Plants in Paintings:: Vincent van Gogh

“If one really loves nature, one can find beauty everywhere.”
-Vincent van Gogh

This is the second post in a short series about the importance of plants in the arts. The first post was Plants in Poetry and looked at the various ways plants were used as inspiration, symbolism, morals and as an appreciation of nature. In addition to poetry, plants have been represented a great deal in paintings. We can go into nearly any art museum and find a still life of a bouquet, everyone from Henri Matisse to Pierre Auguste Renoir to Paul Gauguin all spent time painting bouquet’s of flowers settled among indoor props. The landscape painting genre however kept plants in their native surroundings and paid special attention to the types of plants that were there. Of course many artists made names for themselves with their botanical illustrations alone.

Vase with 12 Sunflowers:: Vincent van Gogh

One of my favorite artists focused a great amount of energy on plants in his paintings. Vincent van Gogh also painted bouquets, in fact his Sunflower paintings are perhaps among the most famous of bouquets. As I recently read through a book of his letters, I was struck by how much he loved nature and being outside. If you flip through a book of his paintings, many, if not most, have plants in them. Indoor scenes often include a vase of flowers and even many of his portraits have the person holding a flower, or there are flowers on the wallpaper behind them. In fact his Portrait of Doctor Gachet includes a stem of foxglove, theorized to be used by the doctor to treat van Gogh’s illness.

Portrait of Doctor Gachet:: Vincent van Gogh

Even before he became a painter, Vincent was acutely aware of the nature and beauty around him. He regularly described the seasons, the weather and the plants in letters to his brother. When in London he wrote to his brother:

“It is very beautiful here (though it is in the city). In every garden the lilacs and hawthorn and laburnums are in bloom and the chestnut trees are beautiful. If one really loves nature, one can find beauty everywhere. But still I sometimes long for Holland and especially for home. I am very busy gardening and have sown a little garden full of poppies, sweet peas and mignonette…”

Blossoming Almond Branches:: Vincent van Gogh

Once he began painting he cherished being outdoors even more and during the winters there is a certain depressed tone in his letters to his brother lamenting the wait until spring when the flowers would bloom and he could get back outside to painting. He had a keen eye for color and described the leaves of a tree, the color of the clouds and the hues of the wheat fields in vivid detail to his brother. Perhaps he realized he saw the world in a different way from other people.

“It is a painter’s duty to be entirely absorbed by nature and to use all his intelligence to express sentiment in his work so that it becomes intelligible to other people.”

The Olive Trees:: Vincent van Gogh

During his time at the hospital in Arles, some of the brightest parts of his letters are when he changes from talking about his illness, the hospital or his poverty and instead describes the blooming olive trees, the cypress trees or the fields in bloom.

“There are moments in between whiles when Nature is superb, autumn effects glorious in color, green skies contrasting with foliage in yellows, oranges, greens, earth in all the violets, burnt up grass amongst which however the rains have given a last energy to certain plants, which start again to put forth little flowers of violet, rose, blue yellow. Things one is quite sad not to be able to reproduce.”

Wheat Field with Cypresses:: Vincent van Gogh

One gets a sense from his letters, as he describes the negative effects of his illness, the unpleasantness of his surroundings in the hospital and his fellow residents, that he finds great relief in being outside painting what he sees. It’s during the period of his escalating illness that he paints some of his best and most famous of paintings such as Wheat Field with Cypresses and Starry Night. Reading through his letters, the sense I got was his complete and utter joy in the natural world around him, observing and painting the garden at the hospital, the cypress trees in the fields or sunflowers in a vase. Even beyond his apparent joy of the natural world, I think it was absolutely necessary to him and I wonder how he would have managed his illness without that connection to the flora and fauna around him. Vincent van Gogh was not a genius because of his illness, he was a genius in spite of it and I believe nature played a key role in that. He saw the world in a completely unique way, but through his words and paintings we can come to appreciate the world through his eyes, if only a little.

Wheat Field with Crows:: Vincent van Gogh

© 2012, Kelly Brenner. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    Fabulous post Kelly. Van Gogh is one of my favorite artists because of his paintings of nature…I had not read too much about his life but am not surprised that he loved to paint nature and that it made him feel better…it has that effect on us!! You chose some of his best works here…ah to own one of his paintings and to see what he saw in nature…what a gift…
    Donna@Gardens Eye View recently posted..Wishing for …

    • says

      Todd you’re absolutely right. I have always been drawn to his work but it wasn’t until seeing some of his paintings in person, in London and Munich, that I truly came to appreciate his work. The brush strokes are amazing to see and I remember looking at one of his Sunflowers and being blown away how thickly he layered the paint. You can almost feel his hand moving over the canvas.

  2. says

    Kelly, I so enjoyed your article!! As a painter and plantswoman, I particularly appreciate your selections of paintings and quotes. I love your last words “Vincent van Gogh was not a genius because of his illness, he was a genius in spite of it . . . ” You have inspired me to find my books and reread his letters to Theo. Many . . . many years ago in art school, I did a copy of his ‘Wheat Fields with Cypresses’ I was just looking at it yesterday and wishing I could convey the feelings in nature that way. His life was such a tragedy in many ways, but to know his connection to nature, as you so excellently point out, is so helpful in seeing and understanding his work. He was so passionate and compassionate (he was a minister early on.) He mastered a most unique technique of paint to canvas that thrusts the viewer head on into the magical dance and passion of nature . . . his wild brush strokes impart the feeling of constant movement and mystery within all that is alive. I love his work and delight in seeing and reading this exceptional essay. Thank you! Also, I do not recall having observed or thought about the digitalis before. Thank you for inspiring me today!!
    Carol Duke recently posted..Flower Hill Farm BUTTERFLIES OF 2011 ~ Favorite White Admiral and Red-spotted Purple

    • says

      Thank you for your comments Carol! I think it’s amazing that his words, and so many of them, have been saved and shared so many generations later. It’s not very often we can get such an intimate look into such a person and it only enhances our understanding of his work.

      I remember watching an artist at a museum in Berlin copying a painting, she had already done three of the same which were sitting on the floor. What a way to really see a painting!

      His brush strokes are amazing, with many painters I look at a canvas but can’t really see the feeling in the strokes, not so with van Gogh, his feelings are right there in every stroke of the brush. It’s so amazing that he was so modest and didn’t even recognize how amazing his work truly was at the time. I like how you describe his strokes as a constant movement and mystery, very accurate description of what I felt looking at his paintings. His paintings really are alive and not just through the subject matter.
      Kelly Brenner recently posted..Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens Post:: Plants in Paintings – Vincent van Gogh


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