Vincent's Gardens: Paintings and Drawings by van Gogh

  • Ralph Skea
  • Thames & Hudson
  • 112 pp.
  • May 4, 2011

In nature civilized and tamed, the tortured artist found soothing sanctuary from the world.

Reviewed by Mary Morton

Gardeners gain from their cultivated plots of nature not only sensual pleasures — color, fragrance, the tactile feel of earth and plant flesh — but psychic and spiritual rewards as well.  Garden-love has grown particularly ardent with the rise of urban modernity, as humans desperately strive to maintain contact with nature in an increasingly paved and developed world.  Vincent’s Gardens by Ralph Skea describes the profound relationship between art history’s most famous mental patient and a variety of gardens in the Netherlands and France.

Beautifully bound, filled with high-quality reproductions of Vincent Van Gogh’s art, this is a pleasure book written by a non-specialist and intended for the general reader. Skea is an urban planner and architect by profession, as well as a painter, and he brings to Van Gogh’s life and art a fresh perspective. Drawing on the artist’s paintings and his less well known but equally spectacular drawings, as well as on his richly literate and informative letters, Skea writes of the centrality of the garden theme across Van Gogh’s short, 10-year career. His approach reflects his training as an urban designer and his practice as a conservationist of historic gardens, that is, of someone who has contemplated the function of gardens in human life, and their psychological, social and spiritual role in civilization. His interest in Van Gogh’s sense of place drives the project, and dictates the book’s division into chapters according to the artist’s location.

From the start of his committed career as an artist, as a 27-year-old living with his parents in various parsonage houses, Van Gogh was attracted to drawing and painting gardens. His early, pre-Impressionist work includes images of the parsonage gardens at Etten and Nuenen, and market gardens attached to cottages in The Hague. After moving to Paris to live with his brother and commune with the avant-garde artists patronized by Theo, he pictured allotment gardens in Montmartre, densely fenced with small sheds scattered across the hilly terrain, windmills looming in the background. He painted the gracefully designed terraces of the Luxembourg Garden in central Paris, and the neatly manicured footpaths of the Argenson Park in the suburb of Asnières.

When he moved south to Provence, to the promised land of brilliant sunshine and open spaces, Van Gogh’s work exploded with color and compositional experimentation. While he explored a variety of landscape motifs, Van Gogh continued to be drawn to cultivated nature, organized plots tilled by farmers and townspeople. He was attracted to the public gardens near the Place Lamartine in Arles and the flower gardens rimming farms on the edge of town. Among the most fascinating of the Arlesian images are pictures of the hospital courtyard where Van Gogh recuperated after a psychotic attack and violent fight with Gauguin, resulting in his infamous act of self-mutilation. The courtyard’s classical arcade, variety of flower beds and trees, and round pond in the center provided Van Gogh with multiple options for engaging spatial and color compositions.

Skea makes a convincing case for the soothing, palliative effect of the garden motif on Van Gogh’s increasingly unstable psyche. In gardens, the exuberant stimulations of nature were civilized and tamed, providing a sanctuary from the unwieldy conflicts of social exchange. Perhaps the most compelling example of this phenomenon was Van Gogh’s voluntary commitment to the asylum at Saint-Rémy in the spring of 1889. The paintings of the enclosed garden there — above all, the series on irises — are powerfully passionate celebrations of the vitality of vegetal life and the miracle of regeneration. One can still visit the garden at Saint-Rémy, as Skea helpfully points out, and imagine Vincent peacefully painting in a corner, out-chasing his demons in the concentrated transcription of flowers bursting forth. Here, an excerpt from one of the artist’s letters is particularly heart-rending: “…considering that life happens above all in the garden, it isn’t so sad.”

The format of the book is small in scale, with a central essay running through five short chapters, and descriptive captions accompanying each reproduction. Often the captions run as long as the essay text on a given page, creating a rather erratic reading rhythm as one pulls out of the essay to engage with the image reproduced, and then the caption. The back-matter consists of a select group of general sources on Van Gogh, the catalogues raisonnés of the drawings and paintings, and the recently republished Letters in six volumes, among the greatest artist’s testaments in the history of art.

Of the staggering body of scholarly literature devoted to Van Gogh, Skea singles out a handful of books to recommend without qualifying his choices. Included is the catalogue of last year’s blockbuster at the Royal Academy, London, The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters, which in its juxtaposition of the artist’s pictures and drawings, his letters and interpretive wall texts, provided a richly faceted experience of Van Gogh’s art to the public similar to that offered in Vincent’s Gardens.

Mary Morton is the curator of French paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington,  D.C. She has worked on exhibition and acquisition projects involving Gustave Courbet, Jean-Baptiste Oudry, Jean-Léon Gerôme and Paul Gauguin.

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