Van Gogh painted The Mulberry Tree in October of 1889, during his stay at the sanitorium Saint-Paul-de-Mausole in Saint-Rémy-en-Provence. He checked into the institution on May 8th, 1889 to recover from a series of mental breakdowns, including the infamous ear incident and a suicide attempt. His time in the asylum was a refuge from the social mores and expectations of everyday life. Even though it was a time for him to gather his strength and repair his mental health, Van Gogh immediately set out to paint as soon as he could.
Initially, Van Gogh was not allowed to leave the asylum’s grounds but he eventually received permission to paint the surrounding countryside so long as an orderly accompanied him. Due to the sequestered location of Saint-Paul, Van Gogh had a limited pool of models to sit for portraits. He didn’t interact much with other patients, so he focused on landscapes.
The Mulberry Tree is an oil painting on a 21 x 26 inch canvas. Currently, it hangs in the Norton-Simon museum of Pasadena, California. Van Gogh described the painting as “…a mulberry tree, all yellow on stony ground standing out against the blue of the sky” (letter 808). It’s a decent summary, even if it lacks the vivaciousness the painting has. He fails to mention the little details that serve to draw the viewer in: the orange bush in the background, how the shadows of other trees and rocks falling across the canvas, the dip in the ground just before the mulberry tree. He leaves out the color – pun intended – of the drawing when he describes it.
The chaotic whirls of the brushstrokes forming the tree branches are one of my favorite things about this painting. The tree seems alive; the branches caught in a breeze. The brushstrokes reflect Van Gogh’s own troubles. A few months prior, he had suffered a setback to his mental health and was struggling to find purpose with it. In a letter to his sister Wilhemina, he commented on “how difficult it is to resume one’s ordinary life without being absolutely too demoralized by the certainty of unhappiness” (letter 812). The mismatched colors of blue in the sky also signal his poor mental health. On the right, it appears that he ran out of the darker blue paint and laid it thickly in the corner of the canvas with hurried strokes.
The drama in the contrast of the pale yellows and greys of the stones and the green orange-yellows of the tree against the dark blue sky are what pull me into this work. Van Gogh picked his colors carefully. The deep blue is part of the tonal shift when he returned to using darker colors after adopting the lighter palette of the Impressionists. He often used it in his night scenes. So why use a blue so dark that it could almost mistake the painting for a night scene? One interpretation is that it represents an oncoming storm. It lumbers over the mulberry tree as a threat to its fiery existence. Van Gogh preferred to paint what he saw, too, so perhaps he saw a storm blow in and was struck by the urge to include it. Another interpretation is based on the autumnal feel to the scene, where the mulberry tree is autumn and the night sky is winter. Autumn is the season of fading away, the step before the finality of winter. Yet the mulberry tree appears to brim with life. The yellow, orange, and green leaves twirl along the branches. It stands defiantly against the encroaching darkness of night and winter, still alive, still living despite the darkness.
The time Vincent van Gogh spent in Saint-Rémy was instrumental in establishing his own art style. He started with what he had learned from his time in Paris and with Gauguin and refined it into a distinctive color palette and art style. It was where he “settled” into his own art style and made more decisions by what he liked and felt was important.