HoMA Select:

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853 – 1890)
Wheat Field, 1888
Oil on canvas
Gift of Mrs. Richard A. Cooke and Family in memory of Richard A. Cooke, 1946 (377.1)

Honolulu has been buzzing with the touring multi-media, special effects-laden Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, on view this summer at the Hawai’i Convention Center. Whether or not you plan to see Beyond Van Gogh, I highly recommend revisiting Van Gogh’s painting Wheat Field (1888) in Honolulu Museum of Art’s collection, as there truly is no substitute for standing in front of the original object

Witnessing Van Gogh’s painterly technique first hand, one senses how his vibrant color choices and activated brushstrokes transform the surface of the canvas into a cacophony of energy and palpable life force. Standing in front of a Van Gogh landscape years ago at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, I began to sense the gallery walls fall away and felt myself enveloped by a field of flowers and trees animated with color and movement. In this transformative moment I became distinctly aware of the power of art to alter a viewer’s perception of the world around them.

Van Gogh’s father was a minister and the artist himself had considered the church as a profession. Religion and spirituality were a significant part of his life and he often chose subject matter depicting the natural world, or laborers who worked the land. Van Gogh viewed this type of work as authentic, and of the cycles of growth and the seasons of the year as symbolic of spirituality. He had little academic training and was mostly self-taught as an artist. While living in Paris, he was influenced by many new styles including Impressionism, Neo Impressionism, and Symbolism, all of which challenged the long-standing traditions of realism and history painting supported by the art establishment. He and his art-dealer brother Theo, shared a passion for Japanese prints and collected them. In February 1888, Van Gogh traveled from Paris to Arles in the south of France, where he painted various scenes including the railway, orchards, canals and wheat fields such as this one.

Wheat Field, in HoMA’s collection, is one of ten paintings and five drawings showing different phases of the harvest. Van Gogh completed the series in just over a week during a period of intense production in June 1888. Van Gogh drew and painted outdoors (en plein air) in the sun and wind, as he wished to occupy the same environment as the field workers he admired and experience the intensity of the elements first hand. Van Gogh’s biographers often compare the energy of his landscapes with his own volatile personality and frequent struggles with mental illness. (The artist would end his own life in two short years.) Earlier in the year of 1888, Van Gogh described his own experiences working outdoors to his friend and fellow artist Emile Bernard:

Working directly on the spot all the time, I try to grasp what is essential in the drawing — later I fill in the spaces which are bounded by the contours — either expressed or not, but in any case felt…

In Wheat Field, Van Gogh uses multi-directional brushstrokes and warm color to draw our attention to the sheaves of harvested wheat. The yellow-orange tones are offset by the contrasting blue of the sky, and the tumultuous energy of the foreground contrasts the relative stability of the horizontal bands of fields progressing into the distance.

Van Gogh wrote hundreds of letters to his brother Theo, providing us with insight into his thoughts, feelings, and the frenetic energy expended to produce such remarkable paintings. He describes this intense output in a letter to Theo from July, 1888, written shortly after his harvest paintings were completed:

As for landscapes, I’m beginning to find that some, done more quickly than ever, are among the best things I do. It’s like that with the one of which I sent you the drawing, the harvest and the wheat stacks too…when I come back from a session like that I can assure you my brain is so tired that if that sort of work is repeated often — the way it’s been during this harvest — I become totally distracted and incapable of a whole lot of ordinary things.

This celebrated painting is often requested for loan by national and international institutions. Beginning in the fall of 2021 through May 2022, Wheat Field will be included in Through Vincent’s Eyes: Van Gogh and His Sources  at the Columbus Museum of Art and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. On your next visit to HoMA, be sure to stop and spend a few moments with Wheat Field to experience for yourself this extra-ordinary work by the incomparable Vincent van Gogh.

— Katherine Love, Assistant Curator Contemporary Art