The Dark Side of Van Gogh’s Cypress Trees

Installation view of Van Gogh’s Cypresses at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo by Richard Lee, courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Vincent van Gogh painted this cypress just three months before he took his life. Between 1888 and 1890, during what would become his final chapter, he fixated upon cypresses. Widely understood as a symbol of death, and long associated with graveyards and the macabre, these trees offered an artistic outlet as his own sorrows deepened and his suicidal ideations worsened. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Van Gogh’s Cypresses is the first show to exclusively focus on these works.

Throughout his letters, van Gogh mentions cypresses 37 times. In one cryptic passage, he writes to his brother, Theo, that “[The cypress] is the dark patch in a sun-drenched landscape, but it’s one of the most interesting dark notes, the most difficult to hit off exactly that I can imagine.” In many paintings, the cypress serves literally and figuratively as this dark spot. However, what he meant is never precisely spelled out.

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