In the summer of 1889, Vincent van Gogh painted “Cypresses,” which may just be his masterpiece. He had painted “The Starry Night,” a relatively flat and cartoonish work, only a week or two earlier. In one of his marvelous, chatty, tender and hectoring letters, he promised his brother Theo that he was taking precautions to avoid a relapse of the breakdown that had led to him, six months earlier, to sever his ear and present it to a local prostitute.
That incident had occurred in Arles. Van Gogh was now living in an asylum in nearby Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. There had been a series of “fine hot days,” he reported, and he had turned his attention to the tall cypresses he saw all around. He wanted to depict them in a series of paintings — of which “The Starry Night” was one — just as he had painted a series of sunflowers the previous month. Why? “Because it astonishes me that no one has yet done them as I see them.”
How did Van Gogh see them?
A cypress, he told Theo, is “beautiful as regards lines and proportions, like an Egyptian obelisk.” The cypresses’ particular green, he continued, “has such a distinguished quality. It’s the dark patch in a sun-drenched landscape, but it’s one of the most interesting dark notes, the most difficult to hit off exactly that I can imagine.”
The comparison to an Egyptian obelisk is arresting. The implication — that we should value nature as much as monuments of civilization — is clear. But obelisks are static and symmetrical. “Cypresses,” which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is wild, shaggy and full of unkempt energy. Van Gogh used short, twisty brushstrokes to give the dark, glossy trees a sense of torque and bristling vigor.
The clarion immediacy of Van Gogh’s painting was echoed by his prose. Here was a man with no time to waste, and an almost desperate urge to gulp the world in. He knew as soon as he painted “Cypresses” that it was the best in the series. He said as much in a June 25 letter to Theo, even including a little sketch of the painting.
“The trees in it are very tall and massive,” he wrote. “The foreground very low, brambles and undergrowth. Behind, violet hills, a green and pink sky with a crescent moon. The foreground, above all, is thickly impasted, tufts of bramble with yellow, violet, green highlights.”
“Cypresses” is not a huge painting — about 3 feet high and 2 1/2 feet wide — but there is something sublime about the scale. Van Gogh cut off the top of the tallest tree, accentuating its monumentality. The effect of sheer verticality is reminiscent of those improbably tall mountains crisscrossed by clouds in Chinese scroll paintings.
The whole canvas — the sky, the clouds, the atmosphere itself — seems to vibrate in response to the cypresses’ life force, evoking all ways in which the natural world is interconnected. “Starry Night,” for all its charm, is like a diagram of this notion, or an illustration. It feels akin to an explanation, whereas “Cypresses” is an exclamation, a blurt, a barbaric yawp. It doesn’t just illustrate, it enacts Van Gogh’s special apprehension of nature’s reverberating oneness.
As much as any drip painting by Jackson Pollock, “Cypresses” is an event in itself, explicitly connected to the vivid, high summer world Van Gogh was actually looking at — not just remembering or channeling. You can feel the overwhelming Provençal heat, the rustling wind and the branches that, as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, “brush/ The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush/ With richness.”
You look at it and just think: This is replete. It cannot be improved upon.