Vincent van Gogh’s rapid development as an artist is one of the great stories of Western European art. His career as a painter lasted a mere ten years but in that short time he evolved from an inept amateur into a truly original master. It is a story with moments of high drama, including his struggle with mental illness ending in his tragic suicide. However, Van Gogh’s paintings are neither illustrations of his turbulent life nor the results of a tortured mind. As a painter he had a very clear notion of his artistic mission; he had deeply felt views about nature and mankind and he worked with great persistence to develop approaches to drawing, colour and composition that could express what he called ‘a sincere human feeling’.
Olive Trees was painted in 1889 when Van Gogh was staying at the Asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole at Saint-Rémy in Provence in the south of France. The artist had been admitted to this asylum on a voluntary basis after the breakdown that he suffered in nearby Arles at the end of 1888. This was a difficult time for Van Gogh, marked by periods of lucidity and confidence which were interspersed with breakdowns and prolonged bouts of depression. When he felt able, he painted in the gardens of the asylum or in the surrounding countryside where he focused on landscapes with cypress trees, views of mountains and especially the abundant olive groves.
Our painting was probably one of the earliest among a group of paintings of olive trees that he made during the summer of 1889. There is an energetic drawing made with brush and ink that depicts almost exactly the same view, and the lively, spontaneous style of both of these works suggests that they were studies made directly in front of the motif. The simple composition is dominated by the contrast between the regular, hatched dabs of paint that animate the sloping foreground and the longer, curling brushstrokes that depict the twisted trunks of the olive trees or the swirling rhythms in the foliage. However, it is the variegated colour in this study which is most remarkable. Van Gogh skilfully captures the effect of strong light filtering through the trees and the pools of cool shadows on the earth below. He was utterly captivated by the changing colours of the olive groves. A few months earlier, on 28 April, he had written to his brother Theo: ‘if you could see the olive trees at this time of year … The old-silver and silver foliage greening up against the blue. And the orangeish ploughed soil. […] – it’s a thing of such delicacy – so refined.’
The olive groves became one of Van Gogh’s favourite subjects during his time at Saint-Rémy and he came to see the tree as being characteristic of Provence. But it was also a subject which held deeper significance for Van Gogh. The previous summer he had abandoned an attempt to paint a religious subject showing Christ on the Mount of Olives. He found it difficult to work from his imagination and he now felt that it was important to use nature as a starting point. In his paintings of olive groves he found a subject that could carry religious associations in a way that was natural and unforced. In the exaggerated brushwork and vivid colour of paintings like the Olive Trees he was able to express the underlying forces of nature that for him conveyed something passionate, supernatural and eternal.
This text was originally published in 100 Masterpieces: National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2015.