For Vincent van Gogh, nature was the defining subject of his art. Over the course of his short but intense working life, Van Gogh studied and depicted nature in all its forms—from the minutiae of insects and birds’ nests to the most sweeping of panoramic landscapes—creating a body of work that revolutionized the representation of the natural world at the end of the nineteenth century.
Van Gogh’s love of nature was rooted in his love of the art of his time, both the landscapes created by Barbizon School artists and the highly-keyed, quickly brushed paintings of the Impressionists, but he brought a personal passion and subjective sensibility to his work. Much of the artist’s adult life was devoted to drawing and painting the natural world. Van Gogh was a thoughtful and meticulous student of nature who found solace and personal fulfillment in studying and enjoying the natural world.
From his earliest letters to his last great drawings and paintings, Van Gogh showed an extraordinary fascination with the natural world. Youthful studies of trees, flowers, and heath-land were accompanied by verbal descriptions of the changing seasons, while increasingly ambitious pictures showed many aspects of the Dutch landscape. In 1874 he wrote to his brother Theo: “Always continue walking a lot and loving nature, for that’s the real way to learn to understand art better and better. Painters understand nature and love it, and teach us to see.”
In Van Gogh’s earliest works he depicted Holland as a country with distinctive topography, weather, and flora and fauna. Well educated and with some knowledge of botany and natural history, the artist’s correspondence showed a precocious awareness of bird, flower, tree, and plant species from his immediate environment. His travels to England, Belgium, and France brought new encounters with nature and a shift from the biblical perspectives of his youth to modern attitudes influenced by contemporary authors and expanding scientific knowledge. Late in his life, most notably while in Arles and Saint-Rémy, Van Gogh painted elemental landscapes in snow, wind, rain, and sunshine, while making incisive images of insects, leaves, and rocks that reflect his knowledge of museums and illustrated publications.
Van Gogh moved to Paris in early 1886, not only putting Holland behind him but also confronting many of the values and preoccupations of modern Europe. Long familiar with the novels of Zola, Daudet, and the Goncourt brothers, he tackled their city in paint and responded to its curious conjunctions of new and old, the natural and the artificial. Rather than paint the grand boulevards of Paris, Van Gogh chose the village of Montmartre and other suburban areas, discovering dense thickets in urban parks where sunlight barely reached through the gloom.
The most dramatic shift in Van Gogh’s engagement with nature undoubtedly occurred when he moved to Provence in 1888. Little noticed until now are a number of drawings and other studies from this period that record Van Gogh’s scrutiny of individual flowers, insects, and birds, reminding us of his early education and his enquiring mind. At the other extreme, the artist often emphasized the dramatic rhythms of the landscape itself, in which fields and trees resonate in unison and entire hillsides seem animated.
Several of these preoccupations continued into the artist’s last months at Auvers, set in the lushness of northwest France. Van Gogh celebrated the fecundity of this new setting and the drama of clouds and rain-filled skies until his final days.
“If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere”
-Vincent Van Gogh