Poplars in the Mountains

Poplars in the Mountains

I have a study of two yellowed poplars on a background of mountains... ...it’s difficult to leave a land before having something to prove that one has felt and loved it."
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Painting Date
5th of October 1889
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Poplars in the Mountains

The leaves have begun to fall in October of 1889 as Vincent anchors the legs of his easel in rocks and paints two yellowing trees against a brilliant blue and white sky with the Alpille mountain range in between.  It is Vincent’s last Autumn and he has just begun painting outdoors again as he ventures beyond the doors and walls of the asylum at Saint Paul de Mausole, further seeking to capture the essence of Provence landscapes.  He has recovered from his most recent bout of illness which kept him confined for over two months of the past summer, and along with the Mulberry Tree, he will paint the Poplars beneath a dome of autumn in the midi.

Under a cobalt sky, brushed on the canvas in thick lateral strokes, Vincent selects two poplars and centers them before teal and blue-green Alpille mountains in the background as some lateral white and eggshell clouds scud through.  The poplars are vertical strokes in curved dashes of yellows and greens with blue-green trunks outlined in darker thin margins. In the foreground are the ancient white block stones of Glanum, a Roman quarry and small city of centuries past which is only a short walk from the Saint Paul asylum.  Unpainted canvas at the outer edges top, right and bottom evoke images of Vincent clamping his canvas to an easel dug in the ground against the October Provence mistrals.

The Street View reveals a similar vista as the one Vincent contemplated a hundred years ago and the Compare button puts the mulberry tree and poplars canvases side by side.

Vincent’s illness is recurring unpredictably at this point in his life (38 years) and his most recent bout has shaken his confidence and outlook.  While he is lucid and full of life most of the time, he is stricken for days or weeks at a time with a mental and physical illness which leaves him catatonic and unintelligible.  He will then either abruptly or gradually recover his senses and be completely free of the malady for many months at a time.  This last attack has been his worst to date, resulting in his art supplies and tools being taken from his room after his attendant found he had been drinking turpentine and eating his paints straight from their tubes while in its grips.

Present day physicians and psychiatrists examining the words of Dr. Peyron in Saint Remy and later Dr. Gachet in Auvers sur Oise posthumously surmise Vincent was stricken by a combination of existing hereditary mental illness (a type of epilepsy) along with an advancing case of syphilis (both he and Theo had been treated in Paris for the disease).  Mental illness was not uncommon in the Van Gogh family tree and the hedonistic tendencies of belle epoch bohemian artists in Paris only exacerbated his condition.  By the time he commits himself to St Remy, he has put aside the wine and absinthe and his physical strength has returned but he is powerless against the attacks on his mind.  Within six months of Vincent’s apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound and death, Theo will be committed to an asylum and also pass away and leave his wife Jo with the work and letters of the brothers to save, organize and bestow.  Her son, Vincent’s nephew and namesake, will found the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 1973 and live to see its first five years of operation.

 

 

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Vincent writes brother Theo in early Autumn, from the Van Gogh Letters:

“I’m using two colours here, lead white and ordinary blue, but in quite large quantities, and the canvas, that’s for when I want to work on unprepared, stronger canvas.  This comes unfortunately just at this time when I would gladly have repeated my trip to Arles etc.

That said, I’ll tell you that we’re having some superb autumn days, and that I’m taking advantage of them. I have a few studies, among others a mulberry tree, all yellow on stony ground standing out against the blue of the sky, in which study I think that you’ll see that I’ve found Monticelli’s track…

 

…I reproach myself for being so behind with my correspondence, I’d like to write to IsaäcsonGauguin and Bernard. But writing doesn’t always come, and what’s more, work is pressing. Yes, I’d like to say to Isaäcson that he would do well to wait longer, there isn’t yet that in it that I hope to attain if my health continues. It’s not worth mentioning anything about my work at the moment. When I’m back, at best it will form a kind of ensemble, ‘Impressions of Provence’.

But what does he want to say now when the olive trees, the fig trees, the vineyards, the cypresses must be more accentuated, all characteristic things, the same as the Alpilles, which must get more character.  How I’d like to see what Gauguin and Bernard have brought back.

 

I have a study of two yellowed poplars on a background of mountains, and a view of the park here, autumnal effect, some of the draughtsmanship of which is more naive and more – at home.  Anyway, it’s difficult to leave a land before having something to prove that one has felt and loved it.
If I come back to the north I plan to do a whole lot of Greek studies, you know, painted studies with white and blue and only a little orange, just like in the open air.

