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Vincent van Gogh | The Olive Trees series

Vincent van Gogh painted at least 15 paintings of olive trees, mostly in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in 1889. At his own request, he lived at an asylum there from May 1889 through May 1890 painting the gardens of the asylum and, when he had permission to venture outside its walls, nearby olive trees, cypresses and wheat fields.

One painting, "Olive Trees in a Mountainous Landscape", was a complement to "The Starry Night".

The olive tree paintings had special significance for van Gogh.

Vincent van Gogh | Couple Walking among Olive Trees in a Mountainous Landscape with Crescent Moon 1890 | Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo

A group in May 1889 represented life, the divine and the cycle of life while those from November 1889 arose out of his attempt to symbolize his feelings about Christ in Gethsemane.
His paintings of olive pickers demonstrate the relationship between man and nature by depicting one of the cycles of life, harvesting or death. It is also an example of how individuals, through interaction with nature, can connect with the divine.

Van Gogh found respite and relief in interaction with nature. When the series of olive tree paintings was made in 1889 he was subject to illness and emotional turmoil, yet the paintings are considered to be among his finest works.

Olive trees as a subject

Painting the countryside, the surrounding fields, cypress trees and olive trees restored van Gogh's connection to nature through art.
He completed at least 15 paintings in 1889 of "venerable, gnarled olive trees", pervasive throughout southern France, of which he wrote:

"The effect of daylight and the sky means there are endless subjects to be found in olive trees. For myself I look for the contrasting effects in the foliage, which changes with the tones of the sky.
At times, when the tree bares its pale blossoms and big blue flies, emerald fruit beetles and cicadas in great numbers fly about, everything is immersed in pure blue. Then, as the bronzer foliage takes on more mature tones, the sky is radiant and streaked with green and orange, and then again, further into autumn, the leaves take on violet tones something of the color of a ripe fig, and this violet effect manifests itself most fully with the contrast of the large, whitening sun within its pale halo of light lemon.
Sometimes, too, after a shower I've seen the whole sky pink and orange, which gave an exquisite value and coloring to the silvery gray-greens. And among all this were women, also pink, who were gathering the fruit".

Vincent van Gogh | The Olive Orchard, December, 1889 | National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

He found olive trees, representative of Provence, both "demanding and compelling". He wrote to his brother Theo that he was "struggling to catch (the olive trees). They are old silver, sometimes with more blue in them, sometimes greenish, bronzed, fading white above a soil which is yellow, pink, violet tinted orange... very difficult".
He found that the "rustle of the olive grove has something very secret in it, and immensely old. It is too beautiful for us to dare to paint it or to be able to imagine it".

Spiritual significance

As a young man, van Gogh considered pursuing ministry to serve working people. He studied for a time in the Netherlands but his zeal and self-imposed asceticism cost him a short-term position in lay ministry. He became somewhat embittered and rejected the church establishment, yet found a personal spirituality that was comforting and important to him.
By 1879, he made a shift in the direction of his life and found he could express his "love of God and man" through painting.

Vincent van Gogh | Olive Orchard with a Man and a Woman picking fruit, December 1889

Van Gogh painted nature, the major subject for his works in the last 29 months of his life, to bring relief from his illnesses and emotional distress. Prior to this period he had rejected what he perceived as the narrow religion of his parents, and took an almost nihilistic stance, not unlike Nietzsche's, toward religion and God.
It was among the blossoming trees, the olive orchards and fields that van Gogh most often found "profound meaning", because he saw in their cycles an analogy to human life.
He wrote to Theo that death, happiness and unhappiness are "necessary and useful" and relative, declaring "Even faced with an illness that breaks me up and frightens me, that belief is unshaken".
The autumn work was somewhat in reaction to the recent compositions of Christ in the Garden of Olives by his friends Paul Gauguin and Émile Bernard.
Frustrated by their work which he qualified with the words "nothing was observed", Van Gogh painted "in the groves, morning and evening during these clear, cold days, but in beautiful, bright sunshine" resulting in five canvases above the three he completed earlier in the year.

