Van Gogh's Cypresses Closing Sunday

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday August 23, 2023

The Met’s exhibition, Van Gogh Cypresses, which closes on Sunday, offers a wanted correction to the pop-culture furor generated by the various light and magic shows about Vincent that emerged during the COVID miasma. The artist’s cult status was already in place, given his outsider status, tormented soul, and death by suicide at 37.

And for many, the one painting that most fully represents the artist is “The Starry Night” (below), owned by MoMA and included in the show. With its turbulent night sky, gleaming stars and towering cypresses, this work, one of the last Vincent painted, has become a metaphor for his tortured soul. It’s the one painting in the show that you can’t get close to as it’s the one painting that visitors from around the world will crowd around.

But in this show of 24 paintings carefully selected from public and private collections in the US and abroad, together with a group of drawings and illustrated letters, the artist as thinker takes over from the tormented artist that has emerged in more than one well-produced films. In his letters to brother Theo, who alone supported his art, Vincent writes about his motivations and methods. He talks about “dreaming before nature”—his way of internalize the sensations emanating from the earth through its vegetation, from the skies through its sun and stars. from the mistral whose strong winds often knocked his canvas from the easel. 

In a letter from June 25, 1889, Vincent writes, “The cypresses still preoccupy me, I’d like to do something with them like the canvases of the sunflowers because it astonishes me that no one has yet done them as I see them”. Writing about one of the paintings now in The Met collection , he says, “I think that of the two canvases of cypresses, the one I’m making the croquis [sketch] of will be the best. The trees in it are very tall and massive. The foreground very low, brambles and undergrowth. Behind, violet hills, a green and pink sky with a crescent moon. The foreground, above all, is thickly impasted [sic], tufts of bramble with yellow, violet, green highlights.” In the same letter he allows, “To do nature here, as everywhere, one must really be here for a long time.”

There is more than one piece in the show, which includes studies as well as highly finished works, that hint at his admiration for Paul Cézanne. With a little digging around, one learns that van Gogh’s physician and friend, Dr. Paul Gachet, had an art collection that included 20 or more paintings by Cezanne, which van Gogh had seen.

With Two Poplars in the Alpilles near Saint-Rémy (Cleveland Museum of Art, left), Vincent studies two flame-like trees growing out of a rock quarry, with a mountain beyond that to my eye offers a nod to Cézanne’s fascination with Mount Saint-Victoire. This is another example of the clarity this exhibition offers: the paintings tell the story; the wall text is an extra; read the letters if you want to know more about Vincent.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY Info 

All images courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art except for the Cleveland painting, courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art

Note: Advance tickets are not available but visitors must sign up ahead for the queue so get there early to get your place in line.