Contributed by Margaret McCann / Vincent van Gogh drew from many sources in his short, intensely inventive career. “Van Gogh’s Cypresses,” now up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, highlights his encounter with the Mediterranean conifer. A symbol of mourning, it dramatically punctuates the Tuscan landscape, and appears in paintings by Leonardo, in Arnold Bocklin’s Isle of the Dead series (who probably it in Rome), and Salvador Dali, among others. Van Gogh noticed the “interesting, dark note” in the Provencal landscape, near the end of a peripatetic life. Growing up in the Netherlands, an experience he described as “austere and cold, and sterile,” he’d studied books on perspective, Bargue plasticity, and color theory, and had guidance from relative Anton Mauve, a follower of the Barbizon school. Van Gogh’s early landscapes show astute tonal values, his sympathetic figure studies and paintings convey his admiration for Dickens, Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Daumier, and Millet. He collected engravings by Gustave Dore, whose mark-making impacted him, while working for his uncle’s art dealership for six years, before being let go for opposing the commodification of art (ironic considering his prices today). Younger brother Theo’s long employment there would support him afterward, in exchange for artwork. Van Gogh then pursued the family tradition of ministry. He knew his Bible, but failed a theological entrance exam, so became a lay preacher in Belgium. After giving his belongings and bed to the poor, he lost that position. Demoralized, he enrolled in the Antwerp academy at 27 after Theo suggested he try painting seriously. But he left after arguing with his teacher about cast drawing’s inhumanity, and showed up at Theo’s in Paris. In two fruitful years in the City of Light, Van Gogh absorbed the latest innovation, Divisionism – reflected in the rich patchwork of complementary reds and greens in Field of Poppies.
Savvy colorists like Poussin or Ingres had understood the power of muted complements, intrinsic to the traditional green underpainting of flesh tones seen in Duccio, Piero, Bellini, and others. The influential Delacroix, whose vivid color moved Van Gogh, used saturated complements unsystematically in his flochetage method, echoed in Renoir’s dappled light, Cezanne’s attentive brushwork, and the broken color of Monet, who Zola noted had a “weakness for complementary colors.” Delacroix studied Eugene Chevreul’s exploration of perceived color interaction, published in his groundbreaking Principles of Harmonies and Contrasts (1839), which predicated the work of Munsell, Itten, and Albers. Chevreul was a chemist overseeing dyes at a tapestry factory, investigating why the same color looked different in various weaves. His theory of “simultaneous contrast” posited that two adjacent colors exaggerate tonal differences and push each other toward their complement (across Newton’s color wheel). He advised artists to adjust color for beautiful harmonies, as seen in Van Gogh’s Garden at Arles. Other theorists would articulate contrastsof warm and cool, saturated and dull. Charles Blanc’s Grammar of Art and Design (1867) explained how mixing in a complement softens a color, and physicist Ogden Rood’s Modern Chromatics (1881) discussed subjectivity and color triads, its diagrams referencing actual pigments. As the phenomenology of observation was studied, optical toys became popular.
Van Gogh called visiting Georges Seurat’s Paris studio a “fresh revelation of color”. An admirer of Egyptian art, Neoclassical Ingres, and Romantic Delacroix, Seurat brought science to Impressionism. His Chromoluminarism – a.k.a. Pointillism, Neo-Impressionism, or Divisionism (when expanded from dots to dashes) – used only tints of prismatic and analogous color, carefully arranged to blend from a distance. Yellow-orange interspersed with local color emulated direct sunlight; if light was indirect, blues, reds and purples created darkness and shadows, with surrounding objects reflecting color. Placing contrasting hues in proximity utilized Chevreul’s simultaneous contrast. Van Gogh painted landscape with Seurat’s collaborator Paul Signac, Charles Angrand, and pal Emile Bernard, and may have crossed paths with Henri Martin and Henri-Martin Cross. He frequented cafes and artist gatherings, prone to erratic behavior. Heading back to the city after a landscape outing, Signac described, “pressed closely against me [Vincent] walked along, shouting and gesticulating, waving his freshly painted oversize canvas, smearing paint on himself and the passers-by.” Ultimately, Van Gogh’s passionate temperament was ill-suited for Divisionism’s constrictions and slow pace. But he absorbed the lesson of divided color and complements, as seen in Orchard with Peach Trees and Cypresses.
