In the summer of 1889, Vincent van Gogh painted “Cypresses,” which may just be his masterpiece. He had painted “The Starry Night,” a relatively flat and cartoonish work, only a week or two earlier. In one of his marvelous, chatty, tender and hectoring letters, he promised his brother Theo that he was taking precautions to avoid a relapse of the breakdown that had led to him, six months earlier, to sever his ear and present it to a local prostitute.
That incident had occurred in Arles. Van Gogh was now living in an asylum in nearby Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. There had been a series of “fine hot days,” he reported, and he had turned his attention to the tall cypresses he saw all around. He wanted to depict them in a series of paintings — of which “The Starry Night” was one — just as he had painted a series of sunflowers the previous month. Why? “Because it astonishes me that no one has yet done them as I see them.”
How did Van Gogh see them?