Turner to Monet
Van Gogh’s extraordinary and tragic life, his feelings and thoughts revealed in prolific correspondence, often overwrites the material reality of his paintings. He was a pioneer of modern art, using the genres of landscape, portraiture and still life to experiment with form and colour. Here, in an extraordinary close-up rendition of urban nature, Tree trunks in the grass, Van Gogh reinvigorates the landscape format by looking down into it instead of outwards, and thus eliminates both horizon and sky.
He wrote about the painting in a letter to his brother Theo in early May 1890, in which he also details a planned journey from the asylum at Saint-Rémy to the care of Dr Gachet at Auvers-sur-Oise:
… my work is going well, I have done two canvases of the fresh grass in the park, one of which is extremely simple, here is a hasty sketch of it. The trunk of a pine violet-pink and then the grass with white flowers and dandelions, a little rose tree and other tree trunks in the background right at the top of the canvas.1
By cropping the composition so radically, especially at the top and bottom, Van Gogh shows how well he absorbed the strategies of Japanese woodblock artists. He combines these with the exemplar of photography, focusing on one part of an object to stand in for the whole. Verticals and diagonals struggle for dominance, with the main tree trunks sloping slightly, boldly placed off-centre. Our eye is led back by white accents from the foreshortened ground in a zigzag, and through the central field into the dappled lawn under the far trees. It lingers briefly, returning by means of blue marks, to the central motif.
In Tree trunks in the grass, the artist’s palette is reduced to light shades of green, white and yellow, highlighted by blue and a little red, allowing tones to accentuate the texture of the main trunk. Other trunks are blue-black, dark against bright spring vegetation. Van Gogh’s characteristically energetic paintstrokes, delicate in the flowers and thicker in the grass, become rugged in the bark of the trees. This landscape was observed close-to, painted on the spot in the asylum garden at the end of April 1890. Van Gogh is a specific, rather than a general, artist: that is, he uses the immediate to communicate larger themes. Looking at the painting, we feel the joy of being outdoors, where sunlight and flowered grass suffuse our senses.
1 Letter 631, The complete letters of Vincent Van Gogh, 2nd edn, vol. 3, London: Thames & Hudson, 1959, pp. 265, 267.