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Van Gogh achieved an extraordinary work in his ‘Pine Trees against an Evening Sky’. It has the most beautiful effect of branches with foliage against a sun set sky. The artist stated his aim was to “reconstruct it as it might have been by simplifying and accentuating the proud and immutable character of the pines and the clumps of cedar against the blue”.
Apparently influenced by Eugene Delacroix in tackling branches and foliage, there may well have been another link with the French artist in the case of this painting. Throughout his life, Van Gogh was fascinated by the restless idealism of Delacroix, as described by the French critic Theophile Silvestre, and he was fond of quoting the rousing conclusion of Silvestre's tribute to Delacroix: 'Thus did Eugene Delacroix die, almost smiling - a painter of the greatest kind - who had a sun in his head and a storm in his heart'.
Van Gogh was an intense character and most likely incorporated this metaphor of life as struggle in this painting. It is an intense sunset with a woman bent by the wind. We might infer that the transience of life is symbolized by the very conspicuously broken tree trunks and branches of the pines. Yet still they stand tall against the sky.
In fact, what we are treated to here is not the artists’ view at all, but the tree eye view of the pines. We are looking at the tops of them from a higher vantage point. They have an overview of life that the woman does not. In reality, the scale of the overall scene is such that it cannot be taken in at one glance, and to paint the trees and the sky like that Van Gogh would have had to gaze up above his head. But we see, at the same time, that the perspective taken shows us the woman as though from above looking down.
Of course, what we cannot see, is what cannot be defined, the winds of life. Though we see the effects all around in the broken branches and in the woman bent with toil. It is this anxiety that swirls the sky. An anxiety Van Gogh said all the patients at the asylum (where he was at the time) felt and that he said they described as “noir rouge”.
Hence we see the colour palette has also been selected with a particular aim in mind, that of conjuring emotion with Van Gogh using dark hues and juxtaposing with red to evoke feeling. We see that where the Pine has a broken branch, it too is the same colour as the sky. 'Trees feel too', Van Gogh seems to be saying.
What I find interesting is that he decided to reduce the colour effect by later retouching the work. Van Gogh was apparently struck by the need to alter the canvas and wrote about it to his sister saying:
“Then I took a colour which is on the palette, a dull and dirty white you get when you mix white with green and a little carmine. I daubed this greenish tone all over the sky and behold: at a distance, it softens the tones, yet you would think you were messing up and soiling the canvas”.
Take a look at the image again … what do you see? Yes, Van Gogh has retouched the sky. We see the light tone is also present in the ground and in the mass of pine needles and the curving bark of the trunks. In contrast to the red and black anxiety inducing colour scheme he has taken the healing balm of the pines and applied this to the emotional backdrop of sky and lurid sun. The woman too has taken on this soothing tone.
These pines, for all their seeming brokenness and battering by life, have had a profound effect upon him. It is these beings, their colour, texture, and form we see first. Through everything they remain standing tall. They are full front and centre stage in the drama. The sun is setting, the light is receding yet it seems we are not to worry because the presence of these trees reminds us of permanency in an ever changing world. In a world full of intensity and anxiety the Pines seem to represent peace and calm, their “proud and immutable character” ever present.
‘Pine Trees against an Evening Sky’, painted in 1889, is significant in Van Gogh’s oeuvre because it is one of only seven paintings from Saint-Remy which he signed.
Next time you meet a Pine see if you can see them as Van Gogh did, and find serenity in the moment despite the winds of life blowing through.