Olive Grove: Pale Blue Sky

Olive Grove: Pale Blue Sky

"Ah, my dear Theo, if you could see the olive trees at this time of year... The old-silver and silver foliage greening up against the blue. And the orangeish ploughed soil. It’s something very different from what one thinks of it in the north – it’s a thing of such delicacy – so refined. It’s like the lopped willows of our Dutch meadows or the oak bushes of our dunes, that’s to say the murmur of an olive grove has something very intimate, immensely old about it..."
Painting Date
25th of November 1889
Detailed Image Links

Image courtesy of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art


In the Autumn of 1889, Vincent returns to the olive grove next to the Saint Paul Hospital in Saint Remy and paints several canvases of the orchard, experimenting with color combinations and varying brushstrokes.  He has been exchanging letters with his friend Emile Bernard on abstraction and symbolism vs. painting what the painter sees.  Bernard has sent him photographs of his recent canvases and Vincent is troubled by the mystical and spiritual influence apparent in both Emile’s and Paul Gauguin’s recent work.  Vincent cautions against this approach as being dangerous to the mind and argues for painting what he sees as the “truth” rather than the imagined.


He has suffered another mental breakdown in late July of 1889 and when the delirium had passed, his throat was so swollen he could not eat for four days.  He later found out that during the episode he had tried to consume turpentine and other items in the cell that doubled as his painting studio.  Dr. Peyron did not allow Vincent to return to the studio/cell for a few weeks after the episode, and Vincent chaffed at not being able to work.


In September of 1889, he will be represented for the second time in the salon of independents with Theo choosing “Irises” and “Starry Night on the Rhone” on Vincent’s behalf.  In December of 1889, he will suffer another break around Christmas and an article by a critic in a respected Paris art magazine will call attention to his work in isolation.


In this study of the familiar olive grove just outside the asylum walls, Vincent uses consistent short brushstrokes and smaller more pointillist dabs and dashes to create a sky of blue on pink with white and yellow wispy clouds above the olive grove.  In other canvases created in the weeks before and after, he will adjust these color schemes and create different effects though the composition of each canvas is much like the others.  He is re-energized during this, his final autumn, and hopes his trials and efforts have built a solid foundation for the coming year.


Also included as related items are other views of the same olive orchard captured by Vincent in the summer and autumn of 1889.  The street view of the same orchard makes it easy to imagine Vincent setting his easel just so and warming his hands on a cold autumn morning just outside the asylum walls of Saint Paul de Mausole in Saint Remy de Provence.




Vincent writes Emile Bernard, his fellow painting friend in late November, 1889:


“When Gauguin was in Arles, I once or twice allowed myself to be led into abstraction, as you know, in a woman rocking a cradle, a dark woman reading novels in a yellow library, and at that time abstraction seemed an attractive route to me. But that’s enchanted ground, — my good fellow — and one soon finds oneself up against a wall. I’m not saying that one may not take the risk after a whole manly life of searching, of fighting hand-to-hand with reality, but as far as I’m concerned I don’t want to rack my brains over that sort of thing.


And the whole year, have fiddled around from life, hardly thinking of Impressionism or of this or that. However, once again I’m allowing myself to do stars too big, &c., new setback, and I’ve enough of that. So at present am working in the olive trees, seeking the different effects of a grey sky against yellow earth, with dark green note of the foliage; another time the earth and foliage all purplish against yellow sky, then red ochre earth and pink and green sky. See, that interests me more than the so-called abstractions.


