National Gallery to display van Gogh’s ‘final gasp,’ not seen publicly since 1966


Vincent Van Gogh. “Green Wheat Fields, Auvers,” 1890 Oil on canvas. (Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington)
December 19, 2013

Christmas came early at the National Gallery of Art, which has just received Vincent van Gogh’s “Green Wheat Fields, Auvers” from the estate of museum benefactor Paul Mellon. The painting will go on display Friday in the Gallery’s West Building and will hang between two other works by van Gogh: the still life “Roses” and the portrait “La Mousmé.” “Green Wheat Fields, Auvers,” which depicts the French countryside, was painted months before the artist’s death in 1890. It is the ninth van Gogh painting to enter the National Gallery’s collection.

The story behind the work adds to its power. During the spring of 1890, van Gogh painted many “pure landscapes” following his voluntary confinement in an asylum. Mary Morton, curator of French paintings at the museum, says the tranquility of “Green Wheat Fields, Auvers” runs counter to the narrative of a tormented van Gogh, whose lifelong struggle with mental illness ended in suicide. Unlike his haunting “Wheat Field With Crows,” which some scholars say is van Gogh’s last work, many works in the “Auvers” period depict calm landscapes, a respite from his torment.

“He was struggling with mental illness, but seemed to take comfort in nature toward the end of his life,” Morton said, calling the painting “a final gasp.” Morton also notes that unlike many of his landscapes, which include buildings, stone walls and trees, this work eliminated figures, depicting only wind-blown grasses and clouds.

Morton said the painting ranks next to “Roses” and “La Mousmé” in terms of its importance and condition. Van Gogh often used cheap paints that faded easily. Morton noted that the painting’s good condition is partially due to its cool palette, as warm colors tend to fade more over time.

Van Gogh scholars are likely to be thrilled that the work is once again in the public domain. The painting has not been displayed publicly since 1966. Mellon’s wife, Rachel Lambert Mellon, has held the rights to the painting since his death in 1999. This year, she relinquished the remainder of her estate, allowing the museum to display the work. Until recently, the painting hung over the fireplace in the Mellons’ Upperville, Va., home.

Katherine Boyle reports on arts, museums and culture for the Style section.
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