Vincent Van Gogh felt the need to leave the distractions of Paris, and in February 1888 moved 450 miles to Arles in the south of France. He was stunned by the south, it’s sunlight and the colors. He wrote to his brother Theo: “The painter of the future will be a colorist such as never existed. In the south, one’s senses get keener, one’s hands become more agile, one’s eye more alert, one’s brain clearer.”
Van Gogh was passionate in all things, and he fell in love with the flowering orchards that signaled the arrival of spring, for him the start of a new life. He began a series of paintings depicting the lush blooming orchards of plum, peach, pear, almond, and apricot. In March 1888 he wrote to Theo: “This country seems to me as beautiful as Japan in its limpid atmosphere and gay color effects. Water forms patches of beautiful emerald or rich blue in the landscape, just as one sees in Japanese prints. The sunsets have a pale orange hue that makes the fields appear blue. The sun, a splendid yellow. In all of nature, in trees for instance, I see expression and a soul, as it were.”
“Orchard in Bloom, Bordered by Cyprus Trees” (April 1888) (25.5” x 31.8’’) is one of fourteen paintings of orchards made on Van Gogh’s arrival in Arles. He discovered Impressionism and Japanese Ukiyo-e wood cuts in Paris. As a means to make a quick profit, he purchased 600 Japanese wood cuts to sell. Although this venture was not profitable, as he wrote to his brother Theo, “it gave me the opportunity to see a lot of Japanese art at leisure and over time.” “Orchard in Bloom” is an example of Van Gogh’s use of Impressionist color with blue and purple tree trunks, not brown, that support the abundance of white and pink blossoms. The ground is painted in shades of purple and tan, tan for the color of the earth and lavenders for the shadows. “Instead of trying to paint exactly what I see before me, I make more arbitrary use of color to express myself more forcefully.” Influenced by Japanese prints, Van Gogh painted several copies, but always added his own inspiration to the images. He stated emphatically, “All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art.”
“Flowering Peach Tree” (Souvenir de Mauve) (March 30, 1888) (28.7” x 23.6’’) is dedicated to Van Gogh’s friend and supporter Anton Rudolf Mauve who was married to Van Gogh’s cousin Ariette (Jet) Carbentus. During his early career, Van Gogh spent three weeks in 1888 under the tutelage of Mauve, learning to use oil paint and watercolor. Van Gogh was a prolific letter writer, especially to his brother Theo, and he often spoke of Mauve. When describing his current work it was about the with colors. He describes this painting, “at this moment, I have six paintings of blossoming fruit trees…a wicker fence and two peach trees in full bloom, pink against a sparkling sky blue with white clouds and in sunshine…since I’ve decided to send this one to Jet Mauve, I’ve written on it Souvenir de Mauve.” Mauve and Van Gogh had a falling out, but Van Gogh always remembered Mauve with fondness. Mauve had just died, and Van Gogh sent the painting with the inscription “Souvenir de Mauve to his cousin Jet, Mauve’s widow.
In “Small Pear Tree, Arles” (April 1888) (28.7” x 16.1’’) viewers have the opportunity to inspect a single flowering tree instead of the entire orchard. We can appreciate Van Gogh’s use of color for the ground; the variety of light blues, purples and tans depict to the slight unevenness of the ground. His drawing of the tree, the focal point of the painting, is twisted and yet balanced to create a quiet energy. The application of paint to depict each blossom or cluster of blossoms allows the viewer not only to see the tree more clearly but also to appreciate fully Van Gogh’s obvious joy in painting. His brush caresses each petal with care. Van Gogh describes his technique: “…to manipulate the colors in a picture so that they vibrate and set each other off, something like putting together jewelry or designing costumes.”
