In this essay I plan to examine the background of Van Gogh’s painting the Mulberry Tree. I will also describe where the painting is displayed today, as well as discuss how it fits in with the concepts and other works of art we have discussed during lecture. First, I will start by giving the painting a context in history by discussing its background. The Mulberry Tree was painted in 1889 by Vincent Van Gogh during his stay at the asylum in Saint Remy. It is oil on canvas and currently resides at the Norton-Simon museum in Pasadena, California.
All of this information is available at the museum upon viewing the painting, but the fact that such a beautiful piece of art was created at an asylum prompts the viewer to conduct a little more research. Upon delving a little bit into the painting’s, and Van Gogh’s, rich and complex past one will find a man perched upon the precipice of beauty and madness, painting furiously to find the meaning behind it all. In class we learned that Van Gogh cut off his ear and gave it to a prostitute and that shortly after he went to the asylum at St. Remy.
Shearer West say’s, “In 1889, he became a voluntary patient at the St. Remy asylum, where he continued to paint…his brushwork was increasingly agitated, the dashes constructed into swirling, twisted shapes, often seen as symbolic of his mental state (West 126). ” Shortly after, in 1890, Van Gogh committed suicide (www. van goghgallery. com). It was in that period of madness before his death that Van Gogh created the Mulberry Tree. I think that knowing this history puts the brilliant colors and contrasts of the painting, as well as the short brushstrokes he used, into a new context.
The colors in the painting are in dramatic contrast with each other and one can certainly see the “swirling shapes” that West refers to in the painting. I think that the drama of Van Gogh’s life plays itself out on the canvas, particularly in this piece. “He became one with the Nature he created, and painted himself in the flaming clouds, wherein a thousand suns threaten the Earth with destruction, in the startled trees that seem to cry aloud to Heaven, in the awful immensity of his plains (Meier-Graefe 202). ” The Mulberry Tree seems to exemplify the “startled trees” that Meier-Graefe refers to above.
Van Gogh wrote a series of letters to his brother Theo Van Gogh during his internment at St. Remy. In a letter Van Gogh wrote to his brother on December 7th of 1889 we learn that the Mulberry Tree was among Van Gogh’s favorite paintings of the time, “…and I think that the very best is the yellow mulberry tree against a bright blue sky (www. webexhibits. org). ” I think that knowing this rich dynamic history allows us to see the painting in a different way, a way that contrasts with the way that it would be seen by simply being viewed at the Norton-Simon museum.
This leads me to the next topic of my paper, which is a discussion of how the painting is situated in the museum and how its placement in the museum affects the way that the viewer sees it. The museum itself is open to light and the room that the Mulberry Tree is situated in is characterized by a big rectangle of light in the ceiling. The room itself is large and open with many paintings hanging on the walls. There are several posts in the museum that are also rectangular in shape and seem to mimic the shape of the ceiling.
Perched upon the rectangular posts are many metal statues of people in different positions. The rectangular posts are beige and are lodged in a beige marble floor. It seems to me that the statues situated in front of the Mulberry Tree seem to point with their arms and legs toward the painting. The painting itself is situated in between two other paintings by Van Gogh. It is framed in a gold gilded frame and hangs upon a beige wall. Next to the painting is a short description of the medium used, date painted, and a reference to Van Gogh’s stay at St. Remy. There is an overhead light that illuminates the painting.
I think that the way the painting is viewed in the museum contrasts a bit with the way one who knows the history of the painting might view it. The painting seems more contained in the museum. The light colored walls and overhead lights help to illuminate the painting and showcase its beauty, but I also think that it puts a distance between the viewer and the innate wild strokes and tension in the painting. The museum, to me, has a calming influence and this contrasts with the essence of the painting. I do not mean to imply that this is a negative thing. I think that it is wonderful that a beautiful piece of art can be seen in many ways.
I think that if seen outside of a museum and put into the context of its history the madness of its maker becomes more evident in the swirls of brushstrokes. On the other hand when viewed in the relaxing atmosphere of a museum it may just be seen as a beautiful painting. Now I will describe the meaning and use of the painting as well as try to link it to other works and concepts that we have discussed in class. Van Gogh has been associated with the Impressionists, but cannot be defined in that category. We learned in class that Van Gogh viewed Impressionist paintings and started painting himself because Impressionism was “not enough”.
One piece that we discussed in class, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, can be easily related to the Mulberry Tree. The two paintings can be easily related because they were painted by the same artist and Starry Night, like the Mulberry Tree, was painted during Van Gogh’s stay at St. Remy. The swirling brushstrokes in Starry Night are very similar to the brushstrokes in the Mulberry Tree. I think that the same kind of tension of a man caught between madness and inspiration evident in the Mulberry Tree is also evident in Starry Night. The paintings original, as well as current, use was most likely an aesthetic one.
Van Gogh seemed to experience a catharsis during his painting and when he was done a beautiful, stirring work of art was produced that we are still enjoying over a hundred years later. The meaning of the painting is beauty. For me the painting exemplifies the struggle of life, the tension between the extremely beautiful, or sublime, aspects of nature and the darker side. I believe that these two forces battled each other daily in Van Gogh himself, propelling him to produce paintings of extreme beauty, but also prompting him to mutilate and eventually kill himself.
Van Gogh seems to live in the extremes and I believe that these extremes are evident in the Mulberry Tree. The Mulberry Tree seems to celebrate what is extreme in nature. To me it appears to be a tree in the full autumn color of gold, flaming against a blue background. The meaning of the object certainly is beauty, a celebration of the awesome powers of nature. In this paper I have given the background of the painting. Van Gogh used oil and canvas to express s his madness and vision of beauty. I have also described how the painting is situated in the museum and how the painting might be viewed differently when put into different contexts.
Finally, I have linked the Mulberry Tree to another one of Van Gogh’s paintings, Starry Night, which we discussed in class. The two paintings have several aspects, such as artist and time period, alike and they are both paintings of nature’s extreme beauty. I have also attempted to describe the meaning behind the painting, which I believe to be essentially beauty and the struggle between conflicting natural sources. I really enjoyed this assignment and appreciate the opportunity to view the painting at The Norton-Simon museum.
It is my belief that a little knowledge of the past of a work of art combined with actually seeing it in its current environment helps the viewer to better understand the painting and more thoroughly grasp its meaning. Bibliography www. vangoghgallery. com Van Gogh. December, 1889. Letter 618. From https://webexhibits. org. Meier-Graefe, Julius. 1908. Modern Art: Being a Contribution to a New System of Aesthetics. Pg 202. New York. Putnam and Sons. West, Shearer. 1996. The Bulfinch Guide to Art History: A Comprehensive Survey and Dictionary of Western Art. Pg 126. New York. Bulfinch Press.