This sprawling, golden wheat field in Auvers-sur-Oise was the subject that captured van Gogh's imagination during the final weeks of his life. Looking out over the rolling hills of this fragrant countryside, he set up his easel and painted the expanse of wild flowers and tall wheat-sheaves rustling in the breeze. The Fields (Wheat Fields) belongs to series of spectacular canvases painted around July 10, 1890, just weeks before the harvest. Van Gogh was all but consumed by his depressive illness at this point, and it was in these very fields only a few days after he completed this work that he would attempt to take his life. None of that turmoil, however, is evident in this glorious picture, which reads as a vibrant celebration of the land's plenty.
Van Gogh spent his last months in the town of Auvers, where he rented a room at the pleasant Ravoux Inn. Every day he would set off with his painting materials into the nearby farmlands, settle on a particular spot, and fully absorb himself in his work. In early July he began a series of landscapes, most of them around 50 centimeters in width, that depicted the area's ubiquitous fields of wheat (see fig. 1). The fields appear dappled in bright sunlight in many of these pictures (see fig. 2). In others, the scene is more foreboding, with dark and menacingly cloudy skies (see fig. 3), as in the case of his ominous Wheat Field under Threatening Skies with Crows (see fig. 4 ). Given the intense yellow of the harvest-ready grain here, Walter Feilchenfeldt has proposed that the present picture was probably painted in mid-July and was one of the last landscapes the artist ever completed. All of these brilliantly colorful works are composed with a rhythmic, stroke-by-stroke application of paint, and the rich surface texture created by this controlled technique resonates with emotion.
We know from his letters that van Gogh was particularly agitated while he worked on this series, and indeed, scholars have scrutinized these pictures for clues about artist's fragile psyche. Jan Hulsker has commented that "the large landscapes that Vincent was painting in the course of July were increasingly an expression of his innermost feelings" (Hulsker, op. cit., p. 476). In van Gogh's correspondence with his brother Theo, he told of the "extreme sadness and loneliness" expressed by these pictures. But in another, more upbeat letter to his mother and his sister, he describes what he was thinking as he looked upon this vista as it shimmered under the noon-day sun: "I myself am quite absorbed in the immense plain with wheat fields against the hills, boundless as a sea, delicate yellow, delicate soft green, the delicate violet of a ploughed and weeded piece of ground, checkered at regular intervals with the green of flowering potato plants, everything under a sky of delicate blue, white, pink, violet tone" (letter 650).
The Fields was one of the canvases that hung in van Gogh's room in the Ravoux Inn at the time of his death, and Theo was so moved by the strength of this picture that he decided not to sell it. Feilchenfeldt pointed out that this work is related to two larger versions of this particular view (F.781, Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburg, see fig. 5 and F.782, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich), and because of its more intimate scale it was one of the few works in the artist's estate meant to be retained by the family. It remained with Theo's wife, Johanna, until 1907, when it was finally sold through the dealer Paul Cassirer to the Berlin department store tycoon, Hermann Freudenberg. Before that, Johanna included it in exhibitions in Hamburg, Dresden, Vienna and an important van Gogh retrospective at Cassirer's gallery in Berlin. On the occassion of the Berlin exhibition, the artist August Endell wrote the following critique about the works on display and on the genius of the artist who created them: "All in all, an amazing and overpowering wealth of creativity, rich in new methods and new problems. An innovator who does not rehash romantic weakness or repeat with artful skill what others have said before him, one who knows how to see and how to say what nobody before him had seen, who feels and understands the abundance of nature and knows how to recreate its immense beauty....A miracle, and at the same time, an enigma. What ill fortune could have brought this great power to such an end?" (August Endell, "Vincent van Gogh," Freistatt, June 17, 1905, reprinted in Susan Alyson Stein, ed., Van Gogh, A Retrospective, New York, 1986, p. 333).
The Fields is recorded in J.-B. de la Faille's first catalogue raisonné, published in 1928, as no. 761. Feilchenfeldt indicated that although it is omitted from de la Faille's 1938 study of the artist's work, the author corrected this error by the following handwritten and signed statement, dated November 26, 1956: "The painting reproduced on the back of this photograph is described and reproduced in my Catalogue raisonné of 1927 under no. 761. It is left out from the 1938 edition. This omission is an error which I regretted very much. I herewith declare that this painting will be included as genuine in the next edition of my catalogue raisonné. I consider this painting as an authentic work by Vincent van Gogh". De la Faille subsequently published this picture in his 1970 definitive catalogue raisonné on van Gogh's paintings. For six years this work was exhibited at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
We are grateful to Walter Feilchenfeldt for his assistance in the preparation of this catalogue entry.
Fig. 1, A contemporary postcard of Auvers-sur-Oise, circa 1905
Fig. 2, Vincent van Gogh, Wheat Field, July 1890, Fondation Beyeler, Basel
Fig. 3, Vincent van Gogh, The Field under a Stormy Sky, Auvers-sur-Oise, July 1890, oil on canvas, Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam
Fig. 4, Vincent van Gogh, Wheat Field under Threatening Skies with Crows, Auvers-sur-Oise, July 1890, oil on canvas, Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam
Fig. 5, Vincent van Gogh, Wheat Field, July 1890, oil on canvas, Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburg
Oil on canvas
Vincent van Gogh
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Vincent van Gogh, 1905, no. 229
19 ¾ by 25 ½ in. 50 by 65 cm
Andries Bonger list of 1890: No.268 Champs ensoleillés T.15
Jacob-Baart de la Faille, L'oeuvre de Vincent van Gogh, vol. 1, Brussels 1928, no. 761, catalogued p. 215; vol. 2, illustrated pl. CCXV
Jacob-Baart de la Faille, The Works of Vincent van Gogh: His Paintings and Drawings, Amsterdam, 1970, no. 761, illustrated p. 293 (titled The Fields)
Paolo Lecaidano, L'Opera completa pittorica, Milan, 1971, no. 858, illustrated pl. CXXII
Walter Feilchenfeldt, Van Gogh & Paul Cassirer, Berlin, Zwolle, 1988, p. 118
Ingo F. Walter and Rainer Metzger, Vincent van Gogh: Sämtliche Gemälde, Cologne, 1989, vol. 2, illustrated p. 693
Jan Hulsker, The New Complete Van Gogh, Paintings, Drawings, Sketches, Amsterdam, 1996, no. 2120, illustrated p. 482 (titled Wheat Fields, as dating from circa June 10, 1890)
Fluchtgut - Raubgut, Der Transfer von Kulturgütern in und über die Schweiz 1933-1945 und die Frage der Restitution, Zürich, 2001, p. 104, referenced in footnote 258
Walter Feilchenfeldt, By Appointment Only, London, 2006, illustrated cover and p. 39
Johanna van Gogh- Bonger, Amsterdam (by descent from the artist)
Paul Cassirer Art Gallery, Berlin (acquired from the above)
Hermann Freudenberg, Nikolassee (acquired from the above on January 25, 1907)
Dr. Alexander Lewin, Guben, Monaco, Amsterdam and New York (acquired before 1933; from September 17, 1938 until March 18, 1940 stored by Paul Cassirer, Amsterdam then shipped for Alexander Lewin to Geneva)
Alix Kurz, née Lewin, Hastings, New York (daughter of the above, by descent in 1946)
Walter Feilchenfeldt Art Gallery, Zürich (on consignment from the above in 1948)
Alfred Hausammann, Zürich (acquired from the above in 1948)
Rolf Hausammann, Pfäffikon (son of the above, by descent)
Private Collection, Zürich