Vincent van Gogh - Lilac Bush 1889

Lilacs 1889
Lilac Bush
Oil on canvas 73.0 x 92.0 cm. Saint-Rémy: May, 1889
St. Petersburg: Hermitage

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From the State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia:
This marvellous work was painted at Saint-Remy, where the artist was undergoing treatment. Van Gogh depicted a lilac bush in the hospital gardens, the broken, separate brushstrokes and vibrant forms recalling the lessons of Impressionism, yet with a spatial dynamism unknown to the Impressionists. This bush is full of powerful, vivid energy and dramatic expression. The modest natural motif is transformed by the master's temperament and the brilliance of his emotions. Embodied here in this fragment of an overgrown garden we find all of nature's life-giving forces. In rejecting Impressionism, Van Gogh created his own artistic language, expressing the artist's romantic, passionate and deeply dramatic perception of the world.

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh. Arles, Tuesday, 18 September 1888.
My dear Theo,
I already wrote to you early this morning, then I went to continue working on a painting of a sunny garden. Then I brought it back — and went out again with a blank canvas and that’s done, too. And now I feel like writing to you again.
Because I’ve never had such good fortune; nature here is extraordinarily beautiful. Everything and everywhere. The dome of the sky is a wonderful blue, the sun has a pale sulphur radiance, and it’s soft and charming, like the combination of celestial blues and yellows in paintings by Vermeer of Delft. I can’t paint as beautifully as that, but it absorbs me so much that I let myself go without thinking about any rule.
That gives me 3 paintings of the gardens facing the house. Then the two cafés. Then the sunflowers. Then Boch’s portrait, and mine. Then the red sun over the factory and the men unloading sand. The old mill. Leaving the other studies aside, you can see that some hard work has been done.
But my colours, my canvas, my wallet are completely exhausted today. The last painting, done with the last tubes on the last canvas, is a naturally green garden, is painted without green as such, with nothing but Prussian blue and chrome yellow. I’m beginning to feel quite different from what I was when I came here, I have no more doubts, I no longer hesitate to tackle something, and that could increase still further.
But what scenery! It’s a public garden where I am, just near the street of the good little ladies, and Mourier, for example, never went there, whereas we used to walk in these gardens almost every day, but on the other side (there are 3 of them). But you’ll understand that it’s precisely that which gives a je ne sais quoi of Boccaccio to the place. That side of the garden is also, for the same reason of chastity or morality, empty of flowering shrubs such as the oleander. It’s ordinary plane trees, pines in tall clumps, a weeping tree and green grass. But it has such intimacy! There are gardens like that by Monet.
As long as you can bear the burden of all the colours, canvas, money that I’m forced to spend, keep on sending me them. Because what I’m preparing will be better than the last consignment, and believe that we’ll gain rather than lose by it. If, that is, I manage to do an ensemble that will hold together. Which I’m trying to do.
But is it absolutely impossible for Thomas to lend me two or three hundred francs on my studies? That would mean that I would earn over a thousand from them, because I couldn’t tell you enough, I’m thrilled, thrilled, thrilled with what I see.
And that gives you yearnings for autumn, a zest that means that time passes without your feeling it. Beware the morning after, beware the winter mistrals.
Today, while actually working, I thought a lot about Bernard. His letter is full of veneration for Gauguin’s talent — he says that he finds him so great an artist that it almost frightens him, and he finds everything that he, Bernard, does, bad in comparison with Gauguin. And you know that last winter Bernard was still trying to pick a quarrel with Gauguin. Ah well, whatever the case, and whatever happens, it’s very consoling that those artists are our friends, and I dare to believe will remain so, no matter how things turn out.