When visiting Van Gogh in Arles Signac saw Drawbridge, which features counterpoints of oranges and blues. Its thick cloud imitates Adolphe Monticelli’s impasto, which also influenced Cezanne. Watery reflections mirror local color as Impressionists Monet and Sisley exemplified, yet size doesn’t diminish. Upright rows instead accentuate flat pattern, with space asserted by perspective and thick grass overlapping into depth, turning the right edge’s beige shape spatial. Viewing swings between flatness and space – one reason Van Gogh’s paintings are fun to look at. The eye zigzags from bristly cypresses on one side to saturated red roofs on the other. A third point at the bottom edge of grass demonstrates his careful choice of view. Locating it slightly left encourages diagonal movement right and upward into space. Against that almost straight edge, the curved road bows between the rectangle’s edges. Vision lingers on skillful foreshortening of the bridge, whose cloisonnistic outlines implicate ukiyo-e. Without neoclassical halftones, the bold angularity of Japanese prints rhythmically conjoins Van Gogh’s earthy shape and woodcarver-like form. (Van Gogh first saw ukiyo-e on the Antwerp waterfront – where he may have also contracted syphilis – one possible cause of his mental illness, along with lead poisoning, epilepsy, bipolar disorder, porphyria, etc.).
Finding the city enervating, Van Gogh had departed Paris for Provence on the advice of fellow misfit Toulouse-Lautrec. Van Gogh described one of its vistas as a “beautiful Japanese dream.” Impressionist time-sensitive observation merges with the decoration of ukiyo-e and Divisionism in Orchard Bordered by Cypresses. Tonal acuity conspires with color license in a richly overcast or evening scene. Moderate reds and greens heighten one another; greens make brownish lines leading to a culvert shift red. Dominant mid-tones illuminate tree blossoms despite their possibly faded yellows. Lower left, nearby yellows push neutral earth towards violet. The sky is in complementary contrast with the orange of the wood’s mix of ochre and dull red, whose warmth opposes the cooler, spiky, slightly menacing cypresses – subjective qualities that would inspire the Expressionists. Van Gogh admitted, “there were days when I could not see anything in the most beautiful landscape… I feel hardened rather than sensitive toward nature.” While living together in Paris, Theo had complained, “there are two different beings in him, the one marvelously gifted, fine and delicate, and the other selfish and heartless,” and that he was “dirty and unkempt.” Van Gogh was gaunt by his mid-30s and had lost most of his teeth from malnutrition. Coffee, tobacco, alcohol, and art supplies were prioritized; after painting (often alla prima), “my brain is so tired … you have to think of a thousand things at the same time… the only thing that comforts and distracts… is to stun oneself by taking a stiff drink or smoking very heavily.” Yet as he fell apart, his work progressed; as Peter Schjeldahl put it, “creativity takes what it needs from a person who possesses it or is possessed by it and discards the rest.”