Vincent van Gogh | Olive Orchard, mid-June, 1889

He wrote to his brother, Theo, "What I have done is a rather hard and coarse reality beside their abstractions, but it will have a rustic quality and will smell of the earth".
Rather than attempting to recreate what the scene might have been like, he explained "one can express anguish without making reference to the actual Gethsemane, and... there is no need to portray figures from the Sermon on the Mount in order to express a gentle and comforting feeling".
He also commented: "I shall not paint a Christ in the Garden of Olives, but shall paint the olive harvest as one might see it today, and by giving the human figure its proper place in it, one might perhaps be reminded of it". | © Wikipedia

Vincent van Gogh | Olive Trees, November, 1889 | National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

Vincent van Gogh | Olive Trees, November, 1889 (detail)| National Gallery of Scotland Edinburgh

Vincent van Gogh | Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun, November, 1889 | Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Vincent van Gogh | Olive Orchard, November, 1889 | Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Vincent van Gogh dipinse almeno 15 dipinti di ulivi, per lo più a Saint-Rémy-de-Provence nel 1889. Su sua richiesta, visse in un manicomio dal maggio 1889 al maggio 1890 dipingendo i giardini del manicomio e, quando aveva il permesso di avventurarsi fuori dalle sue mura, vicino ad ulivi, cipressi e campi di grano.
Il dipinto, "Ulivi in un paesaggio di montagna", era un complemento a "La notte stellata".
I dipinti degli ulivi avevano un significato speciale per Van Gogh. Un gruppo nel maggio 1889 rappresentava la vita, il divino e il ciclo della vita, mentre quelli del novembre 1889 nacquero dal suo tentativo di simboleggiare i suoi sentimenti per Cristo nel Getsemani. I suoi dipinti di raccoglitori di olive dimostrano il rapporto tra uomo e natura raffigurando uno dei cicli di vita, raccolta o morte. È anche un esempio di come gli individui, attraverso l'interazione con la natura, possono connettersi con il divino.

Van Gogh ha trovato tregua e sollievo nell'interazione con la natura. Quando la serie di dipinti di ulivi fu realizzata nel 1889 fu soggetto a malattie e disordini emotivi, tuttavia i dipinti sono considerati tra le sue opere più belle.

Vincent van Gogh | Olive Trees, 1889 | Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City

Ulivi come soggetto

Dipingere la campagna, i campi circostanti, i cipressi e gli ulivi ha ripristinato il legame di van Gogh con la natura attraverso l'arte. Completò almeno 15 dipinti nel 1889 di "venerabili ulivi nodosi", diffusi in tutta la Francia meridionale, dei quali scrisse:

"L'effetto della luce del giorno e del cielo significa che ci sono infiniti soggetti da trovare negli ulivi. Per quanto mi riguarda cerco gli effetti di contrasto nel fogliame, che cambia con i toni del cielo. A volte, quando l'albero scopre i suoi fiori chiari e grandi mosche blu, coleotteri color smeraldo e cicale in gran numero volano qua e là, tutto è immerso nel blu puro. Poi, mentre il fogliame abbronzante assume toni più maturi, il cielo è radioso e striato di verde e arancione, e poi di nuovo, più in autunno, le foglie assumono toni violacei qualcosa del colore di un fico maturo, e questo effetto viola si manifesta nel modo più completo con il contrasto del grande sole sbiancante all'interno del suo pallido alone di limone chiaro. A volte anche dopo una doccia ho visto tutto il cielo rosa e arancione, che dava un pregio e una colorazione squisita ai grigio-verdi argentei. E tra tutto questo c'erano donne, anche rosa, che raccoglievano i frutti.
Ha trovato ulivi, rappresentativi della Provenza, "esigenti e avvincenti".

Scrisse a suo fratello Theo che stava "lottando per catturare (gli ulivi). Sono argento antico, a volte con più blu, a volte verdastro, bronzato, bianco sbiadito su un terreno che è giallo, rosa, viola tinto di arancione... molto difficile".
Ha scoperto che "il fruscio dell'oliveto ha qualcosa di molto segreto e immensamente antico. È troppo bello per noi osare dipingerlo od immaginarlo".

Vincent van Gogh | Women Picking Olives, 1889 | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Vincent van Gogh | Women Picking Olives, 1889 (detail) | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Vincent van Gogh | Women Picking Olives, 1889 (detail) | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Vincent van Gogh | Olive Grove, November, 1889 | Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Vincent van Gogh | Farmhouse Among the Olive Trees, Saint Remy, December 1889

Vincent van Gogh | Olive Orchard, November, 1889 | Metropolitan Museum of Art New York

Vincent van Gogh | Olive Picking December, 1889 | Goulandris Museum of Contemporary Art Athens

Vincent van Gogh | The Olive Trees | Saint Remy, June-July, 1889 | The Museum of Modern Art, New York