Van Gogh’s Cypresses offers a rich and nuanced exploration of one of the artist’s most enduring and powerful subjects, showcasing his creativity, his technical skill, and his deep engagement with the world around him.
The exhibition, Van Gogh’s Cypresses, curated by Susan Alyson Stein, has been described as a once-in-a-lifetime gathering of works that provides both an overview and an intimate glimpse of Van Gogh’s creative process. While the exhibition offers fresh insights into Van Gogh’s exploration of cypresses as a subject, it encourages viewers to draw their own conclusions about the meaning that the trees held for him.
According to the exhibition notes, the cypresses represented for Van Gogh both death and rebirth, as well as immortality. They were also a symbol of hope, perseverance, and resilience. However, rather than imposing a fixed interpretation on the works on display, the exhibition encourages viewers to engage in their own personal exploration of the meaning and significance of Van Gogh’s cypresses.
Through its careful curation of works from different periods in Van Gogh’s career, Van Gogh’s Cypresses offers a rich and multi-dimensional portrait of the artist and his relationship to the natural world. The exhibition showcases his mastery of color, texture, and brushstroke, as well as his deep emotional engagement with his subjects. Whether viewers are drawn to the beauty of the cypresses or feel a deeper resonance with the symbolic meanings they hold, Van Gogh’s Cypresses offers a profound and unforgettable artistic experience.
Van Gogh’s singular vision is evident in his depictions of the Provençal cypresses, which continue to captivate and inspire viewers today. In his letters to Theo, the artist expressed his astonishment that no one had yet painted the cypresses as he saw them, a testament to his unique perspective and his ability to elevate humble subjects to the status of enduring works of art.
Despite the brevity of his career, Van Gogh’s impact on the art world has been immeasurable, and his legacy continues to be felt today. His passionate engagement with the natural world, as well as his use of color, texture, and brushstroke, have continued to influence artists and audiences for generations.
As we stand before Van Gogh’s paintings of the Provençal cypresses at The Met, we are reminded of the artist’s extraordinary gifts and his capacity to see beauty in even the most ordinary of subjects. We are also reminded of the fleeting nature of life and of the power of art to transcend time and to touch something deep and profound within us. For those of us fortunate enough to see Van Gogh’s cypresses as he did, we are reminded of the enduring importance of his vision and of his lasting impact on the world of art.
Indeed, Van Gogh’s Cypresses is open for viewing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art until August 27. Visitors can experience the exhibition firsthand and immerse themselves in the beauty and symbolism of Van Gogh’s depictions of cypress trees.
From the early days of his exploration of the subject to his mature style characterized by bold brushstrokes and intense colors, the exhibition offers a unique opportunity to trace Van Gogh’s artistic evolution and to gain a deeper understanding of the complex meanings that the cypresses held for him.
Whether you are a long-time fan of Van Gogh’s art or a newcomer to his work, Van Gogh’s Cypresses is not to be missed. Experience the singular vision of one of the greatest artists of all time, and see the beauty of the Provençal landscape through his eyes. Don’t miss your chance to see this once-in-a-lifetime gathering of masterpieces at The Met.