Tag Archives: Saint Remy

Vincent van Gogh – Road with Cypress and Star

26 Aug

When you think of cypress trees, what kind of mood do they evoke? It is a rather gloomy tree, isolated and dark, unfriendly, a tree in despair, usually gracing graveyards and ever since ancient times it was seen as a symbol of mourning, but also of hope because it stretches high up in the sky, as if wanting to touch the stars. Still, the first sight of Vincent van Gogh’s wonderful painting gives us an utterly different mood, not one of mourning but that of rapture and nocturnal magic.

Vincent van Gogh, Road with Cypress and Star (Country Road in Provence by Night), 1890

Vincent painted this in May 1890 while in Saint Rémy and finished it in June in Auvers-sur-Oise. His time spent in Provence, in Arles and Saint Remy, is the most productive period of his life; it was there that he painted the famous starry nights, sunflowers, cypresses and wheat fields. Man from the damp, dark north found his artistic haven in the sunny landscape of the south, where sun burn as intensely as the stars and one could drown in the ripe yellowness of the endless wheat fields. Road with Cypress and Star is a nocturnal scene painted in rich frantic crooked brush strokes, each one looks as if it was made with pain and passion. It shows an isolated country road in the silent hour of the night with two small figures in the lower right corner, a carriage and an inn in the background. The road looks more like a river, and the space looks like it’s sinking. The landscape is pulsating, and notice the different direction of the brushstrokes in the road, the field and the sky. In hands of Van Gogh, a seemingly ordinary landscape gets a dreamy, magical dimension. You almost wish you could join those men and roam the countryside yourself, when in reality it was probably hot and crickets would sing from the grass. He wrote that the scene itself is very romantic, but also very characteristic for Provence.

The star of the painting are two cypress trees which grew so closely together that they look like one, entwined in their darkness. They stretch and stretch, seemingly endlessly because, in a Japanese Ukiyo-e style, Vincent ‘cut’ their ends, and we are left with an impression that the cypresses are really kissing the vibrant blue night sky painted in swirls of blue and white. On one side is a big bright star, and on the other is an elegant crescent moon. Van Gogh was especially fond of cypresses; he admired their smooth line and thought they resembled Egyptian obelisks.

Vincent truly believed death would take us to another star, and this is what he wrote to Theo:

Looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map.

Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France?

Just as we take a train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. We cannot get to a star while we are alive any more than we can take the train when we are dead. So to me it seems possible that cholera, tuberculosis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion. Just as steamboats, buses and railways are the terrestrial means.

To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot.

The last sentence reveals his passionate, impetuous nature. You can’t expect such a man to live an ordinary life, to obey society, to produce his art without wasting himself. No, he burned and burned like a shooting star, disappearing and leaving beauty behind him.

We can imagine the gloomy cypress trees being transformed by the spell of the night into loveable creatures who stretch their branches to touch that sky, to play and daydream with the stars because they are so lonely and misunderstood here on earth. They are standing on the earth with their head in the stars.

Advertisements

Vincent van Gogh – Almond Blossoms or ‘Fragile Beauty’

12 Mar

A few days ago I nicked a branch of an apple tree from someone’s garden. It looked lovely in my vase, but the whiteness and delicacy of the blossoms didn’t last very long, and my ‘stolen good’ quickly withered. First sight of this apple blossoms reminded me of Vincent van Gogh’s painting ‘Almond Blossom’.

1890. Branches with Almond Blossom by Vincent van GoghVincent van Gogh, Almond Blossom, 1890

Vincent van Gogh painted his painting ‘Almond Blossom’ in February 1890, during his stay in Saint Remy hospital. He obviously had an urge to capture the nature’s awakening because he painted the almond blossoms on many occasions. Vincent painted this particular blue version, this artistic ‘vignette’ to commemorate the birth of his nephew; son of his brother Theo and his wife Johanna. Lush white blossoms are sprouting from what were, not that long ago, just a few frozen branches, and, like heralds of spring, they announce the beginning of new life. These almond blossoms are symbols of fertility, new life and new beginnings – both in nature and referring to his little nephew. This is what Vincent wrote to his mother, on 20 February 1890;

Dear Mother,

I intended to answer your letter many days ago, but I could not bring myself to write, as I sat painting from morning to evening, and thus the time passed. I imagine that, like me, your thoughts are much with Jo and Theo (…) I started right away to make a picture for him (the nephew), to hang in their bedroom, big branches of white almond blossom against a blue sky.*

Alongside almond blossoms and their symbolism, there are other interesting elements of this painting. Firstly, the gorgeous cerulean or sky blue (as you wish) that graces the background. Secondly, calm and confident brushstrokes which, knowing van Gogh’s passionate nature, most have required some restraining and admirable patience.  Painting ‘Almond Blossoms’ always reminds me of these verses:

One day I realise oil on canvas
Can never paint a petal so so delicate‘ (Manic Street Preachers – Life Becoming a Landslide)

I agree with this thesis; tree in bloom is surely a lovelier scene in nature than on canvas. But if there’s one painter capable of beautifully capturing the delicacy of the almond blossoms, it’s Vincent van Gogh.

When I gazed at my apple blossoms in the vase, I was saddened by their decay. And then a though occurred – I realised what the Japanese were on about with their cherry blossom viewing. The beauty of flowers lies in their transience. Every spring flowers adorn the tree branches, but for Vincent the spring of 1890 was the last one of his life (he died in July 1890). Next year almond trees blossomed again, in the radiant sun of Provence, but Vincent wasn’t there to witness and admire their fragile beauty.