How Van Gogh Found Spiritual Consolation in an Olive Grove

Dallas Museum of Art’s “Van Gogh and the Olive Groves” reveals discoveries about the artist’s techniques and materials.

Dallas Museum of Art Van Gogh and the Olive Groves
John Smith, courtesy of Dallas Museum of Art

Out of a mental health crisis comes brilliance. When Vincent van Gogh check himself into an asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in 1889, he created a series of paintings evocative of Provence through an unexpected motif: olive trees. The Dallas Museum of Art brings this series together for the first time ever in the groundbreaking exhibition, Van Gogh and the Olive Groves, now on view through February 6.

The exhibition features 26 works from 12 international lenders and eight American institutions. As one of the most popular artists in the world, his works have been reproduced in a variety of mediums. “But nothing compares to the special and intimate experience of seeing the actual work of the artist’s hand,” said Agustin Arteaga, the Dallas Museum of Art’s Eugene McDermott Director.

The exhibition is co-curated by Nicole R. Myers, the museum’s Interim Chief Curator and Barbara Thomas Lemmon Senior Curator of European Art and Nienke Bakker, the Senior Curator of Paintings at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The exhibition will be on view at the Van Gogh Museum March 11 – June 12.

Dallas Museum of Art exterior Van Gogh and the Olive Groves
John Smith, courtesy of Dallas Museum of Art
Van Gogh's olive grove paintings are being shown together for the first time ever at the Dallas Museum of Art.

Myers began investigating Van Gogh’s olive grove paintings nearly a decade ago. “They had never before been the subject of serious study, publication, or exhibition. Van Gogh himself felt they were among his best works from his time in Southern France,” Myers said.

The curatorial team initiated a technical study to fully understand this body of work. The goal of the research initiative was to establish the chronological sequence of the paintings within the series, figure out which paintings were painted en plein air or in his studio, and investigate Van Gogh’s use of unstable pigments. “We invited all the owners of olive grove paintings to join us in a collaborative technical study of all of the works in the series, a three-year project led by Kathrin Pilz, Paintings Conservator at the Van Gogh Museum,’ Myers said.

The most intriguing discovery of the study was how much the colors in works shifted over time. Van Gogh used “red lake” pigment in his work. The pigment was unstable and faded relatively quickly when exposed to light. Van Gogh might as well have been painting with disappearing ink. “So really, these paintings were so much more colorful when they were painted,” Myers said.

The technical study of Van Gogh's olive grove paintings revealed more about his use of the "red lake" pigment.

To better understand what the paintings might have looked like when Van Gogh created them, Laura Eva Hartman, the museum’s Paintings Conservator, painted some recreations of Van Gogh’s work. “Being Van Gogh is not easy, I found out,” Hartman said. “It wasn’t until we put paint to canvas that it really made sense how much control Van Gogh was using himself in the painting process, how accurate his understanding of color theory really was, his absolute mastery of brushwork and the sheer control he had to use to accomplish these bold, beautiful paintings.”

The research initiative is chronicled in an impressive gallery, further exploring Van Gogh’s use of color theory and techniques. It’s a fascinating intersection of art and science.

The exhibition introduces two of Van Gogh’s motivating concepts. He painted in series as a marketing strategy to entice middle-class collectors and he was drawn to depicting the seasons. “For an artist that reveled in the changing colors of the landscape and who chased his subjects from season to season, the subject’s appeal for Van Gogh resided somewhere else,” Myers said.

Capturing the passage of time represented nature’s constant renewal, an eternal cycle of consolation that life goes on after death. This cycle is physically embodied by the exhibition’s installation of the series. “If we were going to reunite the olive grove, I wanted to present them in a circular space so you can see the seasons unfold in front of you,” Myers said.

Dallas Museum of Art Van Gogh and the Olive Groves circular gallery
John Smith, courtesy of the Dallas Museum of Art
The seasons wrap around visitors as they view Van Gogh's olive grove series.

The paintings in the summer of 1889 confirm the findings of the study. “We know that for the majority of the paintings now that he did start them outdoors in the olive groves with really a few exceptions,” Myers said.

Van Gogh depicted summer by using Impressionists’ short brushstrokes, bright colors as well as blanching out the landscape just as the intense sunlight would. “For him, this depicted the heat of the moment,” Myers said.

Van Gogh experimented with Sythnetism, an expressive abstract style that interested Émile Bernard and Paul Gauguin. Painted in the same vein as his famed The Starry Night, The Olive Trees, on loan from The Museum of Modern Art, features an olive grove framed by the Alpilles mountain range and abstract swirling clouds.

“Van Gogh draws from all of this complex symbolism and pours it into this painting, again exaggerating the different lines with incredible sinew and pulsing energy all throughout the landscape to give his ideas of what he felt in front of the motif,” Myers said.

Van Gogh suffered another mental health crisis in July, preventing him from painting for six weeks. When he returned to the olive groves in September, he changed his view about Synthetism after seeing Gauguin’s painting of Christ in the Garden of Olives. “He was absolutely shocked in a bad way,” Myers said.

Vincent van Gogh Olive Trees Van Gogh and the Olive Groves
Charles Walbridge
Vincent van Gogh, Olive Trees, November 1889, oil on canvas, Minneapolis Institute of Art. The William Hood Dunwoody Fund, 51.7. Photo by Charles Walbridge

Van Gogh’s autumn olive grove paintings reflect his renewed dedication to observing subjects in life. Rather than paint religious characters into a landscape, nature reflects the spiritual. Olive Trees, dating from November 1889, is dominated by a vibrant sun. “Typically, when you see suns in the picture and a yellow sky, that represents the presence of God or of Christ in the celestial golden light. So, he was using the language of color to convey some of that spiritual or religious meaning in the picture,” Myers said.

When Van Gogh did use figures in his paintings, they were workers toiling in the harvest. The nameless men and women represent a continuation of a nature’s holy cycle. “He wanted it to offer messages of hope and consolation to us the weary modern viewer with our stresses of everyday life. This, he felt, was the future of modern art: to actually provide the spiritual consolation and renewal that was once offered by traditional religious painting,” Myers said.

Before leaving Saint-Rémy, Van Gogh created a series of paintings featuring cypress trees and the Alpilles, elements he considered quintessential to Provence. The exhibition concludes with A Walk at Twilight, a work uniting cypress trees, Alpilles and the olive trees. The painting was completed within months of Van Gogh’s suicide at age 37.

Vincent van Gogh A Walk at Twilight
João Musa
Vincent van Gogh, A Walk at Twilight, 1889–1890, oil on canvas, Collection Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand. Purchase, 1958. Photo: João Musa

“What’s really poignant and bittersweet about this painting is you see Van Gogh himself who is strolling with an imaginary companion through the olive grove at twilight,” Myers said. “It’s this poignant message of longing and showing his need for spiritual consolation, for companionship, for love, for the strength, optimism and courage to accept his challenging health issues and his uncertain future with the same kind of grace he associated with Christ’s suffering in the Garden of Olives.”

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