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AMSTERDAM — The ominous imagery of Vincent van Gogh’s “Wheatfield with Crows” (1890) practically paints the image of the Dutch artist’s final days on earth. Blackbirds haunt the darkening sky above the dust-ridden farmland — a literal murder of crows who portentously circle above the famed painter’s one-eared head. “This is the last picture that Van Gogh painted before he killed himself,” writes John Berger in the opening pages of his magnum opus, Ways of Seeing.
Except it wasn’t.
Scholars at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam are correcting the historical record by degrees of subtlety, writing wall texts for the institution that indicate a different attribution. According to their research, a more obscure painting named “Tree Roots” (1890) is the likeliest final painting made by the artist.
“Already at the beginning of the 20th century, it was thought that ‘Wheatfield with Crows’ was one of Van Gogh’s last paintings,” explained Teio Meedendorp, a researcher at the museum, over email. “Even when it became quite clear from [the artist’s] letters that the painting originated July 10, 1890 (c. 2.5 weeks before his death), the ‘myth’ persisted in popular culture.”
Before his death in late-July 1890 at age 37, Van Gogh created more than 900 works. A fastidious draftsman, he rarely left a painting unfinished. And as art historians Bert Maes and Louis van Tilborgh argue in a 2012 essay about “Tree Roots,” this fact indicates that an incomplete work was likely the artist’s last. There are only two unfinished paintings from Van Gogh’s final days in Auvers, France: the aforementioned landscape and “Farms near Auvers.”
Researchers at the Van Gogh Museum have also been able to limit the scope of their inquiry by trusting the words of Andries Bonger, the brother of Theo van Gogh’s wife, who in 1891 submitted “Farms near Auvers” to the Salon des Indépendants as “Village, last sketch.” However, he described a different painting to a newspaper only two years later. “The morning before his death, [Van Gogh] had painted an underwood full of sun and life,” Bonger wrote.
The above description perfectly suits “Tree Roots,” which is an almost incomprehensible image of tangled foliage and branches flooded by a golden sunlight. Given the strange, arabesque twists of Van Gogh’s roots, it’s almost impossible to distinguish them as vegetation. Rather, the viewer might mistake them for whole trees themselves, or posts underneath some unseen structure. In reality, Van Gogh’s painting looks so strange because it illustrates the root system hanging in midair, as if it came from the sideways stump of a felled tree.
Some prevailing beliefs about the advance of Van Gogh’s style corroborate the notion that “Tree Roots” is the final painting. One says that the Dutch artist’s paintings became more abstract as he became more mentally unstable, edging toward suicide. Surely, this composition is far more abstract than both “Wheatfield” and “Farms.” The ambiguity of this composition stunned researchers, who have sometimes argued that the roots are vines and that the backgrounds is less parts sunshine than it is sandy soil. (For the record, Maes and Van Tilborgh claim that the Auvers soil was more chalky than it was sandy.) There is clear improvisation in “Tree Roots,” demonstrating Van Gogh’s ability to experiment with perspective and three-dimensional space.
A bolder, wilder interpretation of impressionism, Van Gogh’s use of color and geometric form here is somewhat reminiscent of the aesthetic deployed by friends, including Paul Gauguin and Émile Bernard. Researchers assume that the yellow hues apparent in “Tree Roots” would have been much stronger when originally painted, but because Van Gogh likely used an unstable pigment called geranium lake, the colors have faded over time.
Even though the debate continues vis-a-vis “Tree Roots” and “Auvers” for the title of Van Gogh’s final painting, evidence is clear about tossing “Wheatfield” out the proverbial window. Why, then, does its myth persist in popular culture?
Meedendorp points to Irving Stone’s bestselling novel about the artist from the 1930s, which depicts Van Gogh committing suicide a day after having painted “Wheatfield.” This impression got a boost from Vincente Minelli’s famous 1956 adaptation of the novel, called Lust for Life. The misconception has propelled into the social conscious from there. After all, there was artist Julian Schnabel’s 2018 film about the artist, At Eternity’s Gate, which plays with the image of the wheatfield. In 2002, there was even an adaptation of Van Gogh’s life story set within the modern day music industry (because, why not). The movie’s name? Wheatfield with Crows.