Following a self-mutilation of a part of his left ear shortly before Christmas in 1888, Vincent van Gogh was transferred to Arles Hospital. He seemed to recover rather quickly, but his recurring psychological instability combined with the local community reactions, resulted in his confinement at St-Remy-de-Provence’s psychiatric clinic, where he would stay for a year.
In the asylum, Van Gogh worked tirelessly, sometimes even during his seizures, and it is amazing how this serenity and calmness appears in the paintings he carried out there. He first painted his face, his room, the corridors, and then the nearby gardens. When he was allowed to go out, he preferred to depict mountains, cypresses, and especially olive groves. In April 1889 he wrote to his brother that the olive tree is “something so special and extraordinary! [...] Too beautiful to dare to paint or to capture it [...] The olive tree is something else, it is, if you want to compare it, like Delacroix”. In June 1889, when he was allowed to take walks around the asylum, he found the courage to depict them, an effort not easy at all.
His painting was guided by the desire to depict themes that simply drew on the earth, on nature. He stayed out in the open for hours, in the olive groves until he was able to capture three women while picking olives in early December. He carried out three paintings in total, of which the version presented here was painted in front of the subject.
In all three compositions the colour palette is, as Van Gogh himself described it, gentle, serene. All three were treated in thick layers, thus giving a nice texture to the canvas. The small, dynamic strokes make all the elements seem alive: the leaves of the trees moving gently in the wind, the gnarly trunks, the ploughed land, the unstable sky, women who work. But neither the bitter cold nor the hard work can be seen in the result: the viewer feels true harmony with the nature. The Olive picking presented here stands out from its two copies thanks to the spontaneity that results from the in situpainting. This makes the composition “more coloured”, the strokes tenser and therefore less precise. The part that seems to have been treated with much ardour is the sky, especially the lower left bottom, where the layers look very thick. There we see blue, white, rose, but also violet and yellow. And as we approach the painting, we can see that the palette he wanted to be simple, is in fact much more complex in every single detail of the painting.
Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, Amsterdam
Ambroise Vollard, Paris
Dr. Alfred Wolff, Munich, in 1912 and 1924
J.K. Thannhauser, Munich, circa 1948
Vincent Astor, New York, until 1955
M. Knoedler, New York, 1955-1956
Mr and Mrs Richard Bernhardt Fund for The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1956
Marlborough Fine Art, London
Private collection, since 1972
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Tentoonstelling Vincent van Gogh, 1905, no. 203
Utrecht, Vereeniging ‘Voor de Kunst’, Tentoonstelling van schilderijendoor Vincent van Gogh, 1905, no. 52
Rotterdam, Kunstzalen Oldenzeel, Tentoonstelling Vincent van Gogh, 1906, no. 49
Munich, Moderne Galerie Thannhauser, Paul Gauguin1848-1903, summer 1910
Cologne, Städtische Ausstellungshalle, Internationale Kunstausstellung des Sonderbundes Westdeutscher Kunstfreunde und Künstler zu Köln, 1912, no. 95
Stuttgart, Wurttembergischer Kunstverein, Ausstellung Vincent van Gogh 1853-1890, 1924, no. 39
Munich, Münchner Glaspalast, Allgemeine Kunst-Ausstellung, 1926, no. 2093
London, Royal Academy of Arts, Post-Impressionists, 17 November 1979 - 30 March 1980, no. 511
Andros, Museum of Contemporary Art, Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation, Classics of Modern Art, 27 June - 19 September 1999, pp. 84-89, ill. pp. 84-87
Willem Sherjon and Willem Josiah de Gruyter, Vincent van Gogh’s Great Period: Arles, Saint-Rémy and Auvers-sur-Oise, Amsterdam, 1937, no. 69
Jacob-Baart de la Faille, The Works of Vincent van Gogh: His Paintings and Drawings, New York, revised edition, 1970, no. 654, ill. p. 258
Ronald Pickvace, Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy and Auvers, exhibition catalogue, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1986
Walter Feilchenfeldt, Vincent van Gogh & Paul Cassirer, Berlin. The Reception of Vincent van Gogh in Germany from 1901 to 1912, Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Zwolle, 1988
Colin B. Bailey, Joseph J. Rishel and Mark Rosenthal, Masterpieces of Impressionism & Post-Impressionism, The Annenberg Collection, exhibition catalogue, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1989. The provenance of the Annenberg Alyscamps [F655] was wrongly attributed to the owners of the present work [F654], a correction follows in footnote 4, p. 194
Ingo F. Walther and Rainer Metzger, Vincent van Gogh, The Complete Paintings, Cologne, 1990, vol. 2, ill. p. 596
Vincent van Gogh: Correspondance générale, ed. Georges Charensol, Paris, 1990, vol. 3, pp. 619, 624, 629
Jan Hulsker, The Complete Van Gogh: Paintings, Drawings, Sketches, revised and enlarged edition of the Catalogue Raisonné, Amsterdam and Philadelphia, 1996, no. 1868, ill. p. 429