Vincent van Gogh’s powerful and intense Green Wheat Fields, Auvers (1890), likely painted just weeks before the artist ended his life, goes on view in the National Gallery of Art’s West Building, Gallery M-83, beginning December 20. The painting was bequeathed to the Gallery by renowned philanthropist, art collector, and founding Gallery benefactor Paul Mellon (1907–1999), subject to a life estate in his wife, Rachel Lambert Mellon, which gave her the right to possess the work for her lifetime. She has now relinquished the remainder of her life estate, allowing the Gallery to take immediate possession of the work.
“Green Wheat Fields, Auvers is a marvelous complement to the Gallery’s Van Gogh collection and represents his wildly prolific late Auvers period,” said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. “Thanks to the generosity of important benefactors such as Paul Mellon, Ailsa Mellon Bruce, Chester Dale, Pamela Harriman, and John Hay Whitney, we now have nine outstanding paintings by this master, of which six are already on view in Washington.” (The Gallery owns 11 prints and drawings by Van Gogh that may be seen by appointment by calling 202- 842-6380.)
Measuring 283/4 x 36 5/8 inches (73 x 93 cm) Green Wheat Fields, Auvers was likely painted in Auvers-sur-Oise, France, during the spring/early summer of 1890, following Van Gogh’s voluntary confinement at the asylum of Saint-Rémy. In this village just north of Paris, and as he did before in the countryside surrounding Arles and Saint-Rémy, Van Gogh painted what could be called “pure landscapes,” in addition to the Auvers Romanesque church, town hall, and picturesque thatched-roof houses.
In this painting, Van Gogh eliminates the rural figures, stony walls, wooden carts, dramatic trees, and rustic buildings that populate so many of his landscapes and focuses instead on the windblown clouds and tall grasses. Two-thirds of the composition consists of the field in a rich range of greens and blues, punctuated by outbursts of yellow flowers. The artist wrote of his return to northern France as a kind of homecoming, a peaceful restoration in which the vibrant, hot colors of the south were replaced by cool, gentle hues in green and blue. Van Gogh’s energetic strokes describe the movement of grassy stalks in the breeze, their patterned undulations creating a woven integral form anchored at the right by a juncture point between field, road, and sky.
“Because there is so little to read in the composition, the focus is on the color but even more so on brushwork―the clouds whipping around in spinning circles, opening out and closing in, Van Gogh’s brush squiggling across the surface in long calligraphic strokes. The paint is applied in thick impasto, creating the marvelous textured surface of Van Gogh’s best loved paintings. Through his dynamic touch and vivid, unmediated color, Van Gogh expresses the intense freshness of this slice of countryside,” said Mary Morton, curator, French paintings, National Gallery of Art.
Green Wheat Fields, Auvers will hang in a gallery with other Van Gogh works: Girl in White (1890), also from Auvers, La Mousmé (1888), The Olive Orchard (1889), Roses (1890), and Self Portrait (1889). Field with Green Wheat relates strongly to three of the Gallery’s pen and ink drawings by Van Gogh, all from 1888―Harvest–The Plain of La Crau, Harvest, and Ploughman in the Fields near Arles―in the rhythmic weave of the marks made to describe the artist’s connection to nature’s unifying energy.
The painting spent its early life first in Van Gogh’s brother Theo’s holdings, then in Germany, represented as early as 1905 by the brilliant modern art dealer Paul Cassirer, and sold in 1906 to Curt Herrmann in Berlin. His son, Frederick (Fritz) Herrmann, sold it through the Carstairs Gallery, New York, to Paul Mellon in December 1955. It has remained in the Mellons’ home in Upperville, VA, until now, with the exception of an exhibition devoted to their collection and that of Paul’s sister Ailsa Mellon Bruce at the National Gallery of Art in 1966.