If There Is Much In The Window There Should Be More In The Room

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Vincent van Gogh’s ‘final gasp’

Vincent van Gogh’s ‘final gasp’

National Gallery to display Vincent van Gogh’s ‘final gasp,’ not seen publicly since 1966.

Christmas came early at the National Gallery of Art, which has just received Vincent van Gogh’s “Green Wheat Fields, Auvers” from the estate of museum benefactor Paul Mellon. 


The painting went on display Friday, December 21, 2013 in the Gallery’s West Building and hang between two other works by van Gogh: the still life “Roses” and the portrait “La Mousmé.” 
“La Mousmé"

“Green Wheat Fields, Auvers,” which depicts the French countryside, was painted months before the artist’s death in 1890. It is the ninth van Gogh painting to enter the National Gallery’s collection.

The work, "Green Wheat Fields, Auvers," is particularly exciting for art historians because the famous Dutch painter completed it just weeks before he died in France in 1890 at age 37. 

Paul Mellon
The oil painting had been in the private collection of late millionaire Paul Mellon, whose father, Andrew Mellon, founded the gallery in 1937.

It had hanged, unframed, in Paul and his wife Rachel's home in Virginia until Rachel, 103, donated it to the museum earlier this year after its last public showing in 1966. It now lives in a beautiful gold frame but with just a little sign and no protective glass, next to a self-portrait of the artist.

"Here in the gallery, it needs nothing. It is incredibly powerful," Mary Morton, curator of French paintings at the museum, said.

“Green Wheat Fields, Auvers”
The painting is large for van Gogh: two and half feet by three feet. It is incredibly textured and referred to as a "pure landscape," with no subjects. Instead of animals or buildings, it depicts only the northern French countryside: light green wheat fields, pale flowers, and a large blue and white, cloud-filled sky. The bright colors are interesting considering that the end of van Gogh's life is understood to be extremely sad and bleak.

Mary Morton
The story behind the work adds to its power. During the spring of 1890, van Gogh painted many “pure landscapes” following his voluntary confinement in an asylum. 

Mary Morton, curator of French paintings at the museum, says the tranquility of “Green Wheat Fields, Auvers” runs counter to the narrative of a tormented van Gogh, whose lifelong struggle with mental illness ended in suicide. Unlike his haunting “Wheat Field With Crows,” which some scholars say is van Gogh’s last work, many works in the “Auvers” period depict calm landscapes, a respite from his torment.

“He was struggling with mental illness, but seemed to take comfort in nature toward the end of his life,” Morton said, calling the painting “a final gasp.” Morton also notes that unlike many of his landscapes, which include buildings, stone walls and trees, this work eliminated figures, depicting only wind-blown grasses and clouds. 

"He suffered but was soothed by nature," Morton said. "He's struggling, but he is feeling these incredible waves of joy."

Morton said the painting ranks next to “Roses” and “La Mousmé” in terms of its importance and condition. Van Gogh often used cheap paints that faded easily. Morton noted that the painting’s good condition is partially due to its cool palette, as warm colors tend to fade more over time.

Rachel Lambert Mellon

Van Gogh scholars are likely to be thrilled that the work is once again in the public domain. The painting has not been displayed publicly since 1966. 

Mellon’s wife, Rachel Lambert Mellon, has held the rights to the painting since his death in 1999. 

This year, she relinquished the remainder of her estate, allowing the museum to display the work. Until recently, the painting hung over the fireplace in the Mellons’ Upperville, Va., home.


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