SPOTLIGHT STORIES

The Last Works of Vincent Van Gogh

The artist's final paintings while staying in Auvers-sur-Oise, France.

Vincent Van Gogh died on July 29, 1890. Although he suffered throughout his life from mental illness and died tragically at the age of 37, Van Gogh created more than 2,000 works of art, a considerable achievement for any artist, and especially for one active for only a decade. His paintings continue to exert a powerful influence on contemporary culture, the art market, and our imaginings about the artist himself.

In the final two months of his life, Van Gogh entered into one his most energetic and creative periods, completing one painting per day. Some of the key factors for his productivity were his release from the asylum in Saint-Remy and his relocation to the scenic and restorative village of Auvers-sur-Oise, in northern France.

WHEAT FIELD WITH REAPERS, AUVERS 1890, Vincent Van Gogh collection: Toledo Museum of Art

Van Gogh chose Auvers both for its proximity to Paris and Dr. Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, the sympathetic physician who had been treating him for depression.

DR. PAUL GACHET, 1890, Vincent Van Gogh collection: Musée d’Orsay

His last works are extraordinary not only for their intense color and heavy brushwork, but also for the artist’s experimentation with new compositional formats. Prior to Auvers, Van Gogh’s landscape compositions measured 50 or 60 cm square, reflecting the standard canvas size supplied by Parisian art dealers.

However, in works such as Wheatfield Under Thunderclouds and Plain of Auvers, Van Gogh demonstrates an instinct to experiment. For these late works he joined two of the canvases to create a double-square panel measuring nearly three feet wide (50 x 100 cm). This new format enlarged the scope of the composition in powerful ways.

WHEATFIELD UNDER THUNDERCLOUDS, 1890, 50 x 100 cm (19 1/2 x 39 1/4 inches). Vincent Van Gogh. Collection: Van Gogh Museum

The wider field of view certainly suited Van Gogh’s subject matter: Auver’s famously vast, rolling plains and ever-changing skies. In Wheatfield Under Thunderclouds, the green fields and blue sky seem to extend well beyond the edges of the picture, creating a panoramic effect.

THE PLAIN OF AUVERS, 1890, Vincent Van Gogh. Collection: Österreichische Galerie Belvedere

In Plain of Auvers, he creates a similar but deeper effect. By building up the composition from foreground to background, the patchwork fields appear to roll gently back toward the horizon line marked by the tops of dark trees.

Van Gogh also experimented with the effects of varying color, texture and brushstroke direction to move the viewer’s eye across the surface in increasingly dramatic ways. In Wheatfield with Crows (July 1890), made in the last few weeks of his life, he creates an unnerving tension between the illusion of spatial depth and the surface of the canvas. Here he lays bare how he covers every area of the three-foot canvas in heavy brushstrokes.

In a letter dated July 10, 1890 to his brother Theo, he indicated the strong emotional character of this and similar works he’d recently made, noting:

They depict vast, distended wheatfields under angry skies, and I deliberately tried to express sadness and extreme loneliness in them.

Just two weeks later, Van Gogh died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. One can only wonder where these experiments might have led had he painted for another ten years.

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