Van Gogh and the Seasons

Melbourne Winter Masterpieces 2017

NGV International

28 Apr 17 – 12 Jul 17

The National Gallery of Victoria, in partnership with Art Exhibitions Australia, presents Van Gogh and the Seasons for the 2017 Melbourne Winter Masterpieces exhibition. Curated by Sjraar van Heugten, independent art historian and former Head of Collections at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Van Gogh and the Seasons is exclusive to Melbourne and presents the largest collection of Van Gogh artworks to ever travel to Australia.

Van Gogh and the Seasons is presented within sections devoted to each of the four seasons. Viewers are invited to explore Van Gogh’s profound connection to nature through nearly 50 paintings and drawings, many of which depict places that were the setting for defining moments in the artist’s tumultuous life. Drawing extensively from Van Gogh’s personal letters and research into his interest in literature and nature, Van Gogh and the Seasons provides insight into the influences and themes that dominate much of this visionary artist’s work.

Van Gogh and the Seasons features works lent by leading international museums, including the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, and the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, which respectively holds the largest and second largest collection of Van Gogh’s works in the world.

The exhibition is accompanied by a scholarly catalogue, a children’s publication, a suite of programs including talks, tours, events and NGV Friday Nights featuring live music, bars and dining.

The exhibition is organised by the National Gallery of Victoria and Art Exhibitions Australia

Multimedia Guide

Narrated by David Stratton, film reviewer and historian, with the voice of Van Gogh read by David Wenham, film, theatre and television actor.

Pre-loaded devices available for hire from the Ticket Desk.

Listen to the Multimedia Guide online


The changing seasons were an aspect of nature that Vincent van Gogh found particularly captivating. They represented the ever-continuing cycle of nature – birth, bloom, maturity, death – which, naturally, is also the life cycle of humanity. The cycle of the seasons demonstrated for him the greatness of nature and the existence of a higher force. Van Gogh was a very religious person as a young man, but he developed a certain pantheist view of life during his years as an artist.

Van Gogh experienced a feeling of eternity in the passing of the seasons, a sentiment that would become essential to his work. In June 1885 he wrote: ‘It is something to be deep in the snow in winter, to be deep in the yellow leaves in the autumn, to be deep in the ripe wheat in the summer, to be deep in the grass in the spring. It is something to always be with the mowers and the peasant girls, in summer with the big sky above, in the winter by the black fireplace. And to feel – this has always been so and always will be’.

His oeuvre contains depictions of the seasons not only in the form of landscapes representing spring, summer, autumn or winter but also portrayals of people engaged in seasonal work, such as reaping the wheat (summer), sowing a crop and harvesting the grapes (autumn) and gathering wood in the snow (winter). Still lifes by Van Gogh are also often clearly connected with particular seasons, not only his flower still lifes of spring or summer bouquets but also compositions featuring the bounty of the autumn harvest, including potatoes, apples and pumpkins – works that can justifiably be described as rural still lifes. He constantly found inspiration for these subjects in visual art and literature as well as in nature itself.

Van Gogh deeply loved nature and had a lifelong fascination for the four seasons and their associations with human life. Van Gogh chose the theme of the four seasons for a series of watercolours while living and working as an artist in The Hague (1881–83), and other works from that time also reveal an early interest in the seasons. Van Gogh knowingly placed himself within a long and rich tradition with this subject. Representations of the seasons, symbolised by human activities, have been an important theme in art since the Middle Ages and continued to be a great source of inspiration for the French School of Barbizon painters, whom Van Gogh admired.

Van Gogh made paintings and drawings depicting the different seasons throughout his later career, although not necessarily as a series, and continued to link them to the life of the peasants, as in his many drawings of peasants harvesting dating to the summer of 1885. The subject remained important in the highly avant-garde work he made after moving to France in 1886 and is clearly evident in many of the themes he painted in Arles and Saint-Rémy: fruit orchards in bloom (spring); the wheat harvest, the reaping of the wheat (summer); sowers, the grape harvest, the olive harvest (autumn); and a plough and harrow on bleak fields (after Millet, winter).

Curated by Sjraar van Heugten, Van Gogh and the Seasons is the first exhibition to be devoted to this central aspect of Vincent van Gogh’s extraordinary creativity and artistic vision. This exhibition has been organised in partnership with the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, as well as numerous other public and private lenders.

During his brief but prolific career, Vincent van Gogh revealed a true fascination for the cycle of the seasons in many of his paintings and drawings. A lifetime’s habit of studying nature equipped Van Gogh to observe the smallest changes within the landscape, and a strongly religious upbringing endowed those changes with particular significance. Even before he became a painter, Van Gogh reflected deeply about the way artists over the centuries had depicted the seasons, and showed surprise at how certain seasons seemed to go in and out of artistic fashion. In 1873 he observed that ‘it’s striking that the old painters almost never painted the autumn and that the moderns have such a particular preference for it’. Autumn was Van Gogh’s favourite season, and every year of his painterly career the approaching fall would greatly excite him and fill him with the desire of rendering its colours and distinctive atmosphere. ‘How beautiful it is outside’, Van Gogh wrote in the autumn of 1882. ‘I sometimes yearn for a country where it would always be autumn, but then we’d have no snow and no apple blossom and no corn and stubble fields.’

