Van Gogh’s Olive-Grove Paintings in Dallas Are a Must-See

Van Gogh’s Olive-Grove Paintings in Dallas Are a Must-See

I’m in Dallas and New Orleans this week for a memorial service and museum visits. Van Gogh and the Olive Groves at the Dallas Museum of Art was among the top attractions for me, art-wise. Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) is well-trodden territory, but no one has done an exhibition of his olive-tree paintings, so Dallas’s is a rare first. It’s not big — about 20 paintings — but it’s one treasure after another. It’s a sensitively done, poignant show that weaves together the best art, biography, and art conservation.

I think it’s worth a trip to Dallas, especially for those many

I think it’s worth a trip to Dallas, especially for those many New York curators who, judging from some of the things I’ve seen in the past year, have forgotten how to do a compelling show. Time in Dallas is always time well spent in any event. It’s a great culture town, with good museums and a thriving opera company. When I’m there, I never miss the oozing puddles of kvetch, angst, and self-importance that can make Manhattan an eye-roller. Texans are positive and entrepreneurial. They are naturally inquisitive and don’t think they’ve cornered the market on experience or knowledge.

Vincent van Gogh, The Olive Trees, June 1889, oil on canvas. (The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Mrs. John

In these late Van Goghs, painted when he was in a mental asylum in the months before his death in 1890, the Dallas curators saw something they didn’t know, or anyone else, something important, something of great beauty, and did what good curators do. The museum, working with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, mounted a great exhibition.

Van Gogh and the Olive Trees is educational, indeed revelatory, and good for Dallas to understand that museums are places for learning and self-improvement. It’s not only the novelty of the subject but the depth of inquiry on Van Gogh’s painting technique. Close analysis of the core paintings gives us new guidance on his palette and his handling of paint. That’s about a third of the exhibition. It’s a treat for those of us with a chemistry bent and, really, for those of us curious about how objects of such beauty are assembled.

It’s a human-interest show, too, a sad story as the artist veered from courage to fear, from hope to despair, from highs to lows. In May 1889, Van Gogh voluntarily committed himself to a mental hospital in Saint-Rémy in Provence. He stayed there until early 1890, dealing with mixed results with his bipolar disorder, addiction, and, we think, epilepsy. After a period of forced confinement on the asylum grounds, lush with spring blossoms, he wandered the sweeps of olive grounds in farms surrounding it. Van Gogh had never focused on olive groves. He was Dutch, did many city scenes in Paris as well as still lifes, and worshipped Jean-François Millet, a Norman who painted Barbizon wheat fields. The olive tree wasn’t exactly new to him, but, in his emotional state, it resonated. Squat and gnarled, these trees soon fascinated him.

The olive tree is ubiquitous in Mediterranean Europe as well as ancient. From antiquity, olives and their oil were staples supplying nourishment and, of course, energy. In southern France and in Spain, Italy, and Greece, summer groves on flat land and rolling hills looked like a deep-green sea with flecks of silver, processional and austere. Van Gogh, in Provence for months, saw their evolution over those months.

In the Dallas show, the paintings are arranged chronologically. The artist missed blossom time but in Olive Trees, from June 1889, borrowed from the National Gallery of Scotland, Van Gogh delivered trees with teenage buoyancy and verve. The trees are an electric green and pulse with energy. Even the ground is fresh and chromatic, as if spring’s still with us. By July, in the Kroller-Muller Museum’s painting, the ground has dried to a uniform, wheat-colored brown, still with green patches, and the trees, with small olives, have gotten down to business. The artist’s summer pictures are mostly closeups of the trees and earth, with little sky. He thickly paints the trees with strokes that sometimes look chaotic. During the fall, growth having stopped, his brushstrokes are more tapered.

Vincent van Gogh, Olive Grove, November 1889, oil on canvas. (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

These are straightforward, focused paintings, just earth, trees, and a touch of azure sky, with bulbous clouds keeping a sense of intensity. In the fall, Van Gogh added olive pickers to the scene but mostly experimented with local light.

