“I put my heart and soul into my work, and I have lost my mind in the process.” — Vincent Van Gogh
Vincent Van Gogh (1853 to 1890) went through several styles before settling on his trademark thick applications of vibrant colors. By July of 1889, he had less than one year to live. He also produced some of his best-known works, including one his most distinctive landscapes, Cornfield with Cypresses (or Wheatfield with Cypresses.) Once considered worthless, this priceless work can be seen in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.
At least three versions of the painting exist and one drawing. The second version, sometimes known as A Wheatfield with Cypresses was painted in September 1889 and now resides in the National Gallery in London. The second is the more Impressionistic of the two, with colors blending together instead of being laid in sharp contrast as in the original version. Both versions were painted while Van Gogh lived in a mental asylum in Saint-Remy, France.
The third version resides in a private collection. In all four versions, the composition is identical, although the colors and their degree of blending into each other are different.
At this time of his life, Van Gogh was as complicated as his paintings. Although his letters praised painting quickly and with “passion” he rarely did any art work without agonizing over every little detail. The first and most famous version of this landscape would make a daytime counterpart to his most famous work, “The Starry Night” which was also painted while he was at the asylum in Saint-Remy.
Although this landscape may appear to have been done very quickly and spontaneously, every color choice and stroke was done very deliberately. Van Gogh painted the clouds in such thick layers that even today we can see the individual brush strokes. He would sometimes scrape off sections of paintings to do over but sometimes he would just keep painting the same area over and over again.
Van Gogh grew up the son of a pastor. He tried (but was dismissed) to be a missionary in the Borinage, a poverty-stricken mining area in Belgium. By 1889, Van Gogh had lost faith in God but not in art. Religious symbols were popular in French art circles and utilized by Van Gogh’s contemporaries such as Paul Gauguin. Van Gogh’s use of a heavy black outline with areas of pure color laid sharply next to each other is reminiscent of stained glass windows.
The style was also popular in Japanese art, which had been very popular in France since the early 1880s. Van Gogh places colors next to each other to show the underlying chaos in a superficially tranquil scene such as a cypress tree and field under a cloudy sky.