No one painted trees, particularly cypresses, like Vincent van Gogh. These didn’t come out of the blue, but had evolved over a period of a couple of years, as his brushstrokes became more organised into co-ordinated waves and swirls in their foliage.
Early signs appear in his painting of a Blossoming Chestnut Tree from 1887. Although there are a couple of glimpses of the underlying anatomical trunk and branch structure, this chestnut, in full leaf and flower, has a more solid canopy built from visible and organised brushstrokes. These marks are starting to form whorls and swirls in places, including the background vegetation. The tree is only demarcated from that background – the grass below, and trees behind – by discontinuity in the structure and orientation of his marks.
When van Gogh was in the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole mental asylum at Saint-Rémy near Arles, he could see through a window a view of wheatfields and dark Provençal cypress trees, with the Alpilles Mountains in the distance. During a period of intense creativity in June and July of 1889, he first drew parts of this view, then turned those drawings into paintings.
Perhaps this pen-and-ink drawing (above) was his first take, showing these two cypresses almost superimposed. From this, he made a painting in oils (below), which follows it closely.
He then broadened the view to extend to a Wheatfield with Cypresses (1889), which he drew using black chalk and his reed pen (above), probably in late June. To achieve this view, he may well have left the immediate surrounds of the asylum and worked en plein air, out in the heat.
Satisfied that this would make a good painting, he took a prepared canvas of about 73 by 93 cm (29 x 37 inches) and started to paint, again in front of the motif. He may have made a preparatory drawing in charcoal on the canvas, then laid down thin layers of paint, probably including lead white at this stage.
It’s possible that he completed the painting in a single sitting, as this initial version seems to have been intended as an oil sketch for a more finished version which he painted later that summer.
The detail above shows the tops of the wheat towards the lower left of the field, in the foreground. Over his initial thin layers of paint, van Gogh laid thick gestural strokes of highly chromatic paint, orientating those strokes according to the object they show. In the golden yellow of the wheat there are blues and greens, mostly showing through from his underpainting, with superimposed impasto of pale straw, ochre, and pale greens.
This detail, taken from the edge of the wheatfield at the lower right corner of the painting, shows three distinct areas of brushwork: the diagonal strokes forming the standing wheat, swirling loops to form the grasses and weeds below, and shorter marks forming a more random pattern for the heads of the wheat in the upper section.
At the centre of the canvas, from where this detail is taken, impasto blue and white have mixed with the green and yellow of the fields below. This shows that much of the painting, at least, was painted wet on wet, either in the same session or on consecutive days. Some of the darker green at the right may have been painted later, onto paint which had by then become touch dry.
An X-ray image of the whole painting shows in white those passages which are likely to contain the most lead white, and some other pigments which are most radio-opaque. This also reveals the pattern of brushstrokes well.
Van Gogh’s choice of pigments is unusual too. At this time, he was using both lead white, which he tended to apply in underpainting, and Chinese white (zinc oxide), which was more likely applied in upper layers. Some of the greens are here made by mixing synthetic ultramarine blue with yellow, as well as with viridian and other pigments. In addition to ultramarine, van Gogh used cobalt blue, most commonly in the sky.
This first oil sketch was finished by early July, when van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, his art dealer, “I have a canvas of cypresses with some ears of wheat, some poppies, a blue sky like a piece of Scotch plaid; the former painted with a thick impasto like the Monticelli’s, and the wheat field in the sun, which represents the extreme heat, very thick too.” This masterpiece is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, purchased in 1993 for $57 million thanks to donations.
In late July and early August, van Gogh had something of a psychiatric crisis, and he didn’t return to paint his ‘finished’ version until late August, apparently.
He then made this second version, in the studio; this is now in London’s National Gallery. He finally painted a third and smaller version in the studio, which he sent to his mother and sister as a gift; that is now in a private collection.
Vincent van Gogh continued to paint his wonderful cypress trees almost up to the day of his death. Painted just two months before then, his Road with Cypress and Star from 1890 is perhaps his ultimate expression of the form, texture, and colours of cypress trees in Provence, its swirling brushstrokes rising to form halos around the crescent moon and solitary star.
No one else has ever painted like Vincent van Gogh, before or since.