Olive Grove, Saint-Rémy, painted in November, suggests twilight. The Van Gogh Museum’s own Olive Grove, another November picture, has a duller palette that we’d expect from an autumn scene but a different handling of paint, too. The ground looks spent, built from rows of deep brown lines, as if it’s preparing for a winter’s sleep. The trees themselves are smaller, not shriveled but not bursting at the seams, either.

Van Gogh knew that olives in this part of the world are as old as the Garden of Eden. In one place for months, though, he experienced a big chunk of their natural cycle, missing spring but seeing them through the lush and then dry summer, then heavy with fruit, and to winter dormancy, which pointed to another birth in the spring. He saw an analogy in their cycle to the cycles in human life from birth to death to resurrection but also in psychological cycles in which happiness and sadness have their own rhythm. For a time, this helped him understand his own swings.

Vincent van Gogh, Olive Grove with Two Olive Pickers, December 1889, oil on canvas.

Academics tend to run from a profile of Van Gogh as a religious painter, but the fact is that he was deeply religious, though not in an orthodox way, and wanted to be a lay preacher as a young man. In letters to his brother Theo, we can’t ignore his references to Jesus in the Garden of Olives, made as he painted olive trees in 1889. To the artist, Jesus’s setting among old olive trees, common creatures, homely, forever fertile but not voluptuous, was not a coincidence. These trees were Jesus’s companion at this low point, emphasizing the Son of God’s unity with the simplest among us. It’s not the show horse or the hothouse flower that gets to experience Jesus first.

Van Gogh and the Olive Groves develops this theme not in a dogmatic or preachy way. It takes the artist’s paintings and his words and is touchingly empathetic both to where he’d been in life — once aspiring to a religious life — and where he was, in an asylum, puzzling essential questions of life, misery, purpose, and death. Van Gogh sought spiritual comfort and meaning through direct experience, and the exhibition explores this using Paul Gauguin’s Christ in the Garden of Olives, from 1889. It’s in a niche by Van Gogh’s olive-tree paintings. Van Gogh knew the painting since he and Gauguin were good friends, but he found it too abstract. It’s packed with olive trees, but Van Gogh felt they seemed as if Gauguin had never looked closely at them. They’re there but inanimate and with no value as living witnesses or as part of Jesus’s message.

Vincent van Gogh, A Wheatfield, with Cypresses, September 1889, oil on canvas.

It’s a very satisfying exhibition. I have small quibbles. I very much enjoyed the big, detailed section on Van Gogh’s painting technique. The transition jarred, though, as I moved from a gallery of sumptuous paintings, in rich colors, beautifully subdued light, and divinely dense texture, to what is essential a bright classroom with wall panels dense with words and X-rays. A less abrupt shift, or putting this didactic section in two smaller galleries, might have worked better.

I say this in part because many people probably assumed that this was the end of the exhibition, and it definitely is not. There is a final gallery of six or seven paintings, some blockbusters such as the National Gallery’s Walk in Twilight, from 1890, and the National Gallery’s Wheat Fields and Cypresses, from September 1889, and a couple from the weeks before his suicide. I suspect that so many people had exited at this point that the guards were told to announce there was one gallery of paintings left.

The Starry Night, from 1889, at MoMA, and Olive Trees in a Mountainous Landscape, also owned by MoMA and also from 1889, were seen by Van Gogh as companions. MoMA’s olive-trees painting is in the exhibition, but The Starry Night isn’t. This is too bad. I don’t know whether MoMA wouldn’t lend what I assume it believes is a destination painting or whether Dallas didn’t want so big an enchilada distracting from the olive-grove pictures. The Starry Night has no olive trees in it, after all. Van Gogh saw the two as companions for their compositions and exaggerated linearity. Would this have been a needless tangent? Not really. I think the comparison, made on Van Gogh’s terms, deepens the complexity and variousness of his work.

Van Gogh left the asylum in early 1890, feeling he wasn’t getting better. He continued to paint dozens of things in the last six months of his life, so this space is a good coda. Wheat Fields and Cypresses is worth seeing not only because it’s so famous. It’s got an olive tree in it as well as other standard Van Gogh motifs like the mountains and his puffy clouds. Van Gogh in his prime was only a two-year enterprise. Plunk in the middle of his olive-grove period, he tried to integrate these motifs with cypresses à la Monet and wheat fields à la Millet to fashion his own look.

