A Thick Brush with Genius: On Seeing Van Gogh’s “Landscape at Saint-Remy, 1889”

          Today, I decided to take a pilgrimage to the Indianapolis Museum of Art.  I was a man with a mission.  I wanted to witness a Van Gogh in person.
          The museum is lodged on a beautiful campus not far from downtown Indy.  Admission is free.  Their website indicated a charge for parking, but I found a spot that wasn’t in the main lot (don’t tell anyone).
          The signs were promoting an exhibition of Ai Weiwei dubbed “the most controversial artist in the world”.  I wasn’t enticed.  Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate controversy as much as the next fellow, but not when it costs me $12 to see.  I like my controversy for free.
          On arrival, I went to the information desk and was told I would need to place my backpack and water bottle in a locker.  Not a problem.  The lockers cost only a 25-cent deposit.  I asked about Van Gogh and they directed me upstairs to the European collection.
          After checking in at another desk, I entered a very spacious area with winding rooms.  The walls were filled with paintings of various sizes.  I recognized Gaugin, Pissaro, El Greco.  But I couldn’t find Van Gogh.  I asked a guard.  A young boy with a clipboard.  A middle-aged woman with a fake tan.  They all pointed me in different directions.
          Finally, I saw it.  “Landscape at Saint-Remy, 1889”.

          While it didn’t take my breath away, I was definitely captivated by this living example of Van Gogh’s work.  It clearly stood out from the other pieces – not just for the thick brush strokes (as if the paint were applied with a putty knife), but for the delicate blending of colors.  The blue sky was seamlessly woven into the grey-ish hills which joined the yellow-green fields harmoniously.
          The small figures of a tree and a man are subtly hidden into the landscape, but as you examine it deeper, they come alive.  They tell a story of survival – the tree is barely more than a paltry collection of limbs with a splash of greenery.  The man in blue is bent over carrying large bundles of hay almost bigger than he is.
          A sign near the painting suggested that in this work Van Gogh reveals his “pantheistic beliefs”,  but I certainly don’t think the piece commands such an interpretation.  Whatever Van Gogh in fact believed, the painting conveys a sense of man’s insignificance in the scheme of Creation as well as the hard labor required for survival.
          Overall, as I reflected on the painting, I gained a measure of peace in the harmony of nature and humankind’s relationship with it.
          The note beside the piece also gave s0me context, that it was painted –
in the provincial town of Saint-Remy, as Van Gogh recuperated from a nervous breakdown on Christmas Eve during Gaugin’s fateful visit.
          The painting suggests that Van Gogh, at least for a time, was well into his recovery as the “Landscape” conveys a peace in the harmony of nature and humankind’s relationship with it.
          image above “Vincent van Gogh – Landscape at Saint-Remy – 1889 – Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis from Ceanna Pins in Paintings I Love – 13

10 thoughts on “A Thick Brush with Genius: On Seeing Van Gogh’s “Landscape at Saint-Remy, 1889”

  1. I like your view on this painting. Really made me think about peace within the chaos of what it means to be human. I love art and I find that many of my best pieces come from when my mind is the most chaotic.

  2. Great post, Tony! I can appreciate a good painting, but I can’t say why, who, or how. I’d love to learn more about Van Gogh and other great artists. It sounds like the East Coast will probably have more options than a small beach town in California.

  3. The Museum of Modern Art has a few including the legendary “Starry Night” and sunflower paintings.
    I googled “Van Gogh pantheism” and found a number of articles connecting him to it. This one is detailed both about his spiritual upbringing & later views: http://jaar.oxfordjournals.org/content/XLVI/1/66.abstract
    I suppose the questions I’d have are a) did he self-identify as a pantheist and if so b) is it possible for a pantheist to do a nature based painting that is not somehow influenced by their view of the subject matter?

    • It is entirely possible that Van Gogh became a pantheist over time (his early journals suggest a rather Orthodox Christian worldview). My contention is that art is not only an avenue of expression for the artist, but it speaks for itself. The painting doesn’t speak “pantheism” to me.

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