Van Gogh Museum suggests artist's last painting has long been misidentified
Van Gogh Museum suggests artist's last painting has long been misidentified Vincent van Gogh, "Tree Roots," 1890. (Public domain)
Van Gogh Museum suggests artist's last painting has long been misidentified
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It’s easy to see why many art lovers are quick to identify “Wheatfield With Crows” as Vincent van Gogh’s last painting. The scene screams tragedy. That's because of the darkening storm clouds visible on the horizon and staccato brushstrokes of the painting’s eponymous birds.

But a major piece of evidence contradicts this attribution. The evidence is a letter written by the Post-Impressionist that dates the work’s creation closer to July 10, 1890. That is a full two-and-a-half weeks before he committed suicide. That's according to Zachary Small reporting for Hyperallergic. Researchers from Amsterdam’s Vincent van Gogh Museum now believe that a lesser-known canvas titled “Tree Roots” was actually the artist’s final work.

The shift in thinking isn’t an entirely new development. Art historians Bert Maes and Louis van Tilborgh made a convincing argument for the painting’s place in van Gogh’s oeuvre in 2012. They point out that “Tree Roots” is one of only two unfinished works dating to the artist’s final days. Van Gogh rarely left canvases incomplete, according to Small.

A 2016 show, staged at the Van Gogh Museum, further reinforced the attribution. The painting’s accompanying wall text explicitly identified “Tree Roots” as van Gogh’s probable last work. Curators were eager to dismiss “sensational interpretations” of “Wheatfield with Crows” as a manifestation of the artist’s inner strife. That was from a review for the Guardian written by Jonathan Jones.

By emphasizing “Tree Roots” over the better-known work the museum revealed how its “jagged strokes, expressive unreal colors … and empty areas of canvas are just as suggestive as those menacing crows.” That is what Jones argued.

Hyperallergic’s Small details several additional arguments for “Tree Roots”’s true place in van Gogh’s oeuvre. Some researchers believe the artist’s style grew more disjointed toward the end of his life. They believe his style embraced abstraction to an extent unseen in earlier works. 

Indeed, the subject of “Tree Roots” is decidedly harder to discern than that of “Wheatfield With Crows” or “Farms Near Auvers.” It is the only other unfinished work produced during van Gogh’s twilight months. He spent that time in the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise.

Theo van Gogh’s brother-in-law was Andries Bonger. He identified “Farms Near Auvers” as van Gogh’s last work in an 1891 statement. He later highlighted an entirely different canvas, writing, “The morning before his death, [van Gogh] had painted a sous bois,” or forest scene, “full of sun and life.””

This description fits “Tree Roots,” which breaks from the ominous tone of “Wheatfield With Crows.” It offers a palette filled with a sea of subdued blues, greens and browns. 

“The roots have been laid bare, torn from the earth and hanging perilously,” said senior researcher Louis van Tilborgh. He is co-author of a 2012 article regarding “Tree Roots.” He explained this for a 2016 Van Gogh Museum video analyzing the painting.

In some ways, the painting appears to function as a goodbye. Interpreting the message of the work, Van Tilborgh suggests it's van Gogh's way of saying: “I have lived, just like those tree roots. I’ve done my best. I’ve struggled with life, I’ve grown, had setbacks and now is the time it ends. I am falling."

The artist's personal correspondence certainly follows Tilborgh's nature-based metaphor. As van Gogh wrote in a July 10,1890, letter to his brother Theo and wife Jo, “I usually try to be quite good-humoured, but my life, too, is attacked at the very root, my step also is faltering.”

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