“Ah, my dear Theo, if you could see the olive trees at this time of year,” Vincent van Gogh wrote rapturously to his brother and art dealer from Arles, France on April 28, 1889. Citing the ‘refined delicacy’ of their silver foliage, blue skies, and “orangish ploughed soil,” the artist proclaimed that the olive groves were “too beautiful for me to dare to paint.” However, just a few weeks later in nearby Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, van Gogh took up the challenge, eventually producing 15 olive grove paintings over the next six months despite debilitating mental health struggles.
A new exhibition, Van Gogh and the Olive Groves, reunites this luminous and little-known series for the first time, revealing one of the artist’s most crucial thematic and spiritual subjects. Co-organized by co-curators Nicole R. Myers and Nienke Bakker at the Dallas Museum of Art and the Van Gogh Museum respectively, the exhibition also presents groundbreaking discoveries about van Gogh’s painting process and materials thanks to a years-long, collaborative conservation and scientific research project carried out by the two institutions.
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Van Gogh voluntarily admitted himself to a private asylum at Saint-Rémy on May 8, 1889, following a series of mental health crises, including his famous earlier ear mutilation. For the first month of his stay, van Gogh wasn’t permitted to leave the asylum’s grounds, but he admired his new environment through his window. “Unlike Arles, which is located on a fertile plain and had numerous wheat fields and orchards, Saint-Rémy is an arid, rocky landscape where little thrived,” Myers told Hyperallergic in a recent email. Hardy olive trees were the area’s primary agricultural product, and grew around the asylum at the base of the Alpilles Mountains.
Once the asylum permitted him to move freely, van Gogh headed to the olive groves. There, he captured the trees’ twisted branches and gnarled trunks in swirling strokes and vivid colors. As always, color — its veracity to life and its ability to elicit emotions — was of utmost importance to the artist. In June, van Gogh wrote to his brother about his latest painting, saying, “I’ve just finished a landscape of an olive grove with grey foliage, their cast shadows violet in the sun-drenched sand.”
This description caught Myers’s attention 10 years ago. At the time, she was a curator at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, which holds this painting in its collection. Myers noticed that the olive tree shadows in the piece were actually blue, not violet. But she also knew that van Gogh was extremely particular and precise about his palette. Knowing something was up, Myers launched a cross-continental investigation into the olive grove paintings, enlisting the help of her colleagues at the artist’s eponymous museum in Amsterdam.
Collaborating curators, conservators, and scientists met in the Netherlands in 2018 and in New York City in 2019 to carefully study the surfaces of the series. The team used a variety of techniques to analyze the works including raking light, microscopy, X-ray fluorescence analysis, infrared photography, cross section samples of paint, and comparing the canvas weaves of van Gogh’s artworks to date and order the paintings. They also discovered fingerprints, seeds, stems, sand, insect footprints, and even insects themselves stuck to the surfaces of the artworks. These gave key clues about van Gogh’s unique process, where he moved between working en plein air and in his asylum studio.
But the most surprising find came from the paint itself. As suggested by the discrepancy in the artist’s description of his ‘violet’ shadows, Myers’s team found that van Gogh’s original colors have changed. The problem lay in van Gogh’s red lake pigments, which became highly unstable when exposed to light. Over time, the artist’s purples, pinks, and reds have shifted to the soft blues we see in all of van Gogh’s olive grove paintings today. But the phenomenon isn’t just limited to this series of work. Myers says that the blue walls of the artist’s famous “Bedroom” (1888) painting were originally violet, too. “I wouldn’t be surprised if further technical studies reveal a large body of work whose red colors and color mixtures faded,” she said by email.
It seems that van Gogh himself may have been aware of the risks of using red lake paints. “All the colors that Impressionism has made fashionable are unstable,” he once wrote. The artist didn’t live long enough to see the change in his works — he died in late July 1890 — but Myers insists that the paintings still mostly capture the colors of Provence: on a trip to Saint-Rémy in June 2015, Myers observed the landscape’s unique light and hues first hand. But there was something else. “I was struck by what a difficult subject it was to paint and also how un-picturesque the groves could be,” Myers noted. “They are not conventional nor traditionally beautiful subjects. I think what attracted van Gogh to paint them wasn’t their physical appearance, but their great symbolic potential.”
Olive trees have long been potent symbols for humankind. The ancient Greeks, Romans, and Hebrews saw it as a Tree of Life, and a physical embodiment of resilience, regeneration, peace, and abundance. In the Old Testament, the tree appears in the Garden of Eden and in Canaan, and the olive trees of Gethsemane — the site of Christ’s agony in the garden — are some of the oldest in the world. For the highly spiritual van Gogh, the olive groves merged his unique breed of religiosity with his deep reverence for nature.
Regardless of religious connotations or color changes, van Gogh’s vibrant olive grove paintings convey a sense of the supernatural. “He ultimately believed that modern artists shouldn’t depict religious narratives, but rather convey the symbolic meaning and emotions of those stories by finding them in subjects drawn from the everyday world around them,” Myers said. Seen together in this rare display, the sheer beauty of these works still gives us the consolation and inspiration van Gogh aspired to create.
Van Gogh and the Olive Groves continues at the Dallas Museum of Art (1717 N Harwood Street, Dallas) through February 6, 2022. It will travel to the Van Gogh Museum (Museumplein 6, 1071 DJ Amsterdam) March 11–June 12, 2022.
The Dallas Museum of Art funded the author’s travel and accommodations.