Vincent van Gogh painted this cypress just three months before he took his life. Between 1888 and 1890, during what would become his final chapter, he fixated upon cypresses. Widely understood as a symbol of death, and long associated with graveyards and the macabre, these trees offered an artistic outlet as his own sorrows deepened and his suicidal ideations worsened. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Van Gogh’s Cypresses is the first show to exclusively focus on these works.
Throughout his letters, van Gogh mentions cypresses 37 times. In one cryptic passage, he writes to his brother, Theo, that “[The cypress] is the dark patch in a sun-drenched landscape, but it’s one of the most interesting dark notes, the most difficult to hit off exactly that I can imagine.” In many paintings, the cypress serves literally and figuratively as this dark spot. However, what he meant is never precisely spelled out.
Recognizing van Gogh’s cypresses as symbols in the artworks, the 19th-century poet and art critic Gabriel-Albert Aurier contextualized them within the allegorical impulse of symbolist painting. Aurier penned this florid response to the artist’s depictions:
There are trees twisted like giants in battle, proclaiming with the gesture of their gnarled menacing arms, and with the tragic soaring of their green manes, their indomitable power, their pride in their musculature, their sap warm like blood, their eternal defiance of the hurricane, of lightning, of malevolent nature; there are cypresses shooting up their nightmarish silhouettes of blackened frames.
Aurier was close to van Gogh, offering a crucial primary source for perceiving a veiled macabre symbolism in these cypresses.
This symbolism might not seem apparent in the Met’s exhibition. In “Cypresses” (1889) from the museum’s collection, the tree’s deep greens contrast with the turquoise sky and the light green grass. Nothing explicitly points to the allegorical interpretation that Aurier advances. Was the critic projecting? No. The challenge at the heart of this exhibition is that cypress trees carried associations in the late 19th century that are lost on us today. The Met is trying to excavate the buried symbolic content of these paintings.
Van Gogh immersed himself in literature about the cypress’s morbidity. Alison Hokanson, The Met’s associate curator of European Painting, with the assistance of Marina Kliger, painstakingly compiled numerous literary quotations about the trees for the catalogue, which the letters evidence that van Gogh had absorbed. Theirs is the densest but most enlightening essay in the book. For example, he avidly read Victor Hugo, who once versified the cypress’s morbidity in his 1819 poem “Les Derniers Bardes”:
Cyprès, arbres des morts, qui courbe ainsi vos têtes? Sont-ce les Esprits des tempêtes? Sont-ce les noirs vautours, cachés dans vos rameaux? Ou, fidèles encore à vos bocages sombres, Les Enfants d’Ossian viennent-ils sous vos ombres Chercher leurs antiques tombeaux? Cypresses, trees of the dead, who bows your head like this? Is it the spirits of the storm? Or is it the black vultures hidden in your branches? Or still faithful to your dark groves, Is it the children of Osian, who come beneath your shadows? Seeking their antiquated tombs? (translation by the author for Hyperallergic)
Many late 19th-century paintings present the cypress as the morbid symbol that Hugo describes. Arnold Böcklin’s cypresses in his well-known “Island of the Dead,” for instance, leave little to the imagination. Gabriel-Albert Aurier interpreted van Gogh’s trees in dialogue with these morbid Symbolist paintings. The Met’s exhibition might have benefited from an alcove of symbolist cypress paintings, so viewers could see these relationships.
Van Gogh went further into the symbolic sphere in works such as the iconic “The Starry Night” (1889), in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, juxtaposing cypresses with the sun, moon, and stars. Is there a veiled meaning here as well?
The answer is yes. In his important 1972 book that set out to psychoanalyze van Gogh, Stranger on the Earth: A Psychological Biography of Vincent van Gogh, Albert J. Lubin connected this contrast between the cypresses and the cosmos to a sermon the young artist gave in England in 1876, when he was 23 (preserved among his letters). The painter was searching for a mystical antidote to his lifelong battle with depression. His sermon riffed off of Psalm 119:19. In the Aleppo Codex, it is rendered as יט גר אנכי בארץ אל-תסתר ממני מצותיך. English often butchers Hebrew’s nuances but the gist is “I am a stranger on the earth. Do not hide your commandments from me.” Van Gogh envisioned a pilgrim whose life was a long walk from a lonely earth to heaven; the sermon is more a portrait of his mental state than an exegesis of the psalter. Lubin connected these musings to the way the cypresses reach up toward heaven, expressing a yearning to transcend their alienating morbidity. Aurier picked up on this dichotomy as well, rhapsodizing poetically about the sky’s vibrant energy versus the cypress’s dark foreboding. Neither the MoMA website nor the wall text for “The Starry Night” goes far enough in unpacking this symbolism. The painting’s temporary loan to the Met for this exhibition creates a new context to appreciate its complex symbolism.
This cypress symbolism is missing in most reviews. In the New Yorker, Jackson Arn admitted that “halfway through the show, I realized that I had no idea what cypresses meant to van Gogh.” Moreover, he questioned the Museum’s wall text for ascribing symbolic content to the trees, arguing that van Gogh was just intrigued by nature and to go any further is unanchored speculation.
Early on, the monkish loggings of his cypress fixation start to feel like no explanation at all. That’s fine; lots of artists don’t know why they paint things, and museums aren’t required to solve the mystery. But, then, neither must they argue that van Gogh’s cypresses were “a beacon of hope, perseverance, and resilience.”
Deborah Solomon in the New York Times likewise argued that van Gogh’s interest in the cypress trees was exclusively formal, employing it as a visual motif rather than a symbol, and then pivots to the subject of conservation. Veronica Esposito moves closer to the symbolic interpretation in the Guardian with the headline “It’s Psychologically Charged” but then discusses the trees as a visual motif and doesn’t dig into why Metropolitan Museum Director Max Hollein saw them as psychologically charged.
How can we be so certain that these cypresses are symbols? First, as Gabriel-Albert Aurier, who met and exchanged letters with van Gogh, put it in a rare succinct sentence, “[Van Gogh] is almost always a Symbolist.” Second, Albert J. Lubin, the psychoanalyst who spent years in France speaking to people close to the memory of van Gogh, verified Aurier’s thesis of symbolism. Third, Alison Hokanson’s catalogue essay demonstrates that van Gogh was reading literature in which cypress trees symbolize the macabre.
This show challenges us to reimagine how we interpret van Gogh’s cypresses — as both formal and symbolic devices. His intense brushwork and vivid colors are arresting on their own visual terms. But in the context of their time these exquisitely rendered trees are inseparable from their macabre symbolism. That symbolism has been lost to posterity — with the help of the Met, it is coming back with a vengeance.
Van Gogh’s Cypresses continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through August 27. The exhibition was curated by Susan Alyson Stein, Engelhard Curator of Nineteenth-Century European Painting at The Met.