The atmosphere of a number of Van Gogh’s early autumnal paintings gains extra force through being set at dusk. The allusion to life being a pilgrimage through the seasons of time is developed in evocative and often gently melancholic depictions of autumnal landscapes in which a figure, often alone, walks along a tree-lined path or road. Still lifes that display the fruits of the harvest, such as apples and pumpkins, ooze the atmosphere of the countryside and autumn with their dark earth tones and robust manner of painting. Images of autumn labour evoke also the approaching winter and the promise of new life in the spring and a summer harvest in an eternal cycle.

Winter, often conceived in art and literature as the least hospitable of the seasons, held a more complex position within Vincent van Gogh’s seasonal representations – one associated both with the harshness of the elements and the end of the natural life cycle, but also with the idea of hope and beauty, of a world asleep, blanketed by snow, dormant but poised for rebirth. One of the first works Van Gogh made, several years before embarking on his artistic career, was a watercolour drawing after a lithograph by Jozef Israëls, Winter, in life as well, which depicts a one-legged man with a crutch, stumbling with difficulty through the snow. Here ‘winter’ refers both to the season and to the man’s wretched life.

For one of his earliest representations of winter, in 1882, Van Gogh chose the subject of miners in the snow, an evocation of the rural labour associated with the contemporary Walloon coal mining industry in the Borinage region of Belgium that was closely related to Van Gogh’s recently ended period of evangelical work there (1878–80). Van Gogh, with his penchant for the life and labours of the working class, was impressed by the hard lives of miners. Mining work, which was also done by children, was extremely demanding under the best of circumstances, but in the winter cold it was close to unbearable. Van Gogh’s portrayal of the miners in the snow was therefore intended to highlight the workers’ harsh working lives. Images of peasant women working in snow-covered fields also remind us that Van Gogh saw rural workers as being closer to nature and their seasonal work as highly symbolic of nature’s cycle of life. Peasant labour was less intensive during the winter months when nature seems dormant and winter subjects therefore are relatively rare in Van Gogh’s oeuvre.

In February 1890 Vincent van Gogh wrote to his mother from the south of France: ‘Today it was a real spring day, and the fields of young wheat and the lilac hills in the distance so beautiful, and the almond trees are beginning to blossom everywhere’. In his early years as an artist Van Gogh had frequently depicted the rural labour of ploughing as emblematic of spring, a time when the fields were prepared for planting. In Nuenen Van Gogh had vigorously defended his use of dark colours in such works. After his move to Paris at the end of February 1886, however, he painted numerous still lifes of spring and summer flowers in a deliberate campaign aimed at brightening his palette. The following year Van Gogh returned to flower still lifes in the spring, when he painted the impressive picture displayed here of a brass vase of fritillaries, which bloom in May–June. Other still lifes showing newly germinating bulbs symbolised the new life that spring invariably brings. The brightly hued landscapes depicting the fresh vegetation along the banks of the Seine that Van Gogh painted in the spring and summer of 1887 are clearly Impressionist in character, drawing inspiration from Claude Monet in particular.

Van Gogh’s move to Arles in the south of France in February 1888 was shortly before the arrival of spring in the region. He set out to capture the spring in a motif that looms large in Japanese art and which he had previously attempted to paint, though on a modest scale: trees and orchards in blossom. In keeping with the solace that he noted such images could offer, Van Gogh planned to combine them into diptychs and triptychs, a form of presentation inseparably linked to religious art and church interiors and which, in Van Gogh’s case, represented a kind of pantheistic variant of the Christian polyptych (multi-panelled altarpiece).

Vincent van Gogh considered summer, the season for harvesting wheat, to have a profound symbolic meaning. The yearly growth cycle of wheat – its sowing, young growth, maturity and summer harvest – symbolised the eternity of nature for Van Gogh, and all of his harvest scenes can be seen in that light. In July 1884, while living in the Dutch province of Brabant, he wrote to Theo of how he saw the seasons in terms of colour, and defined summer as ‘the opposition of blues against an element of orange in the golden bronze of the wheat’. This was still a very applicable description four years later, when the harvest of the wheat greatly impressed him in Provence, and he used this colour scheme to make works that capture the very essence of a hot summer day in the South of France.

Van Gogh perceived in nature and in the life of the peasants a higher force, which he described as ‘quelque chose là-haut’ (‘something up there’). Depictions of reapers and of sheaves of wheat from the mid 1880s are thus imbued with a certain religious meaning. Later, in Arles in 1888, Van Gogh would express in clear terms the deeper meaning these harvest-related subjects held for him, testifying to his perception of a pantheistic higher force inherent in the eternal cycle of life. In June 1888 he wrote to his painter friend Émile Bernard about how ‘yearnings for that infinite of which the Sower, the sheaf, are the symbols, still enchant me as before’. ‘I even work in the wheatfields at midday’, he told Bernard, ‘in the full heat of the sun, without any shade whatever, and there you are, I revel in it like a cicada’.

