"I am very busy gardening and have sown a little garden full of poppies, sweet peas, and mignonette. Now we must wait and see what becomes of it."
Letter to Theo, from his London lodgings
Of all the paintings made by Vincent van Gogh over a career that spanned only ten years, his images of flowers and gardens project his extraordinary energy and unique interpretations of nature. The sunflower series, the irises, the cutting gardens of Provence, his series of floral bouquets while living in Paris, all are images that remain indelible in our minds among his tremendous outpouring of work.
As I researched van Gogh's garden philosophy through his letters and paintings, one passage stood out as an example of the childlike delight he took in exploring gardens. To his brother Theo, he condided his joy: "I have come back from a day at Montmajour....We explored the old garden together and stole some excellent figs. If it had been bigger it would have made me think of Zola's Paradou -- green reeds, vines, ivy, fig trees, olives, pomegranates with lusty flowers of the brightest orange, hundred-year-old cypresses, ash trees and willows, rock oaks, halfbroken flights of steps, ogive windows in ruins, blocks of white rocks covered in lichen, and scattered fragments of crumbling walls here and there among the green."
When van Gogh closed the final chapter of his life, he left not only a legacy of incredible paintings but also hundreds of pages of letters that offer insights into his art, as no other artist has done before or since. His observations of nature, his theories about color harmonies, and his choice of garden motifs allow us to understand clearly what impressed and inspired him about cultivated spaces. On a more practical note, these letters -- often written deliberately to teach and instruct -- can help us become better gardeners. Indeed, knowing what this great artist liked about plants and gardens has helped me create a series of twenty unusual theme gardens at my own home, Cedaridge Farm, in rural Pennsylvania. I am happy to share some of the lessons learned from Vincent van Gogh, and to show how my wife and I have made our property infinitely more beautiful from the experience.
Presented throughout this book are specific planting ideas and garden designs inspired by van Gogh's art -- not only designs based on his favorite color harmonies, many accomplished in small areas, but also complete garden spaces, such as vegetable gardens, cutting gardens, shade gardens, and skyline effects using the trees and shrubs he painted. I've included tips concerning specific plants that van Gogh admired -- for example, how to delay the wilting of sunflowers, which he found frustrating; how to grow lavender to perfection; and how to time the seeding of poppies so they provide a succession of color from early spring through autumn.
I hope that, after seeing the evocative paintings, evaluating the hundred or so specific gardening ideas he expressed a special fondness for, and seeing these ideas interpreted in a modern context, other home gardeners will be inspired to create beautiful, uplifting, spiritual spaces.
Copyright © 2001 by Derek Fell
From Color Harmonies
It is now more than one hundred years since Vincent van Gogh ended his life, and considering the circumstances of his death, his art could easily have died with him. That it did not is all the more remarkable because Theo soon followed his brother to the grave, tormented by a delirium symptomatic of his brother's mental condition. Sadly, Vincent's younger sister Wil also fell victim to mental illness, ending her days in a mental institution. The widowed Johanna, with no means of support in Paris, returned to her native Holland with her child, Vincent, and struggled to establish an income running a boardinghouse.
There has been much speculation about why van Gogh killed himself No doubt the suicide was in large part the act of a man in the grip of mental Illness one disillusioned and disappointed by his failure as an artist. But his motive undoubtedly includes other elements. We know from his letters that he considered himself a financial burden on his brother. Theo's limited resources were stretched further with the birth of his son, whose fragile health demanded significant medical attention. Van Gogh's concern for the child-and his suspicion that Theo's support for his painting career deprived the boy of needed care -- may have preyed on his deeply depressed mind and contributed to his decision to end his life. In any event, his death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound was devastating to Theo and his family.
Following the death of Theo, his widow, Johanna, inherited her brother-in-law's vast quantity of sketches, letters, and paintings. In her spare time over the years, she promoted, cataloged, and exhibited his work, and through her tenacity and diligence, they began to earn recognition as great works of art. When she passed away in 1927, her son, Vincent (van Gogh's godson), took up the cause of promoting international acclaim for his uncle's art. Now, long after van Gogh's technique has ceased to be ridiculed, exhibitions of his work -- and payment for his paintings at auction -- continue to set world records.
Amazingly, a large number of the gardens and landscapes that van Gogh depicted survive to the present day, and it is possible to visit the sites: the colorful courtyard garden he painted in the Arles hospital; the Garden of the Poets in Arles; the sinister asylum garden at Saint-Rémy; Dr. Gachet's garden, where he painted the doctor's daughter; Daubigny's garden, with its colorful island beds; the sparkling wildflower meadows, lavender fields, and olive orchards of Provence-, the vast wheat fields of Auvers;; the writhing black Jumpers against the rocky limestone slopes of the Alpilles Mountains; the quaint thatched cottages and gardens of Saintes Maries-de-la-Mer; the sparkling apple, plum, and peach orchards of Montmajour. To see them in real life is crucial in order to understand van Gogh's appreciation of particular landscapes and gardens.
