My Dutch Culture and Society professor emphasized art in both semesters of the course. For this assignment during the second semester, we had to analyze a Dutch painting in a review format. I chose Wheatfield with Crows by Vincent Van Gogh, an incredibly sad painting, but one with a unique story.
Vincent Van Gogh was a Dutch painter in the nineteenth century, known for expressing imagination and emotion through the use of vivid colors in a post-impressionist style. His painting Wheatfield with Crows, or Krorenveld met Kraaien in Dutch, is suggested to be Van Gogh’s last painting before his alleged suicide that also occurred in 1890. Wheatfield with Crows is a dramatic landscape painting with a dark sky and yellow wheat. A winding road curls from the foreground of the painting, and appears to be cut off, leading to nowhere. It is unclear where the path originates as well, but it is composed to complementary colors. Above the fields flies a murder of crows, moving further into the dark blue sky. The large number of crows is slightly overwhelming and concerning; a viewer might wonder where they came from, or where they are going. Like most of Van Gogh’s art, the painting is oil on canvas. He used an elongated double-square canvas, which draws out the vastness of the fields; this is said to symbolize Van Gogh’s isolation and loneliness late in his life.[i] I agree with the present argument that Wheatfield with Crows was Van Gogh’s final painting is difficult to prove but easy to believe; given that wheatfields were Van Gogh’s only view from inside of his asylum room at Saint-Remy,[ii] such a painting shows isolation, sadness, and hopelessness as the path through the wheatfields, surrounded by crows, abruptly ends.
Van Gogh led a sorrowful life up until his death, and his paintings, specifically Wheatfield with Crows, didn’t fall short in displaying his suffrage. I think the subject matter of the painting and the subtleties that Van Gogh chose to include are relevant to the time when he painted, specifically during his stay at Saint-Remy and during a bout of mental illness. The skies appear turbulent and brewing, suggesting a storm or other disaster will most likely occur in the future. Crows commonly symbolize death or rebirth, and the sheer amount of crows present in Wheatfield with Crows cannot be ignored. The road, however, is the most significant aspect of the painting as it winds and disappears. Van Gogh analyst Kathleen Erickson suggests the road to be a representation of one of Van Gogh’s sermons that references Bunyan’s “Pilgrim Progress,” a tale of a sorrowful a long road that should not be feared as the “Eternal City waits at the journey’s end.”[iii]
To further support the claim that Wheatfield with Crows symbolizes the last few months of Van Gogh’s life, letters from Van Gogh to his brother Theo about the use of wheatfields have been recovered. One letter stated, “[The paintings] depict vast, distended wheatfields under angry skies, and I deliberately tried to express sadness and extreme loneliness in them.”[iv] However, no letters were written during the exact time that this particular painting was completed, and Van Gogh’s state of mind will never truly be known. Some say that Van Gogh was too depressed to write, but well enough to paint.[v] This further exhibits the despair that is present in the painting. Viewing this painting in person at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam evokes deep feelings and sympathy for Van Gogh. I realized that, firstly, the painting is not large in size or grand in appearance, and could easily be overlooked. I could almost feel Van Gogh’s attempt to paint the view from his window at the asylum, only for the painting to take a dark turn with the addition of crows and cut off road, figments of Van Gogh’s own troubled imagination.
Although there is no proof as to whether Wheatfield with Crows is in fact Van Gogh’s last work of art, one can still draw the conclusion that the piece was created during a very dark and isolated time. The suspected suicide’s occurrence in a wheatfield is another indication of their significance as the end of Van Gogh’s life. I would encourage anyone looking to investigate the end of Van Gogh’s life to pay close attention to Wheatfield with Crows. Not only does the painting provide insight on Van Gogh’s final months, but also the skill involved and emotions presented through the sky and winding path are representations of Van Gogh’s life work as a whole. Van Gogh’s legacy lives on through his final pieces, despite how his hardship and despair might be presented through them.
[ii]Hulsker, Jan The Complete Van Gogh. Oxford: Phaidon, 1980.
[iii]Erickson, Kathleen Powers. At Eternity’s Gate: The Spiritual Vision of Vincent van Gogh, 1998
[v]Hulsker, Jan The Complete Van Gogh. Oxford: Phaidon, 1980.