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Art & artists

Van Gogh’s garden passion

— May 2011

Article read level: Art lover

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Vincent van Gogh, Vegetable Gardens in Montmartre, Paris, April-June 1887.

Vincent’s Gardens: Paintings and Drawings by Van Gogh

Ralph Skea

Vincent’s Gardens is a delightful introduction to Vincent van Gogh, unwrapped through paintings of the artist’s favourite theme, nature. In a letter to his brother Theo, dated July 1882, Vincent wrote, ‘It isn’t the language of painters one ought to listen to but the language of nature’. Gardeners would agree with him.

A gift book for ‘anyone interested in the place of gardens, plants and the natural world in art’, the publisher claims. Indeed, the book is an uncomplicated introduction to Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) through garden landscapes. Text and images will appeal to both aspiring artists and garden lovers. The author’s focus on the gardens that van Gogh knew intimately is a different approach to this artist’s work, taking a closer look at his paintings from a new perspective. On the front cover a detail from Garden with Flowers (Arles, July, 1888), a riot of colour and texture, is juxtaposed with a back cover detail of Irises (Saint-Rémy, May 1889), to enclose a jewel of a book in a deep purple binding.

After explaining his inspiration for the book, the author reveals the extent of van Gogh’s garden passion. There are chapters on Vincent’s Dutch Gardens 1881–5; Vincent’s Parisian Gardens, 1886–8; Vincent’s Provençal Gardens, 1888–90, and Vincent’s Gardens in Auvers, 1890. Recognised as an artist himself, Ralph Skea has exhibited his artworks since 1973.  He has clearly studied van Gogh’s work with the professional eye of a painter and a garden conservator.

 ‘Vincent’s Love of Gardens’ unfolds a short history of the painter’s life, revealed through extracts from his letters and a selection of works produced during his ten-year career as an artist. Parsonage Garden in the Snow with Three Figures in pen and brown ink, drawn in December 1883 at his home in Nuenen, leads one to visualize his childhood growing up in a country parsonage with his parents and sisters. The delicate pen and ink drawing is thought to portray Vincent’s mother Anna, and his two younger sisters, Wil and Lies, at work in the wintry garden. Vincent, as the observer, is unseen but his presence is felt.

The remaining chapters follow Vincent’s life, dwelling on strikingly colourful phases of work, such as Vegetable Gardens in Montmartre, painted in Paris, April–June 1887. The presentation of van Gogh’s art is arresting. The smaller details of paintings are given large close-ups, allowing an excellent study of the brushwork and his creative mixing of complementary colours, details that would be harder to detect when viewing the paintings in a gallery.

The quality of the colour reproduction catches the eye as the book moves on to trace Vincent’s stay in a mental asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, setting up his easel wherever he chose. The painting Pine Trees in the Garden of the Asylum, painted in October 1889,contrasts a golden yellow building glimpsed through tall pine trees with wild, sharp strokes of colour that add a touch of menace to the landscape. Skea observes that, ‘Certainly during his early months at the asylum, Vincent believed that the garden had made his life less unhappy... [It] relieved his depression and gave him some respite from his crippling anxieties...’. He chooses extracts from Vincent’s letters to recount the circumstances ‘considering that life happens above all in the garden, it isn’t so sad’ (letter from Vincent to Theo van Gogh, written about Thursday, 23 May 1889).

The final chapter explores the last months of the artist’s life at Auvers-sur-Oise in northern France, where he painted many canvasses of the thatched roof cottages and informal gardens. Under the care of Dr Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, Vincent visited the doctor’s house and painted in the garden, ‘... I’ll go and spend one or two days a week at his house working in the garden, of which I have already painted two studies...’ (letter to Wil van Gogh, Thursday, 5 June 1890). The Expressionist painting of the doctor’s daughter, Marguerite Gachet in the Garden, created in June 1890, sums up carefree moments.

The letter extracts may attract readers of this book to explore Thames & Hudson’s earlier six-volume work by the artist in his own words, Vincent van Gogh – The Letters edited by Leo Jansen et al. (published 2009).

The author, Ralph Skea, is an architect and town planner, and former Senior Lecturer in European Urban Studies at the University of Dundee, Scotland. Currently, he is co-ordinator of the Historic Gardens Study Unit at the university, which probably makes him the perfect writer for this book.

This book is published by Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2011. 112 pp., 58 col / 17 mono illus. ISBN 978 0 500 238776


Rosalind Ormiston
Independent art historian
Rosalind Ormiston is the author of Vincent van Gogh: A Life in Art and Letters (Flame Tree Publishing, 2011)

Media credit: Courtesy Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. From Vincent’s Gardens: Paintings and Drawings by Van Gogh by Ralph Skea

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