I have such luck with the house — with work — that I even dare believe that blessings won’t come singly, but that you’ll share them for your part, and have good luck too. Some time ago I read an article on Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Giotto, Botticelli; my God, what an impression that made on me, reading those people’s letters!
Now Petrarch was just near here, in Avignon, and I see the same cypresses and oleanders.
I’ve tried to put something of that into one of the gardens, painted with thick impasto, lemon yellow and lemon green. Giotto touched me the most — always suffering and always full of kindness and ardour as if he were already living in a world other than this.
Giotto is extraordinary, anyway, and I feel him more than the poets: Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio.
It always seems to me that poetry is more terrible than painting, although painting is dirtier and more damned annoying, in fact. And after all, the painter says nothing; he keeps quiet, and I like that even better.
My dear Theo, when you’ve seen the cypresses, the oleanders, the sun down here — and that day will come, don’t worry — you’ll think even more often of beautiful works by Puvis de Chavannes: Pleasant land and so many others.
Throughout the Tartarin side and the Daumier side of this funny part of the world, where the good folk have the accent that you know, there’s already so much that’s Greek, and there’s the Venus of Arles, like the one of Lesbos, and you can still feel that youthfulness, despite everything.
I don’t doubt in the very least that one day you too will know the south.
You’ll perhaps go to see Claude Monet when he’s in Antibes, or you’ll find some opportunity, anyway.
When the mistral’s blowing, though, it’s the very opposite of a pleasant land here, because the mistral’s really aggravating. But what a compensation, what a compensation, when there’s a day with no wind. What intensity of colours, what pure air, what serene vibrancy.
Tomorrow I’m going to draw until the colours arrive. But now I’ve reached the point where I’ve made up my mind not to draw a painting in charcoal any more. There’s no point; you have to tackle the drawing with the colour itself in order to draw well.
Ah — the exhibition at the Revue Indépendante — fine — but once and for all — we’re far too much smokers to put the cigar in our mouth the wrong way round.
We’ll be obliged to try to sell, in order to be able to do again, better, the same things sold; that’s because we’re in a lousy trade — but let’s look for something other than the joy of the town, which means grief at home.
This afternoon I had a select audience..... of 4 or 5 pimps and a dozen kids who found it particularly interesting to watch the colours come out of the tubes. Ah, well, that sort of audience — that’s fame, or rather, I have the firm intention of thumbing my nose at ambition and fame, like these kids and these ruffians from the banks of the Rhône and rue du Bout d’Arles.
I was at Milliet’s today; he’s going to come tomorrow, having extended his stay by 4 days. I’d like Bernard to go to do his military service in Africa, because he’d do fine things there, and I still don’t know what to say to him. He said he’d exchange his portrait for one of my studies.
But he said that he daren’t do Gauguin, as I’d asked him, because he feels too shy with Gauguin. Bernard is actually so temperamental!! He’s sometimes crazy and mean, but I’m certainly not the one who has the right to blame him for that, because I know the same neurosis too much myself, and I know that he wouldn’t blame me either. If he went to see Milliet in Africa, Milliet would certainly make friends with him. Because Milliet’s very loyal as a friend, and makes love so easily that he almost has contempt for love.
What’s Seurat doing? I wouldn’t dare show him the studies I’ve already sent, but the ones of the sunflowers and the bars and the gardens, those I’d like him to see — I often think about his system, and yet I won’t follow it at all, but he’s an original colourist, and it’s the same thing for Signac, but to a different degree; the pointillists have found something new, and I like them very much all the same. But I — I say so frankly — I’m returning more to what I was looking for before coming to Paris, and I don’t know if anyone before me has talked about suggestive colour. But Delacroix and Monticelli, while not talking about it, did it.
But I’m again the way I was in Nuenen, when I made a vain attempt to learn music — even then — so strongly did I feel the connections there are between our colour and Wagner’s music. Now it’s true, I see in Impressionism the resurrection of Eugène Delacroix, but the interpretations being both divergent and somewhat irreconcilable, it won’t be Impressionism that will formulate the doctrine. It’s for that reason that I remain among the Impressionists, because that says nothing and commits you to nothing. And being there as a pal, I don’t have to state my position.
My God, you have to play the fool in life; I ask for the time to study, and you, do you ask for anything other than that? But I feel that you must, like me, long to have the peace and quiet needed in order to study with an open mind. And I’m so afraid of taking it away from you with my requests for money.
However, I do so many calculations, and actually today I found that for the ten metres of canvas I had calculated the colours correctly, except for one, the fundamental one of yellow. If all my colours run out at the same time, isn’t that proof that I can sense the relative proportions like a sleep-walker? It’s the way it is with drawing, I hardly measure, and in that I’m quite categorically opposed to Cormon, who says that if he didn’t measure he would draw like a pig.
I think you did quite well, all the same, to buy so many stretching frames, because you have to have a certain number to be able to dry the canvases thoroughly, which preserves them, and I also have a whole lot of them here myself. But you mustn’t hesitate to take them off the stretching frames, so that everything doesn’t take up too much space.
Here I pay 1.50 francs for no. 30, 25, 20 stretching frames, and 1 franc for no. 15, 12, 10. If I have them made by the carpenter.
As carpentry is very expensive here, Tanguy could also supply them if he reckoned them at that price. I’m looking for a frame in light walnut, at 5 francs, for the square no. 30 canvas, and I think I’ll get it. A frame in heavy oak for the no. 10 canvas, portrait, also costs me 5 francs.
I’ve also had to order 5 no. 30 stretching frames for the new canvas, which are already made and which I have to collect. That will prove to you that I can’t be without some money at this period of work. There’s a consolation in that we’re always among raw materials, and aren’t speculating but only trying to produce. And then we can’t go wrong.
I hope it’ll be like that, and if I’m in the inevitable necessity of using up my colours and my canvas and my wallet, you can be sure that that’s not yet the way that we’re to perish.
Even if for your part you use up your purse and what’s in it, true, it’s bad, but say to me calmly: there’s nothing left, then there’ll be more, because of what I’ll have done with it.
But — you’ll say to me, rightly — in the meantime? In the meantime — I’ll draw, because it’s more convenient to do nothing but draw than to paint.
I shake your hand firmly. What days these are, not because of events, but I feel so strongly that we’re not decadents, you and I, and not finished yet, and won’t be, in time to come. But you know that I don’t contradict the critics who will say that my paintings aren’t — finished. I shake your hand, and more soon.
Ever yours,

I’ve read Richepin’s Césarine too — I love what the so-called crazy woman says, all of life is well-constructed equations.