Glass reviews Van Gogh: The artist for all seasons

A NEW book – Van Gogh and the Seasons – celebrates and illustrates Van Gogh’s urgent desire to capture on canvas the changing colours of the seasons.

Trees and undergrowth Van Gogh Museum, AmsterdamTrees and Undergrowth. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Van Gogh’s childhood was spent in a small town in Holland, where his father was a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church. His close-knit family lived in a parsonage in the town’s main square and his mother cultivated a garden there. In his early thirties, Van Gogh made pen-and-ink drawings of the garden, showing gnarled trees which though still leafless from the winter are possessed with energy and a drama of their own. His craft in rendering the spindly limbs of the trees is remarkable and there is hardly a single curved line anywhere to be seen. He tried to sell these drawings but, as would happen again and again with his work, he had to deal with rejection by the art world.

The parsonage garden at Nuenen in winter Museum of Fine Arts, BudapestThe Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Winter. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

Van Gogh needed authenticity as much in his personal life as in his work as an artist: ‘It is something to always be with the mowers and the peasant girls, in summer with the big sky above, in the winter by the black fireplaces. And to feel – this has always been so and always will be.’ He wasn’t being hedonistic – seeking pleasure merely for the sake of it – just hyper-sensitive to the nature of being in the world and the sense of changing light patterns through the course of different seasons.

 It was probably happy memories of his countryside childhood that transformed  a field’s sheaves of corn  into emblems of something eternally glorious – why else did he repeatedly bring them into his work? – and in the summer of 1888 he spent two weeks in southern France painting wheatfields around Arles.

In one of these wheatfield paintings three bundles of wheat lean against one another, slightly off-centre, and seem to dance off the canvas. The bundles are set against horizontal bands of the field that end with a blue-green sky laced with clouds.

Wheatfield Honolulu Museum of Art, HawaiiWheatfield. Honolulu Museum of Art, Hawaii

From May 1889 Van Gogh was a patient at a psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy and he was in a parlous state, not wishing to communicate with anyone. By September, though, he was slowly recovering and, looking out through windows at fields of gold-coloured wheat, mountains, cypress and olive trees, he felt the need to reach again for canvas and oils. Once more he was excited by the sight of fields of wheat ripened by sunshine and he repeatedly painted the scene outside his hospital window,  moved by the turbulence of autumn winds animating the landscape (one version hangs in London’s National Gallery).

A wheatfield, with cypresses early September 1889 Saint-Rémy © The National Gallery, LondonA Wheatfield, with Cypresses, early September 1889, Saint-Rémy © The National Gallery, London

With the coming of spring he was allowed to spend time in the hospital grounds that he called the ‘park’ and began to paint what he saw around him.  He looks down into the meadow grasses, noticing dandelions and a profusion of blooming flowers amidst the furrowed bark of trees. Responding to the zigzag texture of the bark, he paints rugged geometric patterns in orange, blue, brown, yellow and white. Looked at in close-up, you would never recognise the colours as those of tree trunks but Van Gogh is hyperactively alive to nature’s palette, sharing with us his sense of springtime.

This book is a handsome publication, with nearly 250 colour illustrations plus essays by curators and art historians.

by Sean Sheehan

Van Gogh and the Seasons by Sjraar van Heugten is published by Princeton University Press in association with the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, and Art Exhibitions Australia.