And if I haven’t written for a long time, it’s because, having to struggle against my illness and to calm my head, I hardly felt like having discussions, and found danger in these abstractions. And by working very calmly, beautiful subjects will come of their own accord; it’s truly first and foremost a question of immersing oneself in reality again, with no plan made in advance, with no Parisian bias. Besides, am very dissatisfied with this year, but perhaps it will prove a solid foundation for the coming one. I’ve let myself become thoroughly imbued with the air of the small mountains and the orchards. With that, I’ll see.
My ambition is truly limited to a few clods of earth, some sprouting wheat. An olive grove. A cypress; the latter not easy to do, for example. You who love the primitives, who study them, I ask you why you appear not to know GiottoGauguin and I saw a tiny panel of his in Montpellier, the death of some sainted woman or other.
The expressions in it of pain and ecstasy are human to the point that, 19th century though it may be, you feel you’re in it — and believe you were there, present, so much do you share the emotion. If I saw your actual canvases, I believe the colour could nevertheless excite me. But then you speak of portraits that you’ve done, and have captured precisely; that’s something that will be good, and where you will have been yourself.”


To Emile Bernard. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, on or about Tuesday, 26 November 1889




My dear Theo,


I have to thank you very much for a consignment of colours, which was also accompanied by an excellent woollen waistcoat. How kind you are to me, and how I’d like to be able to do something good in order to prove to you that I’d like to be less ungrateful. Your colours reached me at the right moment, for what I brought back from Arles is almost exhausted.


The thing is, I’ve been working this month in the olive groves, for they’d driven me mad with their Christs in the garden, in which nothing is observed. Of course there’s no question of me doing anything from the Bible – and I’ve written to Bernard, and also to Gauguin, that I believed that thinking and not dreaming was our duty, that I was therefore astonished when looking at their work by the fact that they give way to that. For Bernard has sent me photos of his canvases. The thing about them is that they’re sorts of dreams and nightmares, that there’s some erudition there – one can see that it’s someone who’s mad about the primitives – but frankly the English Pre-Raphaelites did this much better, and then Puvis and Delacroix are much healthier than those Pre-Raphaelites. So this doesn’t leave me cold, but it gives me an uncomfortable feeling of a tumble rather than progress.

Well, to shake this off, I’ve been messing about in the groves morning and evening on these bright and cold days, but in very beautiful, clear sunshine, and the result is 5 no. 30 canvases which, with the 3 studies of olive trees that you have, at least constitute an attack on the problem. The olive tree is variable like our willow or pollard in the north. You know that willows are very picturesque, despite the fact that it appears monotonous, it’s the tree typical of the country. Now what the willow is in our native country, the olive tree and the cypress have exactly the same importance here. What I’ve done is a rather harsh and coarse realism beside their abstractions, but it will nevertheless impart the rustic note, and will smell of the soil. How I’d like to see the studies from nature by Gauguin and Bernard, the latter tells me of portraits which doubtless would please me more.  


I hope I’ll get used to working in the cold – in the morning there are very interesting effects of white frost and fog, and I still have the great desire to do for the mountains and for the cypresses what I’ve just done for the olive trees, have a really good go at them.


The thing is, the olive tree and the cypress have rarely been painted, and from the point of view of placing the paintings this ought to go to England, I know well enough what they’re looking for over there. Whatever the case, I’m almost sure that in this way I’ll do something passable from time to time. As I said to Isaäcson, it’s really more and more my opinion that by working assiduously from nature, without saying to oneself in advance, I want to do this or that, by working as if one were making shoes, without artistic preoccupations, one won’t always do well, but on the days when one thinks about it the least one finds a subject that holds its own with the work of those who came before us.


One learns to know a country that’s basically quite different from what it appears at first sight. On the contrary, one will say to oneself, I want to finish my paintings better, I want to do them with care; in the face of the difficulties of the weather, of changing effects, a heap of ideas like this finds itself reduced to being impracticable, and I end up resigning myself by saying, it’s experience and each day’s little bit of work alone that in the long run matures and enables one to do things that are more complete or more right. So slow, long work is the only road, and all ambition to be set on doing well, false. For one must spoil as many canvases as one succeeds with when one mounts the breach each morning.


