Je Cherche les Arbres

By Brendan Taaffe

Je cherche les arbres, I tell her. I am looking for the trees.

I am in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence on market day and every street is packed with people. I am here because it gave me a chance to drive through the Alpilles on the way to Les Baux, the famous walled city of the Visigoths, but mostly because I wanted to see Van Gogh’s cypress trees. I am also here because it has been a difficult year. Following such an admission, you won’t be surprised to hear that it was year that saw the end of a relationship. Even though I did not feel supported as an artist or as a person while we were together, her absence has left me with an enduring sense of loss. I am looking for consolation. Also, transformation. It seems to me that through these trees Van Gogh was able to transform his anguish into something quite redemptive. I would like to taste that.

'Saint-Rémy is where Van Gogh ended up in an asylum after cutting off his left ear lobe...'

After finding a place to park on the outskirts of town, I wandered through the crowded streets, past the cheese-monger’s heavy laden table, past massive loaves of bread and lines of people ordering a slab cut to their specifications, past a twenty foot spread of different olives and street performers and tourists and probably some pockets being picked but, thankfully, not mine. Armed with the makings of an excellent picnic—two different cheeses, bread, sausage, ripe pears—I asked the woman at the tourist office if she knew where the cypress trees were, the ones he had painted in the cornfield. This seemed like a reasonable question because Saint-Rémy is where Van Gogh ended up in an asylum after cutting off his left ear lobe in Arles and then giving it to a prostitute at the local brothel. (She fainted.) This is also where, once they allowed him to paint again, he produced his most famous works.

Throughout the village, there are signs pointing out where certain paintings had been inspired. There is even a museum dedicated to Van Gogh’s work, though it was closed for repairs. So I figured it was the kind of question other people might have asked, but she shook her head—her expression somewhere between pity and amusement—and explained, a bit slowly, that they wouldn't be the same trees any more. Which, in my defense, I had entertained as a possibility, but I wanted to stand where he had stood and had hoped there might yet be a cornfield with cypress trees to one side. But the lady at the office clearly thought I was on a fool's errand. Or possibly just a fool.

'Throughout Europe, the cypress has long been associated with mourning...'

They could have been the same trees, you know. The cypress is an extremely long-lived species, with individual specimens surviving for over a thousand years. In Yazd, Iran, the Cypress of Abar-Kuh is thought to be 4,000 years old, already ancient when the Buddha sat under the bodhi tree and possibly surpassed only by the ancient bristlecone pines that I loved hiking through when I was in college in California’s White Mountains. Throughout Europe, the cypress has long been associated with mourning: Ovid, in the Metamorphoses, tells of Cyparissus, beloved of Apollo, who accidentally killed a favorite stag when he was hunting. Cyparissus was so inconsolable that he asked to weep forever, and so was transformed into a tree (“the boy was now/ a rigid tree with frail and spiring crown/ that gazes on the heavens and the stars./ The gods, in sadness, groaned.”), his tears become the sap. It is no wonder that this tree was so resonant for Van Gogh, who had been searching for consolation since boyhood. His emotionally-absent father Doorus was a preacher in the Dutch Reformed Church, which put solace at the center of its theology, the “unspeakable consolation” of a watchful, caring God filling the church’s founding documents. Unable to find that solace where he most wanted it, in family, it makes sense to me that Vincent was drawn to the cypress, its brooding shape and association with mourning suggesting the final solace and absolution of death.

The most famous of the paintings Vincent did while he was in Saint-Rémy—indeed, one of the most famous paintings in the world—is Starry Night, with its dark and brooding sorcerer of a cypress to the left while the sky swirls—frenzied, unleashed—above a village. Together with Cornfield with cypresses, a personal favorite, and Wheatfield, all of them painted in 1889, these otherworldly cypresses highlight one of art’s most vital functions—its ability to transform how we see the world. Van Gogh was consciously striving for this: in an 1882 letter to his brother Theo, he wrote, "I draw […] to make people see things worth observing and which not everybody knows.” At home I am an avid cyclist, savoring summer afternoons on curving mountains roads in Vermont. Lately I've been marveling at the power of wind as I ride, this invisible and weightless force that has the power to make trees sway and waves moves across the water. In these late paintings, it is as if Van Gogh has made that kind of elemental power visible, showing us the molecules as they move.

