Since 1881, visitors approaching the Metropolitan Museum of Art from Central Park have been able to glimpse the towering, tapering form of Cleopatra’s Needle (ca. fifteenth century B.C.), one of two granite obelisks that stood beside a temple to the Egyptian sun god Atum in Heliopolis. In an 1889 letter to his younger brother, Theo, Van Gogh compared this type of ancient monument and its beautiful “lines and proportions” to the modest Mediterranean cypresses of southern France.

When he wrote the letter, Van Gogh was in the midst of an impassioned painting campaign. It had begun weeks earlier when his guardians at the Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Rémy allowed him to venture beyond the institution’s courtyard for the first time, and it came to a close in mid-July when the artist suffered a breakdown—but not before he completed a dozen vibrant oil landscapes lathered with thick impasto and set out to dry in the summer heat. Six of the canvases, including Starry Night (1889) and its sunsoaked counterpart, Wheat Field with Cypresses (1889), feature his famously flame-like, darkly outlined cypresses contorting in exaggerated response to the mistral, a strong northerly wind that harries the region. To Theo, Van Gogh wrote about these trees: “It astonishes me that no one has yet done them as I see them.”

Vincent Van Gogh, Wheat Field with Cypresses, 1889, Oil on canvas, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

The trees, Cupressus sempervirens, characteristic of the Provençal landscape and traditionally associated with death, rebirth, and immortality, appear in evey work on display in “Van Gogh’s Cypresses,” an exhibition of some forty paintings, drawings, and illustrated letters now on at the Met. This bright show provides a rousing crescendo to the Met’s summer season. 

Van Gogh did not always paint his iconic cypresses so expressively. During his two-year sojourn in the south, we see how dramatically his depictions of the cypresses evolved from his first few weeks in Arles to his last in rugged Saint-Rémy. The artist’s earliest dated cypress appears in a drawing of a patch of farmland in Landscape with Path and Pollard Willows (1888). The small piece was drawn just after Van Gogh had moved to Arles from Paris in hopes of setting up an artist’s colony, a “Studio of the South.” Here, in the center of a sober landscape, Van Gogh drew his first cypress with tight, short lines. Thin, dark, and spire-like, one stands beside a small cottage bordering a rural road; three more of its kind are just legible in the distance. 

The cypresses were among the few elements of the Arles landscape that distinguished it from Van Gogh’s homeland in Holland, which was similarly flat, strewn with canals, and dotted with pollard willows. “The difference,” Van Gogh observed, “is in the color. There’s sulfur everywhere where the sun beats down.” We begin to see his admiration of the landscape through a cheerful series featuring the nearby Langlois Bridge. In Drawbridge (1888), two cypresses add local character, as does the inclusion of a villager strolling with her parasol. Here the trees are granted a more prominent role in the composition as dark green silhouettes against a pale blue sky. 

Vincent Van Gogh, Drawbridge, 1888, Oil on canvas, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne. Photo: Art Resource, New York.

Van Gogh’s passing interest in cypresses quickly developed into an obsession. From wall to wall, we see his visions of them grow bigger, shaggier, and more dynamic, their shapes composed of increasingly vigorous clusters of curled and comma-like markings. Van Gogh depicted them in oil, watercolor, pencil, and reed pen, observed them up close and from a distance, worked en plein air and from memory. He translated drawings into paintings and vice versa. He described them and scribbled them in letters. He captured them lined along orchard borders, grouped in wheat fields, and perched above courtyards and public gardens. And he took shelter behind them as he battled the raging winds which often foiled his efforts to work outdoors. (Recent technical analysis of two Met-owned cypress paintings has even revealed particles of sand and pebbles lodged into the paint.) 

The show’s curator, Susan Stein, argues that it was the impending arrival of Paul Gauguin in Arles that pushed Van Gogh “to eke out the richer potential and evocative meaning of the cypresses.” Like a steeple—or an obelisk—the cypress is a visual link between the earth and the heavens. The sweet-scented, durable evergreen was often evoked in scenes of grief by ancient Roman poets and later by nineteenth-century writers such as Zola and Hugo. Van Gogh sometimes acknowledged these grim associations, once mentioning to Theo that he’d painted (in a now-lost canvas) a “funereal cypress, completely black.” To his neighbors in Provence, however, the tall trees were seen above all else as protectors, shields for delicate crops and dwellings against violent winds.

Vincent Van GoghCountry Road in Provence by Night, 1890, Oil on canvas, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo. Photo: Rik Klein Gotink. 

Of course, Van Gogh’s dream of an artist’s colony was dashed when Gauguin took off following Van Gogh’s infamous self-injury in late December, 1888. Van Gogh remained in Arles for several months, eventually completing Still Life of Oranges and Lemons with Blue Gloves (1889). Here, two cypress branches lend the work an elegiac tone as they rest beside a fruit basket and a pair of gloves atop a table; the gloves belonged to a woman he’d painted in the company of his departed friend.  

After his move to the asylum in Saint-Rémy, the cypresses continued to preoccupy Van Gogh. His handling of paint became thicker and more vigorous and his compositions more imaginative. Leaving aside seasonal blossoms and other transient subjects, he began to seek out only the “truer and more fundamental” aspects of nature, such as mountains, stars, and the never-wilting cypresses.

Vincent Van Gogh, Cypresses, 1889, Oil on canvas, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Many works on display reflect Van Gogh’s engagement with the avant-garde movements of the 1880s. In Orchard with Peach Trees and Cypresses (1888), for instance, we see the artist experiment with pointillism, stippling paint like Georges Seurat to make a blizzard of leaves and flowers while deploying short diagonals to build a hedge of cypresses in the distance. Émile Bernard inspired him to outline his trees with dark paint, a technique that mimics cloisonné decoration in medieval metalwork. Van Gogh’s swirling clouds, radiating starlight, and twirling trees seem influenced by Synthetism, a style practiced by Bernard and Gauguin in which the artist relies more on memory and feeling than direct observation. Stylistically, Van Gogh was torn between the temptation of these new techniques and the chastening influence of his brother who preferred he retain a more naturalistic style and worried that he was “seeking the symbol by dint of torturing the form.” 

The curators have done a brilliant job of showing Van Gogh’s dual desire to transcribe nature faithfully and to imbue it with emotion and symbolism. “It’s looking at things for a long time,” he wrote, “that matures you and makes you understand more deeply.” This tightly focused exhibition helps us understand more deeply how the germ of an artistic idea became an obsession in the mind of a singular artist.

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