After the significant incident on May 5, 1889 when he cut off his ear lobe, Van Gogh voluntarily signed himself in to St Paul Asylum in S Remy, near Arles. The asylum, a former monastery, offered him what he sought; solitude and peace. With its large courtyard and walled gardens of herbs, poppies, irises, roses, and beyond the walls, fields of wheat and orchards of all types, it was as he wrote “the lightning conductor for my illness.” His first painting in S Remy “Irises” (May 1889) (28” x 36.6”) is full of his usual energy, and as critics have noted they evidence his admiration and joy in flowers. Van Gogh describes the colors “running up to carmine and pure Prussian blue.” The direction of the green leaves moves the composition from right to left, with the single white iris successfully stopping the flow. The composition is carefully orchestrated with a balancing of iris against earth in the foreground, and the addition of the cluster of bright orange and yellow marigolds at the upper left. Purple and yellow are complementary colors on the color wheel; they bring out the best in each other.
Van Gogh sent this and other paintings to Theo in Paris. Theo was excited by the works and submitted them to the September 1899 Salon des Independents. Theo wrote to Vincent: “Irises make an extremely good showing. They have put it on the narrow wall of the room, and it strikes the eye from afar. It is a beautiful study full of air and life.” The art critic Mirbeau said, “How well he has understood the exquisite nature of flowers.” Seeing the painting Monet remarked, “How did a man who loved flowers and light to such an extent, and who rendered them so well, how, then did he still manage to be so unhappy?” This painting was often exhibited and it changed hands frequently. It was sold in 1987for 58.9 million dollars.
In February 1890, Van Gogh suffered his worst relapse and missed the spring season. “If I’d been able to continue working…I would have done others of the trees in blossom. Now the trees in blossom are almost finished…I have no luck.” To make up for the time lost, he painted a large number of flower paintings including roses, poppies, sunflowers and irises. “Irises” (May 1890) (29’’ x36’’) is one of his last paintings at S Remy. More studied and simpler in composition, “Irises” still evidences Van Gogh’s love of flowers. Many of these last works were on the same size canvases, indicating he was making paintings for exhibition. Van Gogh remained at S Remy for 374 days. He created 150 paintings and 100 drawings.
“Almond Blossoms” (February 1890) (29” x 36”) was painted before “Irises” (May 1890), and before Van Gogh missed the Spring blooms. He had painted flowering almond trees and single almond branches before. Almond blossoms and trees were a subject he turned to often as a symbol of new life. “Almond Blossoms” is considered by art critics to be one of Van Gogh’s finest works, and it held a special place in Van Gogh’s life. Theo Van Gogh married his wife Johanna in the spring of 1889, and their son Vincent William was born in February 1890. Theo wrote, “As we told you, we’ll name him after you, and I’m making the wish that he may be as determined and as courageous as you.” Vincent wrote to a friend, “I started right away to make a picture for [Theo’s son} to hang in his bedroom, big branches of white almond blossoms against a blue sky.” To Theo: “It does me, too, more good, and gives me more pleasure than I could express in words…You will see that it is perhaps the best, the most patiently worked thing I have done, painted with calm and with greater firmness of touch.” Unfortunately, this letter ended with the following sentence, “And the next day, down like a brute.”
“Almond Blossoms” was hung prominently above the piano in the living room in Theo’s home, and it continued to be a cherished family painting. Van Gogh checked himself out of S Remy in May 1890 and moved north to Auvers under the care of Dr. Gachet. The move placed him closer to his brother. Van Gogh lived for another ten weeks and painted 70 pictures. On Sunday, July 17, 1890, Van Gogh tried to take his life; he died on the following Tuesday morning. He was thirty-seven. Six months later, Theo died at the age of thirty-three. After Theo died, “Almond Blossoms” was hung in Jo and her son Vincent’s bedroom. Johanna and her son inherited 755 letters Van Gogh had written to Theo, 200 paintings, and Van Gogh’s collection of over 400 Japanese woodcuts. She was the guiding force behind the creation of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. In his short life Van Gogh painted more than 850 paintings and produced more than 1,300 works on paper.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.