'That he continued on to paint some of the masterpieces of the modern age is a testament to the fine line between perseverance and obsession.'

In 1882, seven years before painting Starry Night, Vincent Van Gogh was a long way from being able to carry out his vision. He was a late-starter as an artist, was not a talented draftsman, and struggled to stick to a course of study. It is doubly interesting to me that he had an awareness of his artistic mission when he didn’t have the technical skill to execute it. Vincent was living then in the Hague at his Schenkweg studio: he was alienated from his family except for his brother Theo, whom he relied upon for financial support, and was systematically alienating himself from all of the other artists in the area.

Despite the advice of artists he admired like Anton Mauve and Theo’s urgings to paint salable works—landscapes, for which Vincent did seem to have an innate talent, Vincent persisted in drawing figures (see right)—for which he did not have an innate talent—in heavy pencil, churning out reams of black and white studies and spending exorbitant amounts of money on modeling fees rather than using plaster casts, as was the norm for an aspiring artist. In 1882 he was on the brink of thirty, had failed at everything he had tried up to that point, and had yet to gain technical command over his art, despite enormous expenditures of time and money. That he continued on to paint some of the masterpieces of the modern age is a testament to the fine line between perseverance and obsession.

This perseverance is what I find so compelling about Van Gogh’s story, possibly because I was a late beginner as a musician. The standard narrative about Van Gogh is that he was a tortured genius. And it’s true that he was both a genius and tortured, though these things are not necessarily connected. He went through periods of extreme misery and self-loathing; he likely suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy and also, possibly, the neurological effects of prolonged syphilis; he experienced disappointment after disappointment; he cut off his own ear lobe. In one of the most heart-wrenching moments in his letters to Theo, written in 1888 as he was waiting for Gauguin to arrive in Arles, Vincent wrote,

"I feel more and more that we must not judge of God from this world. It’s just a study that didn’t come off. What can you do with a study that has gone wrong?—if you are fond of the artist, you do not find much to criticize—you hold your tongue. But you have the right to ask for something better. We should have to see other works by the same hand though; this world was evidently slapped together in a hurry on one of his bad days, when the artist didn’t know what he was doing or didn’t have his wits about him."

'Not everyone can claim genius, but everyone can identify with self-doubt.'

Personally, I find the story of perseverance in the face of vast despair much more compelling than the standard tortured genius bit. Not everyone can claim genius, but everyone can identify with self-doubt. After years of struggling, Vincent moved to the south of France in 1888, first to Arles and then to Saint-Rémy. From 1888 to 1890, the last two years of his life, he painted some of the uncontested masterpieces of the western canon. It was there that his unconventional brushwork and obsession with color coalesced to reveal a world that we had hardly known existed before. A world of magic where trees are not solid, unmoving objects but rather brooding sorcerers, the dance of their molecules finally revealed, a world where the stars agitate the sky around them, pulling everything into their mad swirl.

We look to love for transformation, for completion, for consolation. In all this, A. and I failed each other. We fought about stupid things, and often. We did not bring out the best in one another.

But love’s other power is to fill our daily world, our small moments, with poetry. To make us notice, in the words of Robert Hass, “moments when the body is as numinous/ as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.” My right shoulder has never been as precious to me as when she leaned her head against it on that long drive to the orchard, nor my fingers as when we picked peas together in the twilight. The word ‘numinous’ refers to a sense of the world filled with the presence of divinity; or, as I like to think of it, with the awareness that everything is holy, the awareness that is grace. For me, the artist who best captures that sense of the world is Vermeer, another Dutchman.

'Vermeer takes the mundane and makes it magical.'