When we analyze van Gogh's art, the dominant appeal is his application of color, particularly its vibrancy and vitality. When we view his work, we can sense the physical world with intensity -- the warmth of the sun, the cold of a snowscape, the chill of a wind-whipped sea, the blustery blasts of the mistral wind, the perfumed gaiety of a sun-drenched cutting garden, the quiet eeriness of a woodland garden, the soft wonder of a night sky. Commenting on a canvas of his olive trees, van Gogh wrote that it would "give the sense of the country and smell of the soil."
The vibrancy of his art comes not only from the tonal values he chose but, more important, from the color combinations he created. Often these arc pairs like orange and violet, even black and white, but often they are triad harmonics like blue, pink, and white or yellow, black, and orange. In a letter to Theo in the summer of 1888, he explained the intensity of his studies of color: "I am always in hope of making a discovery there, to express the love of two lovers by a wedding of two complementary colors, their mingling and their opposition, the mysterious vibrations of kindred tones."
Discussing his reasons for moving to the South of France, he wrote emphatically to an artist friend: "From Arles onwards you arc bound to find beautiful contrasts of red and green, of blue and orange, of sulphur and lilac." These arc the same color combinations he told Wilhelmien to try in her garden, using flowers to paint the landscape.
Whenever he saw a particularly beautiful color combination in the Provençal landscape, he dashed off a detailed description to Theo. As he explored Arles, he reported: "Everywhere and all over the vault of heaven is a marvelous blue, and the sun sheds a radiance of pure sulphur, and it is soft and as lovely as the combination of heavenly blue and yellows as a van der Meer of Delft. I cannot paint it as beautiful as that, but it absorbs me so much that I let myself go, never thinking of a single rule."
The Color Wheel
Though van Gogh ignored rules, seeking his best color combinations in nature, and especially in the gardens he visited, he was well aware of the scientific basis of color relationships. The first color wheel had been published in 1839, showing the scientific relationship between colors. Before then, the British physicist Sir Isaac Newton had identified the colors of sunlight by shining light through a glass prism. The prism split the sun's rays into the six main colors evident whenever we see a rainbow -- red, yellow, orange, green, blue, and violet.
However, it was not until Michel-Eugène Chevreul, a chemist working for the Gobelins dye works in Paris, published the first chromatic wheel that van Gogh could clearly understand the laws of colors and see how all colors arc linked and derived from the three primaries -- red, yellow, and blue. The other colors of the rainbow -- green, orange, and violet -- are produced by an overlapping or mixing of the primaries -- yellow and red to produce orange; blue and yellow to produce green; and blue and red to produce violet. Chevreul divided his wheel into "hot colors" (those that arc assertive, like orange, red, and yellow) and "cool colors" (those that tend to recede, like blue, green, and purple). He explained that colors opposite each other on the wheel (for example, yellow and violet) make the best contrasts, and that placing two separate colors close to each other or entwined (as in the threads of a fabric) produces the same effect as mixing the colors. Van Gogh was so captivated with Chevreul's concept of entwining that he kept balls of complementary colored wool in a lacquered box.
In his writings Chevreul even suggested ways of applying his laws of colors to the garden, and subsequently two French garden writers -- J. Decaisne and C. Naudin -- elaborated on Chevreul's thesis in their book Manuel de l'amateur de jardin. In particular, they explained the important role of white in a landscape, especially its ability to enliven any color it is placed next to. White has the added benefit, they remarked, of improving poor combinations of colors, such as red and blue or purple and violet.
Van Gogh endorsed this concept in a letter to an artist friend from Arles. "Take The Sower," he wrote. "The picture is divided in half; one half, the upper part, is yellow; the lower part is violet. Well, the white trousers allow the eye to rest and distract it at the moment when the excessive simultaneous contrast of yellow and violet would irritate it."
It was not only familiarity with Chevreul's laws of colors that sharpened van Gogh's response to color but also his own astute observations of the natural or cultivated landscape -- especially from viewing gardens and through painting still life arrangements using both cultivated and wayside plants. These revealed to him the best color harmonies and color contrasts. Sometimes the color combinations he discovered on his walks had a dramatic impact . t on his sensitivity. The red and green combinationtion, for example, reminded him of "the terrible passions of humanity."
