The Metropolitan Museum of Art will present a groundbreaking exhibition of some 40 works by Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) from May 22 through August 27, 2023.
Van Gogh’s Cypresses will be the first show to focus on the unique vision the artist brought to bear on the towering trees—among the most famous in the history of art—affording an unprecedented perspective on a motif virtually synonymous with his fiercely original power of expression.
A stunning range of works will illuminate the extent of Van Gogh’s fascination with the region’s flamelike evergreens as they successively sparked, fueled, and stoked his imagination over the course of two years in the South of France: from his initial sightings of the “tall and dark” trees in Arles to realizing their full evocative potential (“as I see them”) at the asylum in Saint-Rémy.
Iconic paintings such as Wheat Field with Cypresses and The Starry Night will take their place as the centerpiece of this historic exhibition, which will only be presented at The Met.
The exhibition is made possible by the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Foundation.
Additional support is provided by the Janice H. Levin Fund, Katharine Rayner, and the Aaron I. Fleischman and Lin Lougheed Fund.
This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.
“The show is a dream come true,”
said Max Hollein, Marina Kellen French Director of The Met.
“Marking the 170th-anniversary year of Van Gogh’s birth, this highly focused survey unpacks his distinctive vision of the commanding cypress trees. A once-in-a-lifetime gathering of works presents both an overview and an intimate glimpse of his creative process, challenging prevailing notions with fresh insights.”
Juxtaposing landmark paintings with precious drawings and illustrated letters—many rarely, if ever, lent or exhibited together—this tightly conceived thematic exhibition will offer an extraordinary opportunity to appreciate anew some of Van Gogh’s most celebrated works in a context that will reveal the backstory of their invention for the first time.
Anchored by The Met’s Wheat Field with Cypresses and Cypresses, the exhibition will feature loans from some 30 public and private collections. Highlights of the exhibition will include The Starry Night (The Museum of Modern Art, New York), A Wheatfield, with Cypresses (The National Gallery, London), and Country Road in Provence by Night (Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo), as well as a major group of drawings from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
Susan Alyson Stein, Engelhard Curator of Nineteenth-Century European Painting at The Met, added: “To an extent that has gone unrecognized, Van Gogh brought his trademark ambition, determination, and a rare degree of consideration—and reconsideration—to giving signature form to the storied cypresses in works as striking for their originality as for their continuity of vision.”
Van Gogh’s Cypresses is organized chronologically in three galleries. Thematic groupings and pairings of related paintings and drawings trace the artist’s progressive exploration of a motif that held its allure for two years, captivating and challenging him in equal measure.
Contrary to prevailing views which have routinely associated Van Gogh’s “discovery” of the cypresses with his famed painting campaign of June 1889, the most eye-catching and emblematic fixture of the Provençal countryside immediately struck a chord with the Dutch artist. Not only did the long-living, robust trees carry age-old associations with death, rebirth, and immortality, but, for millennia, they had stood as guardians and protectors of a region impacted by the notoriously fierce mistral winds, resonating with Van Gogh’s profound appreciation for the enduring and consoling aspects of nature.
The exhibition’s first section, “The Roots of his Invention: Arles, February 1888–May 1889,” will reveal his initial, inspired response to the cypresses in works dating to the 15 months he spent in Arles. They offer a telling glimpse of the vision he later brought to bear on the gravely majestic trees, foreshadowed in an April 1888 letter to his brother Theo: “I need a starry night with cypresses – or perhaps above a field of ripe wheat.” Featuring his only dated drawing from Arles of “March 1888” (an evocative pairing of cypresses and pollard willows reminiscent of his Dutch heritage), the display progresses from drawbridge scenes and blossoming orchards that herald the advent of spring to garden views made to welcome the arrival of artist Paul Gauguin that fall. The ideas and imagery that germinated in these early investigations take root, and gain ground, in his later works.
Shortly after leaving Arles to take refuge at the asylum in Saint-Rémy in June 1889, Van Gogh launched a momentous painting campaign that gave rise to his most iconic images of cypresses, which he revisited in dynamic large-scale drawings.
“The Making of a Signature Motif: Saint-Rémy, May–September 1889″ will provide an unrivalled sense of his most formidable and concerted effort to tackle the “tall and massive trees” in earnest. His mesmerizing nocturnal scene, The Starry Night, will be displayed alongside its daytime counterpart, Wheat Field with Cypresses, for the first time since 1901, when they were part of a large retrospective of the artist’s works held in Paris. The Met’s exuberant plein-air study of the cypresses holding forth over a sun-scorched wheat field will be seen, also for the first time since 1901, with the artist’s studio rendition of the motif (from The National Gallery, London), and in tandem with the drawing that intervened between the two. The reuniting of these three works will present a unique opportunity to appreciate his enterprising efforts to distill and refine his on-the-spot study from nature into a more “definitive” version in the quiet of his studio. Another exceptional grouping will consist of Cypresses, its related drawing, and the thumbnail sketch included in the artist’s often-quoted letter of June 25, 1889, in which he writes,
“The cypresses still preoccupy me…because it astonishes me that no one has yet done them as I see them.”
This section will highlight the unfolding logic and synergy among the landscapes he advanced in quick, confident succession, as he homed in on the cypresses in close-up studies with increasing intensity and verve.
The third gallery, “Branching Out in Style: Saint-Rémy, October 1889–May 1890,” will afford fresh focus on Van Gogh’s continued preoccupation with cypresses during the final months of his sojourn.
This section takes the visitor from the ambition he folded into the interior view of his studio—which will be paired for the first time with the painting he represented on the wall—in October 1889, to the inventive studio compositions that brought his work in Provence to a close in May 1890. Featuring the artist’s last, and quite varied, plein-air views of the cypress and a disarming group of pictures conjured from imagination (“Reminiscences of the North”), the loans showcase both the extent of his ongoing fascination with the motif and such little-known aspects of his work as his “search for style.”
This provocative concluding chapter underscores the nature of Van Gogh’s art as a work in progress, spurred on by his determination and resourcefulness. In merging memories of his native Netherlands with the Provençal landscape and reprising thematic elements introduced at the start of his sojourn, the two final paintings bring his longstanding artistic vision of the cypress motif full circle.
Credits and Related Content
Van Gogh’s Cypresses is curated by Susan Alyson Stein, Engelhard Curator of Nineteenth-Century European Painting at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The exhibition is accompanied by a richly illustrated catalogue, representing the first full-scale investigation of this signature motif and the only publication to cover the subject in comprehensive scope and depth. In this volume, Engelhard Curator Susan Alyson Stein retraces the Dutch artist’s inspired response to the cypresses as they gained ground in his works and artistic thinking. New technical findings on The Met’s Wheat Field with Cypresses and Cypresses are uncovered in a detailed study conducted by Walter Burke Conservator Charlotte Hale and Research Scientist Silvia A. Centeno. The visual and literary heritage of the cypress tree is handsomely documented by images and excerpts from 19th-century poetry, novels, and travel writing—many translated into English for the first time—compiled by Alison Hokanson, Associate Curator, with the assistance of Marina Kliger, former fellow, both in the Department of European Paintings. Published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press, the catalogue is available for purchase from The Met Store.
The catalogue is made possible by the Janice H. Levin Fund.
Additional support is provided by Adrian Sassoon and Edmund Burke.
Van Gogh’s Cypresses is on view May 22 through August 27, 2023 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.