Van Gogh, for better or worse, was struggling to find himself. In doing his 15 or so olive-grove pictures, he probably aimed at the serial-painting genre that had helped establish Monet as a star. Van Gogh was a prolific and eloquent correspondent, so we know he focused on creating a niche in the art market all his own with, alas, next to no success.

Dallas’s exhibitions are uneven, with a hit from time to time like the big Cindy Sherman retrospective or, two or three years ago, a solid show on American Precisionism. Its Berthe Morisot show was very good until it drowned itself in the soggy storyline proposing that the artist, who died young and chose a narrow repertoire, is not as famous as Renoir, Monet, or Pissarro solely because she was a woman. It was fine otherwise but a warning against embracing trendy points that don’t stand scrutiny.

The point I’m making is that the museum rarely moves the needle in terms of scholarship or surprise. In Van Gogh and the Olive Groves, though, it’s having an immense success. Dallas and the Van Gogh Museums are high-power places but, still, this must have been a tough show to organize. The loans are from many collections, and no one wants to give up their Van Goghs.

The last time I was at the Van Gogh Museum, I saw Hockney and Van Gogh: The Joy of Nature. It was a lousy show, bad to the point of embarrassment but, still, a shameless moneymaker. It went to the Houston MFA after its run in Amsterdam. The Van Goghs were mostly minor things, the Hockneys mostly recent, among them scribbles he did using his iPad. The museum understood one thing, and that was the melodious “cha-ching” sound as crowds paid admission. The catalogue trucked in baby talk.

Not so Van Gogh and the Olive Groves. It’s a concise show of a little over 20 paintings with a laser focus on connoisseurship and research, and it’s lovely, too. It’s by no means an old-fashioned exhibition, but it’s traditional art history. It’s about the art, not about the fake religion of anti-racism or whatever gimmick museums trot out to seem relevant.

By coincidence, Dallas and Van Gogh were in the news last week for more than olive trees. I met Ed three times over the years to see his collection at his house in Highland Park in Dallas. He was a charming, courtly bajillionaire.

I’d just finished graduate school and was a new curator. A lifelong New Englander, too, I was unaccustomed to Texas style, which, at its essence, is both do-it-big and do-it-right.

I visited the Cox pictures at the Christie’s preview in New York last week. Cox loved color, so he naturally went to the Impressionists. Aside from Manet, black is unknown to them. He assembled his collection with dispatch, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, buying almost exclusively from Wildenstein.

In contrast with the pictures at the Dallas museum, Cox’s would have been a bit of a frizzle. Wheatstacks, an 1888 watercolor, sold for $35.9 million, a bit above the estimate of $20 million to $30 million. It had provenance issues dating from the Nazi era in France. Not one but two Paris collectors, both Jews, sold it under duress as they prepared to flee. Christie’s brokered a deal among the Cox estate and the heirs to split the money from the auction.

Van Gogh painted Young Man with a Cornflower, an unusual peasant portrait, a few weeks before he died. Cox bought it in 1981 and lent it in a public exhibition once. Before that, it hadn’t been seen since around 1911. Considering that Van Gogh would be a suicide in a short time, it’s a feisty, even joyful painting. The figure, and it might be a young woman, not a man, is happy and guileless. It’s close to unique for Van Gogh. Millet, the peasant painter he revered, invested his figures with stoicism, and Van Gogh’s portraits are themselves serious. Young Man with a Cornflower has pizzazz. He’s a rustic with character.

The Getty bought Gustave Caillebotte’s Young Man at His Window for $53 million at the Cox sale. When I first saw this in Cox’s home, looking at it from the next room, I thought, “He can’t possibly own that,” since it’s an icon of Impressionism and illustrated in every survey book on Impressionism. A great move by the Getty.

The Cox sale total for 23 paintings was $332 million. He’s certainly not the only great collector in Dallas, but he was one of the earliest, along with Ray Nasher. They were among the foundational connoisseurs who make Dallas and Fort Worth the culture heavyweights they are today.

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