The Life of Van Gogh


Zundert, the birthplace of Vincent van Gogh, is a very small town in a Catholic region near the border of Holland and Belgium. The oldest surviving son of a Dutch pastor of the Reformed Church, Van Gogh spent much of his childhood in relative isolation, relying mostly on his close family for social interaction.

The Hague

July 1869 – May 1873 and November 1881 – September 1883.

At odds with his family, the teenaged Vincent Van Gogh was offered by his uncle the post of junior clerk to Goupil & Cie, a Paris art dealership with a branch in The Hague, ran by ‘Uncle Cent’ van Gogh. He lodged with local families and embraced the art world, before being transferred to the London branch in May 1873. In 1881 Van Gogh returned to The Hague, after an interlude as a preacher and missionary, to take painting instruction from a relative, the landscape artist Anton Mauve. He found a studio, and formed a relationship with a destitute single mother and occasional prostitute, Sien Hoornik. Van Gogh’s second period in The Hague, supported by Theo, was very fruitful. He attended the Pulchri artists’ Studio to draw from the life model and went on sketching trips to the nearby coastal town of Scheveningen, before leaving for a cheaper life in rural Drenthe.


June 1873 – May 1875

In 1873 Van Gogh was transferred to the London office of the art dealers Goupil & Cie for whom he had been working since 1869. During his eighteen months in England he visited many London galleries as well and the summer exhibitions at the prestigious Royal Academy on the Strand. Van Gogh developed a lasting appreciation for British narrative and genre painting that was so popular in the late nineteenth century. He regularly bought editions of the Illustrated London News and pored over the line engravings therein. He is also attracted to the impoverished working classes of London’s densely populated inner suburbs and later returns there briefly to teach and work as a lay preacher.


May 1877 – May 1878

The Dutch capital, Amsterdam was crucial to Van Gogh’s personal and artistic development. He studied theology there in 1877, albeit unsuccessfully. He also encountered the sermons of the influential Reverand Eliza Laurillard, who preached the notion that ‘God was nature, nature was beauty, art was worship, and artists were preachers’, a doctrine that became central to Van Gogh’s future artistic practice. Van Gogh visited the galleries and museums in Amsterdam absorbing at first-hand the works of Dutch Old master painters such as Rembrandt, Jacob van Ruisdael and Meindert Hobbema. He continued his life-long habit of collecting prints and illustrations in Amsterdam, decorating the walls of his lodgings with numerous lithographs and engravings.


December 1878 – September 1880

In Van Gogh’s time, the Borinage was a bleak industrial and mining area in the north of Belgium. In 1878, he moved there to preach to the families of the workers. Van Gogh was greatly inspired by the local people and drew them often. After a year of soul-searching and a rift with his family he decided with his brother’s encouragement to become an artist.


October 1880 – April 1881

Soon after his momentous decision to become an artist, Van Gogh decided to gain some formal training at the Academy in Brussels. In the brief months that he spent there he met the artist Anton van Rappard, whose counsel van Gogh would seek throughout his formative years as an artist. Van Gogh always regarded Belgium as a potential market for his work and eventually achieved recognition from the Belgian avant-garde group Les XX with whom he successfully exhibited in early 1890.


December 1883 – November 1885

Around Christmas of 1883, Van Gogh reluctantly moved to Nuenen to live with his parents, who had adapted a laundry for his use as a studio. While Van Gogh was quite productive there, and sketched and painted local subjects with enthusiasm, relations with his family were tense. He lived briefly in a cottage and studio owned by the local Catholic sacristan, where he completed his Potato Eaters and eventually left Nuenen to pursue art studies in Antwerp.


June 1888

While living in the South of France, Van Gogh spent a productive week in the sea-side village of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer on the Mediterranean. While there he drew and painted a handful of his rare sea-scapes, some of which he would work into full size canvases upon his return to Arles.


February 1888 – May 1889

In search of a warmer climate and strong light, Van Gogh travelled to Arles in the South of France in February 1888. He also hoped to discover a colourful natural world reminiscent of Japanese woodblock prints. Despite being confronted with a thick layer of winter’s snow, the weather soon turned and Van Gogh began painting some of his greatest masterpieces, landscapes of the fields and orchards of Provence. He lived in what became known famously as ‘the Yellow House’, which he hoped might become the centre of a new art movement.


May 1889 – May 1890

Aware of his debilitating mental illness that plagued him his whole life and most acutely in Arles, van Gogh he admitted himself, at Theo’s expense, to the asylum of Saint-Paul de Mausole in Saint-Rémy, twenty-five kilometres north-east of Arles. The institution was housed in a 12th century Augustinian priory with a beautiful cloister, gardens and surrounding farmland. While there, Van Gogh was permitted to paint and given a room for use as a studio.


May 1890 – July 1890

In the last year of his life, Van Gogh left Saint-Remy to live in Auvers-sur-Oise, almost thirty kilometres north-west of Paris, under the watchful eye of Dr Gachet, a specialist in melancholia. Van Gogh painted some of his most famous landscapes in Auvers. Van Gogh received the fatal gun-shot injury that ended his life while walking in the country-side just outside the town of Auvers.


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