Alongside the olive groves, Van Gogh sought to create two additional series of paintings dedicated to cypress trees and the Alpilles Mountains. Together, he intended these three distinct series to form a larger ensemble that he called “Impressions of Provence.” In this public symposium, scholars respond to the three motifs Van Gogh put at the center of his production in Saint-Rémy, exploring their meaning and the greater context the artist envisioned for them within his oeuvre.
Originality and Seriality: Van Gogh’s Olive Groves in Context
Nicole R. Myers, Interim Chief Curator and The Barbara Thomas Lemmon Senior Curator of European Art, Dallas Museum of Art
Van Gogh created paintings in series and decorative ensembles throughout his career. His penchant for serial production was influenced by several factors, including his choice of motifs, such as the changing seasons, and more practical considerations, such as enticing collectors. It comes as no surprise that not long after settling into his new home in Saint-Rémy he seized upon the region’s characteristic olive trees to produce a new series, eventually expanding his repertoire to include two other motifs—cypress trees and the Alpilles mountains—that he felt reflected the ancient spirit of Provence. Although Van Gogh’s creation of the olive grove paintings was typical of his practice, the series nevertheless holds a special place within his production. In this talk, Nicole Myers will explore the greater context surrounding Van Gogh’s olive groves, examining the artist’s motivations for depicting this unconventional subject, the exceptional circumstances of the series’ development, and his ambitions for creating a larger ensemble he called “Impressions of Provence.”
Dr. Nicole Myers is Interim Chief Curator and The Barbara Thomas Lemmon Senior Curator of European Art at the Dallas Museum of Art. A specialist of French painting, Myers completed her master’s and doctorate degrees in art history at the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University. Since joining the DMA in 2016, Myers has curated or co-curated numerous exhibitions, including An Enduring Legacy: The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Collection of Impressionist and Modern Art (2018–2019), Berthe Morisot, Woman Impressionist (2018–2019), Women Artists in Europe from the Monarchy to Modernism (2018–2019), Cubism in Color: The Still Lifes of Juan Gris (2021), and Van Gogh and the Olive Groves (2021–2022).
‘The dark patch in a sun-drenched landscape’: Van Gogh’s Cypresses
Nienke Bakker, Senior Curator of Paintings, Van Gogh Museum
Alongside the olive trees, the cypresses are a quintessential feature of the Provençal countryside. During his stay in Arles, Van Gogh depicted these long, dark trees many times in the background of his landscapes, but it was only in Saint-Rémy that he focused on them as a meaningful motif in itself. The longer he stayed in Provence, the more he felt he could capture its essence by depicting individual motifs over and over again. The cypress trees appealed to him for many reasons, and he planned to do a series of paintings of them, just as he had done with the sunflowers in Arles and as he would eventually do with the olive trees. In this talk, Nienke Bakker will elucidate the symbolism of the cypresses and the particular meaning they held for Van Gogh, what he strove to achieve with his paintings of them, and how they were part of his wish to create an ensemble of “Impressions of Provence.”
Nienke Bakker is the Van Gogh Museum’s Senior Curator of Van Gogh Paintings. She was part of the editorial team behind the online version of Van Gogh’s complete correspondence, vangoghletters.org (2009) and the six-volume publication Vincent van Gogh – The Letters (2009). Bakker has curated several exhibitions on Vincent van Gogh and late 19th-century art, including Van Gogh’s Letters (2009), Van Gogh at Work (2013), Daubigny, Monet, Van Gogh: Impressions of Landscape (2016), and Van Gogh & Japan (2018). Together with Nicole Myers, she curated the exhibition Van Gogh and the Olive Groves.
The landscape beyond the (picture) plane: Van Gogh and the Alpilles
Renske Cohen Tervaert, Curator, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo
After moving in May 1889 to the asylum in Saint-Rémy, located along the foothills of the Alpilles mountain range, Van Gogh became captivated by the rocky scenery he glimpsed through his bedroom window. What had appeared as a backdrop in his earlier paintings from Arles now gained more prominence, with Van Gogh declaring the Alpilles one of the three quintessential motifs in his “Impressions of Provence” ensemble. The Alpilles’ ravines, quarries, and old mountain paths emerged as subjects in their own right, and Van Gogh created a handful of paintings for a new series in October 1889. In this talk, the different reasons why Van Gogh was captivated by the Alpilles will be explored: as a reference to Japanese prints, as a pictorial element to enhance the composition and color schemes of his nowadays celebrated landscape paintings, but especially as a worthy, standalone subject. In his ‘Impressions of the Provence’ he wanted to capture the immutable in nature: “the essence of what constitutes the changeless character of the region.” While most of the olive groves in Saint-Rémy disappeared over time, the foothills and craggy peaks of the Alpilles have remained pretty much unchanged from Van Gogh’s time to today.
Renske Cohen Tervaert is curator at the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands. She holds an MA in art history from the University of Amsterdam. She has specialized in the visual arts at the end of the 19th and early 20th century with a specific interest in the history of collecting and the international art market. Cohen Tervaert has curated or co-curated several exhibitions at the KMM since 2018, including Odilon Redon: Literature and Music (2018), Drawn from life: works on paper 1850–1950 (2019–2020), Not in so many words (2020), and Aged well: three centuries of drawings from the Kröller-Müller collection (2021), and was co-author and coordinator of the publication Van Gogh: All Works in the Kröller-Müller Museum (2020).
This program is supported as part of the Dutch Culture USA program by the Consulate General of the Netherlands in New York
Image: Vincent van Gogh, Olive Trees, June 1889. Oil on canvas. National Galleries of Scotland. Purchased 1934. Photo © National Galleries of Scotland.