In April 1889, after a series of mental health crises culminating in the famous self-mutilation in which he cut off his own ear, Vincent van Gogh voluntarily admitted himself into the Saint-Paul de Mausole Asylum in the South of France. Van Gogh, 'the father of Expressionism’ brought a greater sense of emotional depth to his paintings than his Impressionist counterparts.
Van Gogh, Vincent. Hospital at Saint-Rémy, ca. 1889, oil on canvas, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, CA.
The asylum is located in the heart of the French countryside, surrounded by gardens, wheat fields, and, most prominently, olive groves. It was here, in the darkest, most harrowing periods of the artist’s life that he created some of his most notable works, including the well-known Starry Night and Irises.
Depression plagued Van Gogh causing him to be perceived as a social outcast and slightly deranged. Despite society’s continual rejection of his work, he spent his life passionately tied to his paintbrush. Out of roughly 900 paintings that he produced throughout his lifetime, Vincent van Gogh only sold one: The Red Vineyard. The long, bountiful fame and beauty of his art only garnered attention after his suicide in July of 1890.
Van Gogh spent a full year in the Saint-Paul Asylum, wherein he completed a total of 150 paintings, 18 depicting his beloved, serene olive groves. He illuminated the groves with vibrant hues of sage and spruce, violet, cherry, and golden yellows (Van Gogh’s personal favorite), all fused together to create true masterpieces, rich in depth and meaning.
Van Gogh wrote to Theo, his brother and closest friend, on September 28, 1989:
The olive trees are very characteristic, and I’m struggling to capture that. It’s silver, sometimes more blue, sometimes greenish, bronzed, whitening on ground that is yellow, pink, purplish or orangish to dull red ochre. But very difficult, very difficult. But that suits me and attracts me to work fully in gold or silver. And one day perhaps I’ll do a personal impression of it, the way the sunflowers are for yellows.
Van Gogh, Vincent. Olive Trees. 1889. Minneapolis Institute of Art. The William Hood Dunwoody Fund.
the symbolism of the groves
Some art historians have labeled olive groves as “unpicturesque,” believing that Van Gogh was drawn to them not necessarily for their physical appearance but more for their “great symbolic potential.” While beauty most assuredly lies in the eye of the beholder, there is no doubt that Van Gogh found a sense of symbolic healing in these groves during the most challenging periods in his life.
In history, olive trees have long served as stalwart symbols for humankind. Seeing it as the manifestation of peace, abundance, resilience, and regeneration, they were considered to be the Tree of Life in Ancient Greece and Rome. In the Old Testament, an olive tree appears in each of the Gardens of Eden and Gethsemane, and after the Flood, Noah is brought an olive branch in the beak of a dove to represent peace.
For the spiritual Van Gogh, art historians believe that he likewise saw olive trees as sacred, symbolizing both the divine and the cycle of life, as emphasized in another letter Van Gogh wrote to Theo:
“The rustle of the olive grove has something very secret in it, and is immensely old. It is too beautiful for us to dare to paint it or to be able to imagine it.”
To Van Gogh, the strong, enduring trees became a metaphor for his own struggles, which brought him a sense of peace for a short time. He found that their gnarled trunks and twisted branches--perceived by some as ugly and flawed--in fact add to their beauty and serve to display their long, rich, and bountiful existence. Perhaps, he appreciated on some level how closely these 'outcasts' reflected his own misunderstood reality.
Van Gogh, Vincent. A Walk at Twilight. 1889, oil on canvas, Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand, São Paulo, Brazil.
Vincent van Gogh, “Olive Trees” (June 1889), oil on canvas (the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, image courtesy the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Media Services, photo by Gabe Hopkins)
Vincent Van Gogh, “Olive Grove” (July 1889), oil on canvas (Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, the Netherlands, photo by Rik Klein Gotink)
Vincent van Gogh, “Olive Grove with Two Olive Pickers” (December 1889), oil on canvas (Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, the Netherlands, photo by Rik Klein Gotink)