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Vincent van Gogh - Flowering almond tree branches

by Frauke Maria Petry

"Let flowers speak" Joseph Beuys once said. Vincent van Gogh showed him how to do it and was not the first!

On the canvas in the landscape format of 73.5 x 92 cm branched gristly branches. Their tips are lined with delicate flowers. The weave stands out from the background both in terms of color and feel: on closer inspection, despite the limited overall palette, a richness of different shades of blue becomes apparent, resembling the color spectrum of a summer sky. The white flowers and buds feature yellow-pink or red accents. The bright colors contrast with the intense blue tones. However, the gray-green branches seem to partially disappear into the background at their fine ends. The impasto application of paint gives contour to the branches and blossoms; the sky is also composed of several thick brushstrokes. Outlines of the branches clearly delineate the motif from the background. The blossoms are cut at the edges of the picture and seem to take their origin at the lower edge of the picture. The oil painting corresponds to the detail of a budding almond tree.

Vincent van Gogh made "Blossoming Almond Tree Branches" in 1890 in Saint-Rémy as a gift for his newborn nephew. The son of his brother Theodor and his wife Joanna Bonger was born on January 31 of the same year. When the artist learned that the child would be named after him, namely Vincent Willem van Gogh, he immediately set to work on the artwork. In a letter to Theo he wrote: "The last canvas of the flowering branches - you will see that it is perhaps the best, the most patient work I have ever done, painted with calm and greater determination. And the next day, dejected as an inhuman."

Despite its fame, the gift is not the first or only pictorial fixation of an almond branch by the hand of the Dutchman. Already in the spring of 1888, immediately after arriving in Arles, the artist painted 14 pictures of fruit trees within a month. Due to unexpected snowfalls, van Gogh cut the branches of first blooming almond trees to capture them as still lifes. "Flowering Almond Tree Branches in Glass" exists in several versions. Due to the choice of motif, all the paintings are grouped together as a series called "Almond Blossoms".

In the variants, the light, broken brushwork of the Impressionists meets the color splashes of Divisionism. However, the use of the contour line and the choice of perspectives and floral motifs hark back to Japanese traditions: the arrangement in the still life is reminiscent of ikebana, a particular technique of flower arrangement. The cropping of the pictorial motif in "Blossoming Almond Tree Branch" goes back to ukiyo-e prints. Vincent van Gogh had collected several Japanese woodblock prints, including flower studies as well. These may have served as a source of inspiration. Thus, when viewing "Blossoming Almond Tree-Two," it makes it seem as if one is looking into the tree canopy and sky from below. The composition is unique in the work of the Dutchman.

As unusual as the perspective, so apt is the choice of motif: The budding blossoms on the still winter-rigid branches herald the awakening of spring and symbolize the dawn of a new life. The branching of the branches, which protrude from the center of the lower edge of the picture, also allow the association of a family tree. Consequently, van Gogh could not have given his nephew a more fitting gift.

As the artist wrote, the work on the painting cost him a lot of strength. Immediately after completing this last painting from Saint-Rémy, the artist had another attack, which lasted the longest, two months. A short time later he took his own life. But the message of his painting had reached the family: the painting was never sold and hung for a long time in the private rooms of van Gogh's descendants. His nephew and namesake Vincent Willem later founded the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, where the flowers of "Blossoming Almond Branches" have been speaking to everyone since 1994.

Vincent van Gogh - Flowering Almond Branches

Saint-Rémy, February 1890, oil on canvas, 73.5 x 92 cm, Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Ando Hiroshige - Suigin Grove and Masaki on the Sumida River, from One Hundred Views of Edo

Woodcut, Tokyo, 1856


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