Van Gogh’s Cypresses with Two Female Figures (1889)

Everyone recognizes that Vincent van Gogh's late paintings express something internal, usually said to be his state of mind. Yet what few except readers of EPPH know is that ever since Leonardo da Vinci drew the so-called "first landscape" artists have hidden their own features in nature.1 The reason: art is a mental image of creative processes conveying the unity of Mind and Nature. It is a tradition that pre-dates Leonardo. Vincent himself sometimes hinted at this in his letters: 

“I think that if one has tried to follow the masters attentively, one rediscovers them all at a certain moment deep in reality. I mean one will also see what one calls their creations in reality, the more one has similar eyes – a similar sentiment – to theirs.”2

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Captions for image(s) above:

Van Gogh, Cypresses with Two Female Figures (June 1889) Oil on canvas. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo.

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In Cypresses with Two Female Figures there is, once you identify it, a very clear representation of Van Gogh's face looking pensively downwards, his mind aflame with cypress trees shooting into the sky. Take time to compare the diagram (below) with the painting (above).

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail and diagram of Van Gogh's Cypresses with Two Female Figures

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A comparison with a self-portrait from two years before (bottom) shows a similar form though the "head" in the trees is turned further away from us and looks downwards in deep thought.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Diagram of Van Gogh's Cypresses with Two Female Figures
Bottom: Van Gogh, Self-portrait, detail (Spring 1887) Oil on cardboard. Art Institute of Chicago.

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Like church steeples, the tall cypresses signify a bridge in his mind between earth and heaven, nature and the divine. You can observe nature to become aware of the divine, he seems to suggest, but you must first discover it inside you.

Van Gogh, who like most artists often tried to convey two forms in one, might also have emphasized the texture of the tall, thin cypresses to represent giant paintbrushes emerging from his mind. He wrote to his brother:

‘For a painter, it is probably twice [sic] as interesting if, while painting a nest, he dreams of a cottage and, while painting a cottage, he dreams of a nest. It is as though one dreamed twice, in two registers, when one dreams of an image cluster such as this. For the simplest image is doubled; it is itself and something else than itself.’3

 

Captions for image(s) above:

Van Gogh, Cypresses with Two Female Figures (June 1889)

Click image to enlarge.

Notes:

1. See Simon Abrahams, Leonardo's Landscape (1472) and other examples under the theme Veiled Faces. There are even more such faces within this painting, Cypresses with Two Female Figures, but I will leave it to you to discover them.

2. Peter Hecht, Van Gogh and Rembrandt (Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum) 2006, p. 20

3. Van Gogh, Lettres à Theo, p. 12, cited in Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press) 1994, p.98

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 18 Oct 2013. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.