Vincent Van Gogh’s Final Painting: Discover Tree Roots, the Last Creative Act of the Dutch Painter (1890)

The sto­ry of Vin­cent van Gogh’s life tends to be defined by his psy­cho­log­i­cal con­di­tion and the not-unre­lat­ed man­ner of his death. (It does if we set aside the episode with the muti­lat­ed ear and the broth­el, any­way.) The fig­ure of the impov­er­ished, neglect­ed artist whose work would rev­o­lu­tion­ize his medi­um, and whose descent into mad­ness ulti­mate­ly drove him to take his own life, has proven irre­sistible to mod­ern sto­ry­tellers. That group includes painter-film­mak­er Julian Schn­abel, who told Van Gogh’s sto­ry a few years ago with At Eter­ni­ty’s Gate, and Vin­cente Min­nel­li, who’d ear­li­er giv­en it the full Cin­e­maS­cope treat­ment in 1956 with Lust for Life.

It is thanks in large part to Lust for Life that casu­al Van Gogh fans long regard­ed Wheat­field with Crows as his final paint­ing. “The paint­ing’s dark and gloomy sub­ject mat­ter seemed to per­fect­ly encap­su­late the last days of Van Gogh, full of fore­bod­ing of his even­tu­al death,” says gal­lerist-Youtu­ber James Payne in his new Great Art Explained video above.

Recent­ly, how­ev­er, the con­sen­sus has shift­ed toward a dif­fer­ent, less­er-known work, Tree Roots. Like Wheat­field with Crows, Van Gogh paint­ed it in the rur­al vil­lage of Auvers-sur-Oise, to which he moved after check­ing out of the last asy­lum in which he’d received treat­ment. There, in his final weeks, he “worked on a series of land­scapes on the hills above Auvers,” all ren­dered on wide-for­mat can­vas­es he’d nev­er used before.

That this series con­sists of “vast expans­es, total­ly devoid of any human fig­ures” makes it look “as if he has giv­en up on human­i­ty.” What’s more, Tree Roots is also “devoid of form. It is unfin­ished, which is extreme­ly unusu­al for Van Gogh, and a sign it was still being worked on when he died.” Its obscure loca­tion only became clear dur­ing the time of COVID-19, when Van Gogh spe­cial­ist Wouter van der Veen was look­ing through a cache of old French post­cards he’d received and hap­pened to spot a high­ly famil­iar set of roots. Thanks to this coin­ci­dence, we can now vis­it the very spot in which Van Gogh paint­ed what’s now thought to be his very last work on the morn­ing of July 27th, 1890, the same day he chose to end his own life. This counts as a mys­tery solved, but sure­ly the art Van Gogh made dur­ing his abbre­vi­at­ed but prodi­gious career still has much to reveal to us.

Relat­ed con­tent:

1,500 Paint­ings & Draw­ings by Vin­cent van Gogh Have Been Dig­i­tized & Put Online

Vin­cent van Gogh’s The Star­ry Night: Why It’s a Great Paint­ing in 15 Min­utes

Down­load Vin­cent van Gogh’s Col­lec­tion of 500 Japan­ese Prints, Which Inspired Him to Cre­ate “the Art of the Future”

Vin­cent van Gogh’s Self Por­traits: Explore & Down­load a Col­lec­tion of 17 Paint­ings Free Online

A Com­plete Archive of Vin­cent van Gogh’s Let­ters: Beau­ti­ful­ly Illus­trat­ed and Ful­ly Anno­tat­ed

Van Gogh’s Ugli­est Mas­ter­piece: A Break Down of His Late, Great Paint­ing, The Night Café (1888)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Keith Crossley says:

    It’s not just “see­ing” a Van Gogh site.

    My daugh­ter and I were dri­ving some­where between Arles and St. Remy. Very windy day. And I sud­den­ly told her “quick, take a pic­ture of those trees!”.

    It was a row of cypress. In the wind they were twist­ing and churn­ing as if being tor­tured. That is the emo­tion I now per­ceive in the cypress paint­ing.

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