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Art and Images in Psychiatry
Oct 2012

Olive Trees in a Mountainous Landscape

Author Affiliations


Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2012;69(10):992. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2012.109

Sorrow is better than joy . . . for by the sadness of the countenance, the heart is made better . . . for those who have learnt and are learning to look at Jesus Christ, there will always be reason to rejoice . . . the pilgrim goes on sorrowful yet always rejoicing . . . —Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo, November 3, 18761

At last I have a landscape with olive tree and also a new study of a starry sky . . . I’m fairly sure that these two studies I speak of are comparable in sentiment . . . —Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo, June 18, 18891

On October 29, 1876, the 23-year-old Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was invited to preach the Sunday sermon at the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Richmond, England. Five days later(http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let096/letter.html#arrangement), he confided to his brother Theo that he had found his calling:

When I stood in the pulpit I felt like someone emerging from a dark, underground vault into the friendly daylight, and it's a wonderful thought that from now on, wherever I go, I’ll be preaching the gospel . . . 1

Vincent was a man of melancholic temperament,2 and his focus on sorrow, consolation, and rejoicing in his first invited sermon was to remain with him throughout his life. Two of his favorite biblical verses are about the Old Testament Isaiah, the suffering servant, despised and rejected by his fellow men, who brought vicarious healing by bearing the suffering of others (a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” [Isaiah 55:3]), and the New Testament Paul, who wrote about those who are “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10) about what is to come.3 Vincent identified with Christ's human qualities: his suffering and doubt, and his mission of selfless ministery.

In 1877, Vincent moved to Amsterdam, the Netherlands, to pursue theological studies, but he soon abandoned them to join the lay ministry. His overzealousness and self-imposed asceticism led to his dismissal as an evangelist. Somewhat embittered at being rejected by the church establishment, he then had a falling out with his father4 and, soon afterward, decided to become an artist. He viewed his father, a minister, as intolerant and hypocritical with regard to the tenets of the Groningen school of the Dutch Protestant religion to which he subscribed. Vincent also subscribed to these tenets underlying this theology, but he understood them differently. For him, this school taught that spirituality is best expressed in humanity and love of nature, not through dogma.3 He confided to Theo: “And in a painting I’d like to say something consoling, like a piece of music. I’d like to paint men or women with that je ne sais quoi of the eternal, of which the halo used to be the symbol, and which we try to achieve through the radiance itself, through the vibrancy of our colorations” (http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let673/letter.html). To this end, he sought to establish an art colony in Arles, France, that would express the religious impulse with an emotional immediacy and directness for the modern era. His project ended with his psychiatric breakdown and the notorious ear-cutting episode.5,6 On May 8, 1889, Vincent entered the asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France, for respite as a voluntary patient.

In mid-June 1889, Vincent completed 2 paintings1,6 intended to console the viewer without using overt Christian imagery.7,8 The best known of these, The Starry Night,6 is an imaginary construction of the night sky and the landscape around the asylum, reflecting his feelings about what is eternal. Its companion piece, Olive Trees in a Mountainous Landscape (cover ), is comparable in sentiment (epigraph). He suggested to Theo that both paintings6,7 elicit the feeling of consolation that Christ, in his agony, must have felt when strengthened by the angel who came to him as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:43).

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Dutch. The Olive Trees, Saint-Rémy, France, June-July 1889. Oil on canvas, 72.6 × 91.4 cm (28⅝ × 36 in). Mrs John Hay Whitney Bequest. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York. Digital Image: The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, New York (http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=80013).

In the June 1889 letter1 to Theo (http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let782/letter.html), Vincent wrote: “one can express anguish without making reference to the actual Gethsemane” by the use of color and exaggeration to provide “consolation” without reference to “romantic or religious ideas.” Such imaginative imagery was to be that of a “purer and more serene nature.”1 The gnarled “venerable” olive trees near the asylum at Saint-Rémy inspired him. The radiant blue skies, the tumbling blue peaks, and the rich green foliage of Olive Trees in a Mountainous Landscape are in sharp contrast to the swirling dark turbulence of The Starry Night. The twisted trees in Olive Trees in a Mountainous Landscape seem to struggle to keep their hold to the earth in the swirling landscape. In both paintings, the scene is dominated by the sway of rhythmic lines, beneath swirling nebulae in The Starry Night and under lingering clouds in Olive Trees in a Mountainous Landscape. These complementary images of night and day show Vincent turning away from strict objectivity to find a more potent truth in his art.

Yet this focus on the use of the imagination did not last. In July 1889, Vincent experienced a new episode of illness and could not paint until September. That autumn, he abandoned the use of abstraction. Vincent wrote to Theo that his renewed focus on reality was necessary, “perhaps a remedy in fighting the disease which still continues to disquiet me.”1 In December 1889, Vincent painted an idyllic olive harvest, The Olive Orchard (http://www.nga.gov/collection/gallery//-46627.html). The harvesting of olives by the rustic women in this painting symbolize his renewal. Vincent, emotionally more stable, turned away from his agony and was consoled by fully engaging the natural cycle of nature and its fecundity.

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