I ended the first article of this two-part series with Vincent van Gogh’s first paintings of cypress trees, made during his stay in the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole mental asylum at Saint-Rémy near Arles.
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.
This, his first oil sketch, was finished by early July, when he wrote to his brother Theo, “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.”
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.
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.
The cypress tree lives on in Carlos Schwabe’s watercolour of Elysian Fields from 1903. Its ambiguous title could refer to the famous avenue of the Champs Élysées in Paris, or to the mythological Elysian Fields, as the final resting place of the souls of heroes.
A woman looks languidly at the viewer as she strolls over a floral carpet on overgrown steps, which lead up to an avenue of cypress trees. She is dressed in black, with a long black mantilla, and carries a classical lyre in her left hand, indicating that she is a poet.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s view of The Church of Notre-Dame de Protection at Haut-de-Cagnes from 1905 shows the mediaeval village set a mile or two further inland and well above the Mediterranean seaside resort of Cagnes, where the artist spent his later years. The tall cypress tree which echoes the church tower is more substantial than his previous sublime trees, and has its own echo in the stripped trunk at the right edge of the canvas.
By a strange quirk of fate, the year that Renoir died a short distance away from that church, Amedeo Modigliani stayed nearby, and painted one of his very few landscapes, showing the same church.
Modigliani’s Cypresses and Houses at Cagnes, from 1919, is a stark contrast in style, but recognisably the same building and trees.
Six years earlier, in July 1913, Gustav Klimt had stayed with the Flöge family on Lake Garda, where he painted the landscape.
Klimt appears to have taken his telescope with him, through which he painted this view of the Church in Cassone (1913). It is dominated by the distinctive forms of many cypress trees.
The following year, the Great War broke out, and many more cypresses were to follow across the military cemeteries of Europe.