From The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Fine Art:
This is a late work by van Gogh executed at a time when his style was at its most agitated and expressive. It is one of a series of olive orchards painted while the artist was a patient at the asylum at Saint Rémy in Provence, where he had committed himself after suffering a series of mental breakdowns. Van Gogh refers to the painting in a letter of July 1889 as an orchard of olive trees with gray leaves, "their violet shadows lying on the sunny sand." These shadows admirably convey the scorching heat of the Provençal sun, and the repetitive, rectangular brush strokes establish curving patterns of energy that heighten the emotional effect.
Purchase: Nelson Trust, 32-2
Paul Gauguin to Vincent van Gogh. Pont-Aven, Monday, 1 October 1888.
My dear Vincent
We’ve satisfied your desire; in a different way, it’s true, but what does it matter, since the result is the same? Our 2 portraits. Having no silver white, I used lead white, and it could well happen that the colour becomes darker and heavier. And besides, it’s not done exclusively from the point of view of colour. I feel the need to explain what I was trying to do, not that you’re not capable of guessing by yourself, but because I don’t believe that I’ve achieved it in my work. The mask of a thief, badly dressed and powerful like Jean Valjean, who has his nobility and inner gentleness. The rutting blood floods the face, and the tones of a fiery smithy, which surround the eyes, suggest the red-hot lava that sets our painters’ souls ablaze. The drawing of the eyes and the nose, like the flowers in Persian carpets, epitomizes an abstract and symbolic art. That girlish little background, with its childish flowers, is there to testify to our artistic virginity. And that Jean Valjean, whom society oppresses, outlawed; with his love, his strength, isn’t he too the image of an Impressionist today? By doing him with my features, you have my individual image, as well as a portrait of us all, poor victims of society, taking our revenge on it by doing good — ah! my dear Vincent, you would have plenty to amuse you, seeing all these painters here, pickled in their mediocrity like gherkins in vinegar. Makes no difference whether they’re fat, long or twisted and warty, they’re still, and will always be, nitwit gherkins. Eugène, just look at him! Eugène, that’s Habert, Habert’s the one who killed Dupuis, you know... And his pretty wife and his old mother, and the whole bloody lot! And Eugène paints, writes for the newspapers, travels free in First class, sir. There’s enough there to make you laugh till you cry. Aside from his art, what a lousy existence, and was it worth the trouble that Jesus died for all these lousy buffoons? As an artist, yes; as a reformer, I don’t believe so. Our pal Bernard is working and making plans to come to Arles too. Laval, whom you don’t know, but who knows you through your letters and our little bits of gossip, joins us in shaking your hand.