Put simply, “Van Gogh’s Cypresses” is a must-see.
Stop everything and go.
The show may be modest in scale—some 40 paintings, drawings and letters, with a singular focus—but there’s nothing modest about the quality of the works or the ambitions of the Dutch artist, who determined to do for cypresses what he did for sunflowers shortly after his arrival in Provence in February 1888. His great grandniece Machteld van Laer appeared at a preview of the exhibit in May and read an excerpt from a letter he wrote to his brother Theo on June 25, 1889, from the asylum at Saint-Rémy: “The cypresses still preoccupy me. I’d like to do something with them like the canvases of the sunflowers, because it astonishes me that no one has yet done them as I see them. It’s beautiful as regards lines and proportions, like an Egyptian obelisk, and the green has such a distinguished quality. It’s the dark patch in a sun-drenched landscape...”
It was a two-year campaign for Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) to do as he saw them, from 1888 to 1890. But he convincingly mastered the form and made the trees soar in just a few weeks in June 1889, when he produced two of his greatest works, “The Starry Night” (on loan from the Museum of Modern Art) and “Wheat Field with Cypresses” (part of The Met’s permanent collection), seen here together for the first time since 1901. The pairing anchors the show and is its emotional center, from which the rest radiate. One is a dark nocturnal view of the evergreens, painted in his studio at the asylum; the other a bright daytime view, executed en plein air.
Van Gogh voluntarily checked himself into the clinic in San-Rémy in May 1889, months after suffering a breakdown and cutting off most of his left ear. He was given a spare room to use for painting, with a park-like view.
The Met’s prized “Wheat Field with Cypresses” cannot leave the premises due to donor restrictions, hence “it’s a show that can only happen here at The Met,” Director Max Hollein said at the preview. He was clearly also referring to a second on-topic treasure in the collection, “Cypresses,” a close-up painted in that same fervent period in June.
Loans from nearly 30 public and private collections include a remarkable re-do in the studio of the museum’s masterpiece, “A Wheatfield, with Cypresses” (September 1889), on loan from the National Gallery, London, in addition to a drawing of the same composition (June-July 1889), courtesy the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
The three iterations of cypresses in a field of wheat represent yet another coup for exhibit curator Susan Alyson Stein; they also have not been shown together in more than a century. The grouping is a testament to Van Gogh’s perfectionist instincts—taking a single motif or tableau and re-working it until it aligns with his vision (“as I see them” or, as he later wrote to an art critic, “to do them as I feel it.”).
The studio version of the scene is lighter hued and more polished. Both brilliantly capture the windswept natural elements—swaying trees, bushes, clouds and stalks of wheat. Van Gogh immersed himself in the subject of the “tall and massive trees,” heart and soul, with early encounters in the town of Arles, followed by a deep dive at the nearby asylum in Saint-Rémy, where he stayed for a year until May 1890 and was remarkably productive.
His goal in migrating to Provence from Paris was to establish an artists’ colony, a Studio of the South. He famously coaxed Paul Gaughin to visit his Yellow House in Arles in the fall of 1888, though the two did not see eye-to-eye on artistic approaches. Van Gogh mutilated his ear two days before Christmas, and Gaughin “quickly boarded a northbound train,” Stein writes in the catalog. Nonetheless, he painted with Gaughin and for Gaughin, to show off his style. Prior to his guest’s arrival, he took the measure of the landscape in Arles and painted a “Poet’s Garden” series to decorate his colleague’s bedroom.
He also produced some very impressionistic paintings of orchards in this period—blossoming peach, pear and apple trees, with dark, inky cypresses shooting up in the background. These, plus a succession of drawbridge scenes, are grouped in the show’s first section, “The Roots of His Invention.” Peak cypress creativity followed from May to September 1889 in Saint-Rémy, when the towering trees are magnified and become central players. In the exhibit’s denouement, “Branching Out in Style,” Van Gogh retreats somewhat from his focus on Provençal’s defining feature and offers deeply colored views of poplars, olive trees, streams and farm houses, only to circle back for one “last try” of a “cypress and a star.” Take a moment to dwell on “Country Road in Provence by Night” (May1890) from the Kröller-Müller Museum in The Netherlands. It has strong echoes of “The Starry Night” with its swirling lines, cypress tree, crescent moon and star. It’s the coda to the cypress cycle, and it felt right.