I remember the first time I saw a Vermeer in person. I was at the National Gallery in Dublin in early 2009 and the painting was A Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid, completed in 1671 (pictured left). As with so many of his works, Vermeer takes an ordinary scene—a woman is seated at a desk writing a letter, the right side of her face illuminated while her maid stands behind her, looking out the window—and transforms it into a moment of luminescence. He says to us, “Look! These moments that you think are normal and banal, that you go through your day not even noticing—these are the moments that are most worth capturing. Look! Because when you look deeper you will see how beautiful they are. Look!” And by saying this, by pointing out the beauty that we would have otherwise walked past, Vermeer takes the mundane and makes it magical. Where Van Gogh reveals to us a world that we have never before seen, Vermeer shows us that the world we inhabit is more perfect than we have ever known.

It is fitting that their art is so different, as their lives could hardly have been more so. Van Gogh was incredibly prolific; Vermeer produced only 37 paintings in his lifetime (scholars disagree on the authorship of a 38th). Van Gogh was a loner who drifted from place to place; Vermeer was settled, with a family. Van Gogh the person is very present in his art—he painted endless self portraits and his heavy and hurried brush strokes seem to reveal an inner tumult; Vermeer is almost invisible, the smooth finish and photorealism of his paintings leaving the artist a mystery to us. We know that Johannes Vermeer lived from 1632-1675 in Delft, where he married and had children. He was only moderately successful in his lifetime and left his family saddled with debt when he died. We know very little else. We don’t know who taught him or what shaped his technique. We can only infer things from the evidence of the paintings themselves, most of them, like A Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid, capturing everyday moments and transforming them into jewels, beautiful in their stillness.

'Vermeer was able to create something more authentic because he painted what he saw rather than what he knew to be true.'

People often remark on the realism of Vermeer’s paintings. In a way that reminds us of contemporary photojournalism, he renders a scene faithfully and carefully, without any of the obvious interpretation that Van Gogh offers. In one painting I saw recently at the Frick in Manhattan, Girl Interrupted in Her Music, I was able to read musical notes on the staff paper the girl lets fall, a detail almost none would notice (I only did so by standing so close to the canvas as to arouse the ire of the docent) and which Vermeer still saw fit to include.

Ironically, Vermeer may have achieved this sense of heightened reality by using a camera obscura, a precursor of the modern camera that uses lenses to project an image onto a screen. Since at least the first century, people have known that a pinhole in a window blind would form an inverted image of an outside scene on the wall of a dark room. By Vermeer’s time, this technique had been refined with lenses to create box versions of the obscura that could be used to study a scene. Scholars disagree over how Vermeer used the device, but given their popularity we can at least be confident that he had encountered one. And some of the evidence that he employed one to shape his artistic vision is enticing: using an obscura produces certain optical effects that are also present in the paintings, notably pointillés, or glimmering disks of light—optical illusions that can’t be perceived by the naked eye but which become apparent when looking through the device. Other evidence comes from works like Officer and Laughing Girl, where the officer in the foreground is much larger than the girl behind the desk. This is true to the laws of perspective and doesn’t strike us, accustomed now to photography, as odd. But painters at the time were more likely to paint what they knew to be true—that the two figures were similar in size—than what they perceived with the eye. It may be that by using a device, by imposing something between his eye and the object of his vision, Vermeer was able to paint something truer to the essence of the scene. I’ll say it again, because it’s so counter-intuitive: by using an artificial device, Vermeer was able to create something more authentic because he painted what he saw rather than what he knew to be true.

'...they (Van Gogh and Vermeer) achieved that transformation by changing the nature of vision itself...'

Which means that these two artists may not be as different as I suggested. I had thought that the essence of each artist’s work had to do with the relationship of the world we know to the world of magic. Van Gogh moves our world into a realm of magic while Vermeer brings magic into our daily lives, imbuing our small moments with a formerly unknown radiance. But the fundamental similarity between the two is that they achieved that transformation by changing the nature of vision itself, revealing the essential nature of things that had been hidden beneath the surface.