To paint, the tranquil, regulated life would therefore be absolutely necessary, and at present what can one do when one sees that Bernard, for example, is always put under pressure, pressure, pressure by his parents. He can’t do as he wants, and many others with him. One says to oneself, I shan’t paint any more, but what will one do then?


Ah – a more expeditious painting process should be invented, less expensive than oil and yet durable. A painting… it will end up becoming as commonplace as a sermon, a painter like someone who’s a century behind the times. It’s a shame, though, that it should be so. Now if the painters had better understood Millet as a man – now some like Lhermitte and Roll have grasped him – things wouldn’t be so. One mustwork as hard and with as few pretensions as a peasant if one wants to last.  


And instead of putting on grandiose exhibitions, it would have been better to address oneself to the common people, and work so that everyone may have paintings or reproductions at home, which are lessons like the work of Millet.


To Theo. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Tuesday, 26 November 1889



“You will receive soon, I think, the canvases I promised you. What I find very unfortunate is that you write that Jo says that Theo’s still coughing the whole time – blast – that doesn’t please me – however, I still hope that when he’s a father it’ll get better. I’d like him to have my health, in this sense that I myself always have lots of life in the fresh air, and he’s always always at his desk with so many troubles on his mind.  And they’re wicked at Boussods’, too full of pride and tyrannical.


I have 12 large canvases on the go, above all olive groves, one with an entirely pink sky, another with a green and orange sky, a third with a big yellow sun.


Then tall, ravaged pines against a red sunset sky. I’ve just received a very kind letter from Theo, he says that Jo and he are well, and he also says that you’ll perhaps come to them. Let’s keep hoping that in a while his health will completely recover – with him, the state of his mind greatly influences the rest. At the moment many painters who spent the winter in the countryside are returning to Paris.
You ask who Bernard is – he’s a young painter – he’s twenty at most. Very original. He seeks to do modern figures as elegant as ancient Greeks or Egyptians. A grace in the expressive movements, a charm through daring colours. I saw a Sunday afternoon in Brittany by him, Breton peasant women, peasants, dogs strolling in a very green meadow, the costumes are black and red, and big white caps.  But in this crowd there are also two ladies, one in red, the other in bottle green, who make it into a really modern thing.

 Ask Theo to show you the watercolour I did after the painting, it was so original that I wanted to have a copy of it.”


To Willemien van Gogh. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Monday, 9 or Tuesday, 10 December 1889




My dear Theo,


Thanks very much for your last letter, I’m very glad that you and Jo are in good health, and very often think of you both.


It’s very interesting what you tell me about a publication of coloured lithographs with a text on Monticelli, honestly, that gives me very great pleasure, and I’d be very curious to see them one day. I hope that he’ll reproduce in colour the bouquet you have, for that’s a thing of the first order as regards colour. One day I’d very much like to do a print or two myself in this vein after my canvases.


Thus I’m working on a painting at the moment, women picking olives, which would lend itself to it, I think. These are the colours: the field is violet and further away yellow ochre, the olive trees with bronze trunks have grey-green foliage, the sky is entirely pink, and 3 small figures pink also. The whole in a very discreet range. It’s a canvas I’m working on from memory after the study of the same size done on the spot, because I want a far-off thing like a vague memory softened by time. There are only two notes, pink and green, which harmonize, neutralize each other, oppose each other. I’ll probably do 2 or three repetitions of it, for in fact it’s the result of a half-dozen studies of olive trees.


I think it likely that I’ll do hardly any more things in impasto, it’s the result of the calm life of seclusion I’m leading, and I feel I’m better for it. Fundamentally I’m not as violent as that, anyway I feel more myself in calmness.


To Theo. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, on or about Thursday, 19 December 1889





Painting, Oil on Canvas – 74 x 93 cm Size 30 Figure
Saint-Rémy: November 25, 1889
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg Collection
New York, New York, United States of America, North America
F: 708, JH: 1855


Where Vincent Was:
Saint Remy

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