Van Gogh’s darkest symbol

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Known for his sunflowers, Vincent van Gogh was also drawn to another recurring symbol – one that gave him strength at his lowest moments, writes Matthew Wilson.

4. Country Road in Provence by Night, May 1890

“It’s the dark patch in a sun-drenched landscape,” wrote Van Gogh to his brother Theo about the tone of the cypress trees that surrounded him. “But it’s one of the most interesting dark notes, the most difficult to hit off exactly that I can imagine.” The darkness that Van Gogh perceived echoes traditional associations of cypresses with death and immortality – important concepts to an artist seeking a certainty amid life’s vicissitudes. Cypresses were often planted in cemeteries and their wood used for coffins. In the writings of classical authors like Ovid and Horace, they appeared in the context of bereavement. These associations persisted through the centuries, reappearing in the plays of Shakespeare and the novels of Victor Hugo, authors that Van Gogh knew and admired.

“He appreciated that these were century-old trees, and certainly knew their associations with rebirth, immortality and death,” Stein explains. “From the get-go he associated them with stars and wheat, which were his tried-and-true metaphors for eternity and the eternal cycles of life. They stood for millennia as protectors and guardians of the countryside from the fierce northerly mistral winds.”

In Country Road in Provence by Night, the cypress dominates the centre point of the composition, dividing a star and the moon in the night’s sky. Below are two men – possibly symbolising Van Gogh and Gauguin – walking away from the ancient, obelisk-like tree.

Shortly after painting Country Road in Provence by Night, Van Gogh left Provence and moved to a town near Paris, still coveting the idea of a creative partnership with Gauguin. The cypress in the painting seems like a final homage to the bedrocks of nature, spirituality, artistic ambition, and cultural history that had sustained Van Gogh in the south of France.

Van Gogh killed himself in July 1890. At his funeral, the artist’s coffin was strewn with sunflowers and cypress branches, the artist’s two signature motifs. Nowadays we associate the artist mainly with sunflowers – a symbol of temporal devotion and transient joy. Van Gogh called his sunflowers “the complimentary and yet the equivalent” to his cypresses, which stood for the steadfast and the eternal.

Cypresses were Van Gogh’s symbol of resilience. As Stein puts it, the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art shows the stalwart character of Van Gogh: “his resourcefulness, his determination to carry on, his ability to face the challenges that stood in his way with new fresh invention”.

At his lowest ebb, he saw cypresses as giant totems in the landscape, emblems of the power of nature, protectors of the Provençal countryside. He drew upon history, his own sense of ambition and traditional symbolism from art and literature to inform his vision and create an enduring icon – of deep time, of ambition, of uniqueness, and of inner strength in the face of life’s turbulence.

Van Gogh’s Cypresses is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until 27 August 2023.

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