10 Secrets of “Wheatfield with Crows“
1) The artist shot himself in the very wheat fields he had painted over and over again, wounding himself in the stomach, which led to his death on July 29, 1890. Theo, Van Gogh’s brother who had stored the bulk of Vincent’s works in Paris, died six months later. The two brothers were later buried side-by-side in a cemetery overlooking those wheat fields in Auvers-sur-Oise.
2) Perhaps due to the influence of his short-lived ministry studies, Van Gogh’s depiction of wheat in his paintings reflects spiritual and secular symbolism. In 1889, the year prior to when he completed “Wheatfield with Crows,” the artist wrote that wheat is not only people’s primary form of sustenance but is also symbolic the ripening and reaping of human life. Wheat is symbolic of celestial love in the Christian tradition, and to Van Gogh, it also represented the fruits of honest, manual labor.
3) During June and July 1890, the final months Van Gogh was alive, he painted on double-square canvases, which are a combination of two 50 x 100 cm canvases, and “Wheatfield with Crows” is no exception.
4) The luminescence of such later Van Gogh paintings as “Wheatfield with Crows” and “Starry Night” has a turbulent visual effect that some believe reflects the artist’s state of mind during the final months of his life. The luminescent quality of the wheat suggests strong motion while the crows flying randomly above echo and add to the turbulence of the scene.
5) In a July 10, 1890, letter to his brother Theo and sister-in-law, Vincent wrote that his wheat field paintings beneath turbulent skies are meant to express the sadness and extreme loneliness that conveyed what he felt but couldn’t put into words.
6) Mathematicians have commented on the proximity between the turbulence in Van Gogh’s later works and the mathematical principle of hydrodynamic turbulence and the velocity of its flow. This may suggest that the artist took an instinctively scientific approach to his visual expression.
7) In “Wheatfield with Crows“, Van Gogh expressed his darkest premonitions. Critics tend fairly unanimously to detect a sense of menace in the dark birds flying from the horizon towards the foreground. They see the three paths as symbolic of Van Gogh’s feeling that he had nowhere to go, no way of escape. The whole mood of darkness, they claim, is reinforced by the stormy sky, which supplies so powerful a contrast to the yellow wheat.
8) Perhaps the most powerful creature within the image is the crows themselves. The crows in the painting represent resurrection, according to art critics, but historically, crows can also be harbingers of bad luck and/or death. Jules Michelet, one of van Gogh’s favorite authors, wrote of crows: “They interest themselves in everything, and observe everything. The ancients, who lived far more completely than ourselves in and with nature, found it no small profit to follow, in a hundred obscure things where human experience as yet affords no light, the directions of so prudent and sage a bird.”
9) “Wheatfield with Crows” was painted in July 1890, in the last weeks of Van Gogh’s life. Many have claimed it as Van Gogh’s last painting, while some scholars believe that Tree Roots was his final painting.
10) Along with 19 other Van Gogh paintings, “Wheatfield with Crows” was stolen and quickly recovered in 1991. In the process of the heist, the thieves severely damaged the painting.
What makes this painting famous?
In his final days, Van Gogh painted several depictions of the wheatfields surrounding him. Out of them, this one is the most famous, but also the darkest. It seems to show a sense of isolation and loneliness, with a path ending in the middle of the field, going nowhere, circled by crows. It’s a gloomy image.
There are plenty of other interpretations of the painting – including a line of thought that there is not a note of angst or despair to be found (Walther and Metzger) – and ultimately there’s no way of knowing the artist’s motivations. What we do know for sure is that the dramatic colour palette, a kind of mix between “The Starry Night” and “Sunflowers”, makes this one of Van Gogh’s most visceral and striking paintings.
What’s the background story?
Completed in July 1890, this may well have been Van Gogh’s final work – there are unfortunately no conclusive letters or records on the matter. The fact remains that this painting was completed the same month that Vincent shot himself in the chest, either near or in the depicted field of wheat. It’s impossible to look at this painting without this grim realisation in mind.
Where is it?
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.