I return, again and again, to this art because I need to: because there is something healing in its ability to transform how we see the world. And if art can change our experience of the external world, I have to hope that it can create an internal shift as well. Though the evidence of the difficult year leading up to that day in Saint-Rémy, in which I tried a million ways to lift myself out of that hole, is that art on its own isn't always sufficient. Certainly it wasn’t for Van Gogh. The period in which he created the masterpieces was also the period in which he descended into madness and misery.

For Van Gogh, there was a lifetime of disappointment and hurt that his art could not surmount. I don’t know what demons Vermeer was fighting, but—given that he was human—I presume that there were some. In my case, the complicating factor has been shame. I knew, even without my friends telling me, that I needed to leave A. for at least a year before we finally parted. There were many times when I should have left, but one shines particularly clear. We had been together for over a year. At that point, we had traveled to foreign countries together, she had lived in my apartment through various periods of transition, I had nursed her through sickness. But when her mother came to visit from Wisconsin for a week, she refused to introduce us. I should have picked up what little remained of my pride then, but I couldn't bring myself to do it and I'm ashamed of myself, still, for not having had that strength. That time and other times I would make a resolve, but then she would cry and my heart would soften. And while there are worse things than being a fool for love, at some point you need to take care of yourself. Before this, I had always thought of myself as being strong, and a great deal of my grief had to do not only with losing someone I loved but also with losing that sense of my self. And because shame is isolating—a thing we don’t want to speak of because it grows out of a sense of our own weakness—that was a loss I dealt with alone. 

'Perhaps that is why Van Gogh so compels us. In addition to creating amazing works of art, he also laid his life open.'

Throughout this year of mourning, I wrote a lot of music. In my composing, I seek to create hymns for the modern world, songs that draw on the cadences and imagery of early American hymnody without being specifically religious. I am drawn to hymns because they ask big and important questions: what does it mean, namely, that we are going to die, and how should this shape the way we live? They ask for succor, and consolation. But they also, if I am honest, are impersonal, and allow me to ask for that solace without revealing myself fully or being completely vulnerable. I have wondered why this creative outpouring has not managed to be transformative. I produced song after song—some of them oblique (Oh my Lord, why am I not strong?) and some blatant (Seems like to me the stars don’t shine so bright... since you went away)—but remained emotionally stuck in the same place even as I was hoping, Van Gogh-like, to change the way I was seeing the world. But because of the shame I felt at not being strong, I couldn’t risk being vulnerable. And without being vulnerable, there’s little one can hope for in the way of healing. Perhaps that is why Van Gogh so compels us. In addition to creating amazing works of art, he also laid his life open. He was deeply vulnerable, and easily wounded. Though if you’re looking for a takeaway, you may wish to ignore the conclusion to his story.

Recently, a friend was telling me about tashlich, the Jewish new year’s tradition of casting last year's burdens into flowing water and watching them float away. Her description of the ritual reminded me of a long-ago story, when I was living in Minnesota in my early twenties. I was at the end of a tumultuous relationship with a dancer. After breaking up for the third time, we discovered that she was pregnant. I wanted to go for it, a feeling intensified by the fact that we had conceived on the anniversary of my father’s death. I felt that this showed the hand of fate, some kind of transference of souls, but she didn’t want to keep the baby. After the abortion, we were driving home along the northern shore of Lake Superior to her cabin in the woods. North of Silver Bay, we stopped where a river ran into the lake, keeping the water open against winter's ice. I had made a little boat, with cloth sails, and we sent it out into the lake that night, a candle burning in the prow. We watched until the sails caught fire and the boat drifted further from the shore, watched until the fire went out and the boat was gone. If I were a painter, that is a moment I would have liked to capture, that small flame drifting out into the big lake, a picture that could remind me that—given enough time—there's beauty in everything.

Brendan Taaffe is a musician, composer, and writer who lives on a small holding in southern Vermont, where he is excited to be fixing up an old house and raising ducks. More on Brendan at