Van Gogh identified pairs of colors with particular seasons of the year: yellow and green represented spring, orange and violet were summery, red and orange meant autumn, and black and white emulated the starkness of winter. Black and white was perhaps the most intriguing color harmony of all. In his mind black could be maroonlike the flowers of "black" scabiosa -- or it could be dark brown, bottle green, or deep purple; moreover, white, could be silvery white, like the dried seed cases of the money plant, or a greenish white, like the hooded spathes of arums. Whenever van Gogh found an interesting new color grouping during his walks, he would write about it enthusiastically.
His quest to find stimulating color groupings was never expressed more dramatically than in a letter to Wilhelmlen: "The more ugly, old, vicious, ill, poor I get, the more I want to take my revenge by producing a brilliant color, well arranged, resplendent. Jewelers, too, get old and ugly before they learn how to arrange precious stones well. And arranging the colors in a picture in order to make them vibrate and to enhance their value by contrasts is something like arranging jewels properly-or designing costumes."
Or planting a garden, he might have added, for in another letter he declared: "Sometimes by erring one finds the right road. Go make up for it by painting your garden just as it is."
Significantly, it was the great British plantswoman Gertrude Jekyll who took the fundamentals of van Gogh's color theories (and those of other painters of the Impressionist era) and used them for even more elaborate effects. A painter herself before failing eyesight caused her to stop, she experimented at her home, Munstead Wood, with color harmonics she discovered in Impressionist paintings. She recognized that separate color theme areas could also be connected for subtle sensuous effects. such as a cool color garden adjacent to a predominantly yellow and orange garden. "To pass from the cool quiet colourings of lavender and pink into the golden garden is like stepping into sunshine," she wrote.
Following are the most familiar color combinations seen in van Gogh's paintings and referred to in his letters, beginning with the most popular.
Yellow and Blue
Although orange and blue are opposites on the color wheel and make the most powerful contrast when placed together, yellow and blue offer a similarly pleasing contrast, and in van Gogh's letters it is the contrast of blue and yellow that he referred to repeatedly when describing paintings and gardens. Writing to a young artist friend, Emile Bernard, shortly after his move to Arles, he observed: "The town is surrounded by immense meadows all in bloom with countless buttercups -- a sea of yellowin the foreground these meadows arc divided by a ditch full of blue irises."
In a letter to Theo written in the summer of 1888, he eagerly anticipated autumn because "when the leaves start to fall...when all the foliage is yellow, it will be amazing against the blue."
Van Gogh's most famous yellow and blue partnership is found in his painting of violet blue irises against a citron yellow background, Vase with Irises Against a Yellow Background (1889). But yellow and blue is a, repetitive theme in many other landscape paintings, notably View of Arles with Irises in the Foreground (1889), Daubigny's Garden (1890), and Undergrowth with Two Figures (1890).
Whenever I plant yellow flowers, I try to partner them with blue, and vice versa. Some particularly striking plant partnerships include yellow daffodils surrounded by blue forget-me-nots; blue salvias against a background of yellow perennial foxgloves; and blue veronicas in company with yellow rudbeckia daisies. My personal favorite blue and yellow partnership is fragrant yellow azalea 'Mollis' underplanted with Spanish or English bluebells.
YELLOW, BLUE, AND ORANGE. Van Gogh extended the coupling of yellow and blue to include orange as a triadic color combination. Indeed, in a dogmatic letter to Theo shortly after arriving in Arles, he stated: "There is no blue without yellow and without orange, and if you put in blue, then you must also put in yellow, and orange, too, mustn't you?"
Within a year of his arrival in Arles, van Gogh's mental state deteriorated and he admitted himself to a nearby institution for the treatment of mental disease the Asylum of Saint-Paul, at Saint-Rémy. There, within the walls of the asylum, was a beautiful garden with towering mature umbrella pines and groves of redbuds girdled with ivy. The predominantly green garden had a calming effect and he quickly painted several impressions, telling Theo:
Here is a new size 30 canvas, once again as commonplace as a chromo in the little shops, which represents the eternal nests of greenery for lovers,
Some thick tree trunks covered in ivy, the ground also covered in ivy and periwinkle, a stone bench and a bush of pale roses in the cold shadow. In the foreground some plants with white calyxes, it is green, violet, and pink.
Since I have been here, the deserted garden planted with large pines beneath which the grass grows tall and unkempt, and mixed with various weeds, has sufficed for my work....However, the countryside around Saint-Rémy is very beautiful, and I will probably widen my field of endeavor.
During his stay in Saint-Rémy, on a walk around the walls of the asylum, he found the garden of a farmer's wife, mostly blue irises and yellow and orange calendulas planted in reddish, flinty soil. They are the principal components of his famous blue, yellow, and orange painting, Irises (1889).
Copyright © 2001 by Derek Fell