'The painting pulsates with energy, rhythm and colours, some now fading.'

Landscape at Saint-Rémy (Enclosed Field with Peasant), 1889, by Vincent van Gogh (1853–90), 30in by 371⁄2in, Indianapolis Museum of Art, USA.

Hughie O’Donoghue says:
I look at art all the time, but few artists really connect with me in a powerful and visceral way. Van Gogh is an exception—I look at his paintings when I need to remind myself of what is essential. I have stood in that field, behind the asylum of St Paul de Mausole, on many occasions. Van Gogh may not be the greatest painter, but he is the most compelling artist. The painting pulsates with energy, rhythm and colours, some now fading. It was made late in 1889, when the artist knew he was running out of time. At its heart is a figure carrying a bundle of straw—a metaphor, unconscious perhaps, for how van Gogh saw himself in his last few months, a man with a burden.

Hughie O’Donoghue is an artist and Royal Academician. His exhibition ‘Permanent Green’ opens today at Marlborough Fine Art, London W1 (until May 30).

John McEwen comments:
Van Gogh’s dream of establishing an artist’s colony seemed on course when Gauguin came to stay and work with him in Arles in october 1888. But tensions soon appeared. Van Gogh suffered a nervous breakdown and, on December 23, cut off part of his ear. his ever-supportive, art-dealer brother Theo visited and Gauguin returned to Paris. Van Gogh suffered recurring breakdowns, diagnosed as epilepsy, and finally agreed to enter the Saint-Rémy asylum in May 1889.

‘I feel tempted to begin again with the simpler colours,’ he wrote to Theo. In June, he was allowed beyond the asylum’s walled garden and Theo’s latest shipment of canvas, paints and brushes arrived. In one of his paintings of an ‘enclosed field’, with the Les Alpilles mountains behind, during the summer harvest, there was a single worker, whom he saw as ‘the image of death’, reaping humanity in full sunshine, not morosely.

Mr o’Donoghue’s choice was painted in October: ‘It’s another harsh study, and instead of being almost entirely yellow it makes an almost completely violet canvas… I think that this will complement the reaper… I seriously ask you to show them together,’ van Gogh wrote to Theo. The complementary effect is now lost. As Mr o’Donoghue says, the purple has faded, probably because van Gogh used light-sensitive geranium lake, which gradually disappears if mixed with other pigments.

Death’s work was, indeed, almost done. Van Gogh is believed to have shot himself on July 27, 1890—he died about 30 hours later with Theo at his bedside. Theo, who had married in April 1889, died in January 1891, broken and syphilitic. It was his widow Johanna’s efforts that made van Gogh famous.

This article was originally published in Country Life, April 22, 2015

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