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Color My World

The color of feelings
Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853–90)<br><b><i>Olive Trees</b></i>, 1889<br>Oil on canvas
zoom Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853–90)
Olive Trees, 1889
Oil on canvas


“The color is exquisite here. . . . When it gets scorched and dusty, it does not lose its beauty, for then the landscape gets tones of gold of various tints, green-gold, yellow-gold, pink-gold . . .”

Vincent van Gogh wrote these words to his sister Wil soon after moving to the south of France. He contrasted his colorful surroundings with the northern landscape of their native Holland. “The sun in these parts, that is something different.”

Earlier, van Gogh had lived in Paris, where he and other painters had argued hotly about how to make colors appear most vivid. Van Gogh longed for a landscape to match the intensity of his ideas. The south of France promised just such a colorful world. During two years there, he made hundreds of paintings.

In Olive Trees, sunlight pulses across the sky—not the blue sky you might expect, but a yellow sky that seems to radiate heat. Under the trees, the dark shadows are shockingly blue, offering cool relief from the orange of the sunburned ground. The olive trees struggle toward the sky yet stay firmly rooted in the earth.

Van Gogh makes us sense the French landscape physically, but his pictures go deeper. He was a very religious man. For him, every landscape had a spiritual quality, which shows in the picture’s quivering energy. This unsettling energy may also reveal some of van Gogh’s inner feelings. He was long troubled by spells of mental illness and was a patient in an asylum when he painted this picture. Within a year he had ended his life.

November 2004