 

must draw and seek style. Yesterday at the almoner’s here I saw a painting that made an impression on me. A Provençal lady with an intelligent, pure-bred face, in a red dress. A figure like the ones Monticelli thought of.  It wasn’t without great faults, but there was simplicity in it, and how sad it is to see how much they have degenerated from it here, as we have from ours in Holland…

 

…Kind regards to Jo and to our friends, above all when you get the chance thank pèrePissarro for his information, which will certainly be useful.

Shaking both your hands, believe me”
Ever yours,
Vincent

To Theo. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Saturday, 5 October 1889

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“…I had more control over myself in these latest studies, because my state of health had firmed up. So there’s also a no. 30 canvas with broken lilac ploughed fields and a background of mountains that go all the way up the canvas; so nothing but rough ground and rocks, with a thistle and dry grass in a corner, and a little violet and yellow man. That will prove, I hope, that I haven’t yet gone soft.
Dear God, this is a pretty awful little part of the world, everything’s hard to do here, to disentangle its intimate character, and so that it’s not something vaguely true, but the true soil of Provence. So to achieve that, you have to toil hard. And so it naturally becomes a little abstract. Because it will be a question of giving strength and brilliance to the sun and the blue sky, and to the scorched and often so melancholy fields their delicate scent of thyme. The olive trees down here, my good fellow, they’d suit your book; I haven’t been fortunate this year in making a success of them, but I’ll go back to it, that’s my intention. It’s silver against orangeish or purplish earth, under the great blue sky. Well now, I’ve seen some by certain painters, and by myself, which didn’t render the thing at all. Those silver greys are like Corot first of all, and that, above all, hasn’t been done yet — while several artists have been successful with apple trees, for example, and willows.
These motifs certainly have a beautiful melancholy, and it’s enjoyable to work in really wild sites where you have to bury your easel in the stones so that the wind doesn’t send everything flying to the ground.
Handshake.
Yours truly,
Vincent

To Emile Bernard. Saint-Rémy, on or about Tuesday, 8 October 1889

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My dear Theo,
Yesterday I sent three packets by parcel post containing studies which I hope you’ll receive in good order. I really must thank you for the 10 metres of canvas, which have just arrived.
Among the studies you’ll find the following, which are for our mother and sister. Olive trees – Bedroom – Reaper – Working with plough – Wheatfield with cypresses – Orchard in blossom – Portrait.
The remainder is above all autumn studies and I think the best one is the yellow mulberry tree against a very blue sky. Then the study of the house and of the park, of which there are two variants. The studies on no. 30 canvases weren’t yet dry and will follow later. They’re giving me a lot of trouble, and sometimes I find them very ugly, sometimes they look good to me – perhaps you’ll have the same impression when you see them. There are a dozen of them, so it’s more substantial than what I’ve just sent.
In spite of the cold I’m continuing to work outside up to now, and I think that it’s good for me and for the work.  The last study I did is a view of the village – where people were at work – under enormous plane trees – repairing the pavements. So there are piles of sand, stones and the gigantic tree-trunks – the yellowing foliage, and here and there glimpses of a house-front and little figures.
I often think of you and Jo, but with a feeling as if there was an enormous distance from here to Paris and as if it were years since I saw you. I hope that your health is good, for myself I can’t complain, I feel absolutely normal, so to speak, but without ideas for the future, and truly I don’t know what it’s going to be, and perhaps I’m avoiding going into this question deeply, sensing that I can do nothing about it.
I’ve finished, or almost, the copy of The diggers too.
You’ll see that there are no more impastos in the large studies. I prepare the thing with sorts of washes with spirits, and then proceed with touches or hatchings of colour with spaces between them. This imparts atmosphere and uses less paint.
If I want to send this letter off today I must hurry, so handshake in thought and warm regards to Jo.
Ever yours,
Vincent.

To Theo. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Saturday, 7 December 1889

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Cleveland Museum of Art – Two Poplars on a Road Through the Hills

 

 

Painting, Oil on Canvas – 61 x 45.5 cm Size 12 paysage
Saint-Rémy: October, 1889
Cleveland Museum of Art
Cleveland, Ohio, United States of America, North America
F: 638, JH: 1797

Where Vincent Was:
Saint Remy

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