The iconic painter Vincent van Gogh was a nature guy — but his love for the natural went beyond just a passing interest or a phase in his creative career.
"Van Gogh struggled with mental illness his entire life and by all accounts he was very awkward with people, and he much preferred solitary wandering," Minneapolis Institute of Art deputy director and chief curator Matthew Welch said. "In his letters to his brother Theo, he expressed repeatedly how nature was kind of his salvation."
In his last body of work, he returned to nature, and more specifically the olive groves surrounding the psychiatric hospital in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in the south of France where he stayed from June to December in 1889.
"Van Gogh and the Olive Groves," a new exhibition opening at Mia on Saturday, takes a focused, intimate look into six works made during that period, with three others from earlier and later.
A larger version of this show opened in October 2021 in Dallas and then traveled to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. This truncated version at Mia will be its last stop.
Although the show originated elsewhere and was not a project that Mia directly participated in organizing, its arrival here will be a homecoming of sorts because, in an unusual turn, Mia lent its prized Impressionist work "Olive Trees," 1889, to the traveling exhibition.
Normally, the museum doesn't lend a work unless it is part of the project from the start, but the Dallas Museum and the Van Gogh Museum were relentless.
"They kept coming back to us saying it is really vital for their show that our painting is in it," Welch said. "So finally [Mia director and president] Katie Luber said, 'Well, one of the reasons we don't typically lend it is that it eviscerates our great Impressionist collection, so what could you do for us?'"
The museums generously offered to lend Mia four works from the Van Gogh Museum and two works from Dallas. The show includes one etching, a graphite work on paper, a watercolor and black chalk work on paper and six paintings.
"I think it's kind of a sweet project in that it's a finite number of paintings," Welch said.
In five of the paintings and one of the graphite sketches on display, all produced between June and December 1889, Van Gogh portrays the wiggly tree trunks and blistering sun around the mental institute where he stayed.
The three other works on display, which come from either before or after that period, portray people and places; his etching "Portrait of Dr. Gachet (Auvers-sur-Oise)," dated May 15, 1890, was produced less than three months before he died.
A typical painting exhibition might have 30 to 50 works, whereas a show in Mia's Target galleries could number around 130 works.
The Dallas Museum and the Van Gogh Museum learned through scientific research that Van Gogh did not work strictly in a plein air technique, which is simply an artist painting from life and entirely outdoors. Instead, it turns out that while outdoors, he blocked in the composition with oil wash and sketching. At another time, he added the thicker paint that people associate with Van Gogh over the top of that preliminary work.
This exhibition certainly offers a sense of intimacy, with a focus on the end of Van Gogh's life, long before he was resurrected as a zombie-like immersive spectacle, which returns to Minneapolis on July 1.
"The paintings were created when he was in the depths of his mental illness," Welch said. "He could see the wheat fields from his room at the mental hospital, and then when they let him out from intensive care he wandered to the olive groves surrounding the hospital."
Van Gogh and the Olive Trees
When: June 25-Sept. 18.
Where: Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2400 3rd Av. S.
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue., Wed., Fri.-Sun.; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thu.
Cost: $16, free for 17 and under.