By the time Vincent paints the Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun, he will have suffered another bout of illness in September and October of 1889 while living at the asylum of Saint Paul de Mausole in Saint Remy. He has recovered sufficiently to feel confident about going outside of the walls by November and that is when he sets his easel next to a nearby grove of olive trees just outside the walls of Saint Paul de Mausole. He will paint five canvases from similar perspectives and experiment with different brushstroke angles, thicknesses, shapes and lengths over the next couple of weeks. He will live in St Remy for another four and a half months and then move to Auvers for the last three months of his life.
In this first effort outside of the walls in a couple months, Vincent will paint a large radiating sun of yellows and white in a citron yellow Provence sky taking up the top third of the canvas in short, measured strokes. The Alpille mountains are at center in lavendar and violet and Vincent repeats this shade in the shadows of the olives which compliments nicely the oranges and ochres of the plowed ground. The trees are comprised of more vertical arched strokes of green with the treetops reflecting the brilliant afternoon sun. The shadows of the trees do not align with the sun very well – as though he painted the shadows early in the composition and the sun had moved by the time he painted it.
Vincent has chosen to paint nature in rebellion against the path that Bernard and Gauguin are blazing – more symbolistic with less regard to what the artist sees and more what he remembers and feels about the content. While Bernard and Gauguin have made their own versions of Christ in the Olive Garden, Vincent seeks a return to nature in a nearby olive garden to argue his perspective. In these five versions of the same grove in November of 1889, Vincent will experiment with his brush stroke and color combinations in attempting to portray the essence of the olive tree similar to the sunflower in Arles.
This first piece, the only one with the Alpilles in the background, has related works below it of the same grove with a green-orange sky and another of women picking olives from the grove’s trees. Vincent will use short, angled brushstrokes and evoke different feels of the olive grove outside the asylum through his careful use of different colors and color combinations, though all three perspectives are similar. Two other related pieces done around the same time, one at The Met and one at The Van Gogh Museum of this same olive grove show further color combinations and variations in stroke direction – especially in the tree shadows and sky colors he selects.
Vincent writing Emile Bernard in November, 1889:
“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.”
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.”
To Theo. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Tuesday, 26 November 1889
“My dear sister,
Thanks very much for writing to me…..
Above all, don’t imagine that it’s less cold here than in Holland, the winter has only just begun and we’ll have it until the end of March. Only less rain than in Holland, very cold, unbearably irritating wind, and cold spells that are dry and bright but severe all the same, although the sun has more strength and the sky is very blue.
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.
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.”
To Willemien van Gogh. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Monday, 9 or Tuesday, 10 December 1889
“The rest of the canvases are meagre, I’m very much behind, not having been able to work for two months. You’ll find that the olive trees with the pink sky are the best, with the mountains, I would imagine; the first go well as a pendant to those with the yellow sky.
As regards the portrait of the Arlésienne, you know that I’ve promised our friend Gauguin one, and you must see that he gets it. Then the cypresses are for Mr Aurier. I would have liked to redo them with a little less impasto, but I don’t have the time.
Anyway, they must be washed again several times in cold water, then a strong varnish when the impasto is dry right through, then the blacks won’t get dirty when the oil has fully evaporated. Now I would necessarily need colours, part of which you could well get from Tanguy’s if he’s hard up, or if that would please him. But of course he mustn’t be dearer than the other.”
To Theo. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Tuesday, 29 April 1890
Painting, Oil on Canvas – 74 x 93 cm Size 30 Figure
Saint-Rémy: November 25, 1889
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States of America, North America
F: 710, JH: 1856