Pine Trees against an Evening Sky, 1889 by Van Gogh

Pine Trees against an Evening Sky, 1889 by Van Gogh
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Van Gogh achieved his most beautiful effect of branches with foliage against the sky in the Pine Trees against an Evening Sky In reality, the scale of the overall scene is such that it cannot be taken in at one glance, and to paint the trees and the sky like that Van Gogh would have had to gaze up above his head. The artist was of the opinion that the picture he provided here of the asylum was fairly pleasant and his aim had indeed been to 'reconstruct it as it might have been by simplifying and accentuating the proud and immutable character of the pines and the clumps of cedar against the blue'.

While Eugene Delacroix provided the model for tackling branches and foliage, there may well have been another link with the French artist in the case of Pine Trees against an Evening Sky. Throughout his life, Van Gogh was fascinated by the restless idealism of Delacroix, scarcely tamed by death, as described by the French critic Theophile Silvestre. Van Gogh was fond of quoting from memory the rousing conclusion of Silvestre's tribute to Delacroix: 'Thus did Eugene Delacroix die, almost smiling - a painter of the greatest kind - who had a sun in his head and a storm in his heart'.

Van Gogh probably incorporated this metaphor of life as struggle in this spirited if somewhat macabre sunset with a woman battling against a stiff breeze. The transience of life is symbolized by the very conspicuously broken tree trunks and branches, and the colour palette has also been selected with a particular aim in mind. As in the Garden of the Asylum in Saint-Remy, Van Gogh apparently uses dark hues and juxtaposed with red to evoke the indefinable anxiety described by patients in the asylum as 'noir-rouge'.

The colour effect was reduced when the work was later retouched. Van Gogh was apparently struck by the need to alter the canvas while writing a letter to his sister: 'Then I took a colour which is on the palette, a dull and dirty white you get when you mix white with green and a little carmine. I daubed this greenish tone all over the sky and behold: at a distance, it softens the tones, yet you would think you were messing up and soiling the canvas'. It looks as if Van Gogh retouched more than the sky, because the light tone is also present in the ground and the mass of pine needles. The artist must have been proud of the final result because the canvas is one of only seven paintings from Saint-Remy which he signed.