Van Gogh and the Olive Tree
It wasn’t until I visited Greece a few years ago that I really got a good look at live olive trees. Despite being an agricultural powerhouse, the trunk of the olive tree is twisted and deeply etched. The foliage is expansive but not dense. In the shade, the bark and leaves appear to have grey-blue undertones. These are visually interesting, complex and very hardy looking trees. With a new found appreciation for these Mediterranean wonders, a huge light-bulb went off at the (abridged) Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The olive tree was possibly the best subject in the natural world for Vincent van Gogh and has resulted in some of my new favorite paintings in this catalog.
Vincent van Gogh encountered orchards of olive trees in Saint Remy in the South of France . While recuperating in an asylum there between 1889-90, he frequently painted landscapes and scenes of provincial life. Van Gogh completed 18 paintings of olive trees or olive harvesting which I find surprisingly low considering he was completing a canvas a day toward the end of this career.
Some have accused Vincent van Gogh of being a “poor draughtsman” because his drawings are done with excessively curved lines and stray from exact representation. I assume this was an obvious stylistic choice as one often finds his curved outlines accented and emphasized with pairs of lines, short dynamic lines or concentric curved lines. This method of drawing naturally mirrors the motion and outline of a twisting olive tree which really highlights the beauty of the tree trunk and branches.
The inherent variety of colors in the foliage of an olive tree and the aridness of the soil in which they typically grow would have been exciting subjects for an artist who studied color and the emotional affect of color in this paintings. Vincent van Gogh’s vibrant olive grove paintings range from cool blues and greens to parched reds and yellows.
And so I had to spend a little extra time this visit with the olive tree paintings. Between the motion and color of Vincent van Gogh’s work, I think he came very close to expressing the rough physicality and beauty of olive trees. As a whole, these works study how the changing light over the course of a day alters the appearance of the olive tree. If that’s not worth a second look in a museum, I don’t know what is.