The correspondingly turbulent but sensitive A Walk at Twilight coordinates color principles and perceptual light. Dark ornamental lines flatten against the horizon’s bold Hokusai-like hue. Vision is thus pulled to the back of the space first, making discovery of the couple within the gloaming light a gentle surprise. Like the Fauves, who would disregard Rood’s caution that “gaudy colours … produce a depressing effect on the beholder,” Van Gogh preferred intuitive response and daring to Divisionist formalism. He could rely on his remarkable gift for light, composition and color harmony, while Signac’s anarchist ideals followed science. He and Seurat drew on mathematician Charles Henry’s Introduction to a Scientific Aesthetics (1884), whose “psychophysics” defined colors’ emotions, and on David Sutter’s Phenomena of Vision (1880), which equated harmonic laws of vision to those of music. Seurat believed positive emotion was created by a dominance of light, warm color, and lines above the horizon. Overall darks, cool colors, and downward direction expressed sadness. Calm was created by horizontal lines, and equal part of light and dark, warm and cool. This conceptual process would influence abstractionists Mondrian, Kandinsky, and Delaunay, who passed through Divisionism, as did Picasso – as well as Derain and Matisse, frequent guests at Signac’s home in St. Tropez. Matisse painted “Luxe, Calme, and Volupte” in response to Cross’s “Evening Air,” and dedicated it to Signac. Through Fauvism, Bonnard and others would absorb Neo-Impressionism, which “codified a language essential to modernism and brought with it a new text of independent form and color.”
Before Van Gogh died, he was able to appreciate Symbolist poet Albert Aurier‘s positive review, describing his “disquieting and disturbing display of a strange nature… realistic, and yet almost supernatural… cypresses that expose their nightmarish, flamelike… silhouettes.” Starry Night (which Van Gogh considered a failure) exceeds the Impressionist dispassion of Pissarro, approaching the Symbolism of Gaugin and prefiguring Expressionism. The before-sunrise vista from his barred window at the asylum in St. Remy was painted from sketches. After a fierce argument with Gaugin in Arles about working from imagination or nature, he had mutilated his ear, prompting neighbors to petition the mayor to commit him. The painting’s Milky Way-like form resembles Hokusai’s now equally iconic wave. Van Gogh may also have had in mind the Divisionist notion that darkness and blue convey sorrow, warm colors joy, or Goethe’s view of yellow as “gladdening” and “serene,” blue as melancholic. Observing how the night sky resembled a map, Van Gogh reckoned, “we take death to a star.” Wild yet orderedmovement and rolling, stylized brushwork read like efforts to manage disequilibrium. The cypress’s gloomy association with Hades, and the addition of a Dutch church steeple, fit: “When I have a terrible need of – shall I say the word – religion… I go out and paint the stars.” Like the painter staring out the window, the foregrounded tree with unstable contours comprehends the scene. Despite his “moods of indescribable anguish,” Van Gogh clearly had many good painting days.
Wheat Field with Cypresses was painted between asylum stays in Arles and St. Remy, closer to his suicide. A milder agitation of sky flows in lighter soft violet-blues and cool greens. With diminished saturation, manipulation of tone and temperature makes the wheat glow. But wind blowing in all directions is disorienting; the air feels dense, the space somewhat agoraphobic. The dark cypress grounds the composition, yet reaches up ineptly, weightless as seaweed the longer one looks. When Theo died soon after his brother, his widow promoted their collection of Vincent’s work, and published his letters. Van Gogh’s association with Signac, a leader of the Salon of Independents for decades, was another asset. Signac collaborated with Theo van Rysselberghe of the Brussels’ Les Vingt group (which Ensor helped form), whose other under-known Divisionists included Georges Lemmen, Alfred Wm. Finch, and Dutchman Jan Toorup. Its sole female member, Anna Boch, bought the only painting Van Gogh sold in his lifetime. After Seurat’s early death, Signac further proselytized Divisionism in From Eugene Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism (1899). In Italy, Giovanni Segantini, Emilio Longoni, and others took the movement in a more tonal, Symbolist direction, while Futurists Severini and Boccioni combined it with Cubism, as did Metzinger. While anchored to observation and nature, Van Gogh’s unique practice blossomed via Divisionism. Pissarro predicted he would “either go mad or leave the Impressionists far behind… he would do both”. Through roughly 900 paintings in just ten years, Van Gogh went from awkward, heartfelt Dutch tonalist to fluent master of avant-garde French color.
“Van Gogh’s Cypresses,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York. Through August 27, 2023.
About the author: Painter and arts writer Margaret McCann teaches at the Art Students League.