The Art of the Plant – Vincent van Gogh

Though better known for his Sunflowers, the artist drew this Hyacinth during his struggle with mental illness
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Vincent van Gogh, Tassel Hyacinth, (1889) Pencil, brush and ink on paper, 41.2 × 30.9 cm / 16¼ × 12¼ in Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. From Plant: Exploring the Botanical World
Vincent van Gogh, Tassel Hyacinth, (1889) Pencil, brush and ink on paper, 41.2 × 30.9 cm / 16¼ × 12¼ in Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. From Plant: Exploring the Botanical World

Mankind has known about the medicinal qualities of plants since ancient times. From the opium poppy to quinine bark, many of the illustrations in our exquisite new book Plant: Exploring the Botanical World, were executed in part to recognise and record these uses. However, fine artists have found the simple process of drawing and painting the natural world therapeutic in its own right.

Consider this pencil and ink drawing of an otherwise unremarkable flower created by Vincent van Gogh over a century ago. As our book explains, Van Gogh experienced a period of mental ill health which also coincided with frenzy of colourful painting. While recovering from this spell of psychosis, he turned to the natural world, creating these sober renderings of a simple flower to still his nerves. Here’s how Plant describes the work.

 

Vincent Van Gogh, Self-portrait as an Artist (January 1888)
Vincent Van Gogh, Self-portrait as an Artist (January 1888)

“This drawing may look a little clumsy, but it conveys perfectly the knobbly flowers and fruits of the unassuming tassel hyacinth (Muscari comosum), and it bears the hallmarks of a master draughtsman: the renowned Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh. The drawing was part of Van Gogh’s own therapy soon after he had admitted himself to the asylum at Saint-Rémy in Provence in May 1889.

"Confined to the grounds and wishing to avoid the over-stimulation of painting, Van Gogh drew the asylum garden and its plants to calm himself, gazing closely ‘at a blade of grass, a pine tree branch, an ear of wheat’. In a letter to his brother Theo, Van Gogh mentions five ‘hasty studies’ – including this drawing – he is sending to Theo in Paris. The drawings, first roughly laid out in pencil, were inked in, sometimes with a brush but usually with pens he cut from reeds. In its simplicity, the drawing echoes a prized Japanese print of rice or millet that Van Gogh had acquired from an issue of the Parisian monthly magazine Le Japon Artistique of 1888. He noted: ‘This blade of grass leads [the artist] to draw all plants, then the seasons, the broad features of landscapes.”

 

Plant: Exploring the Botanical World

For more beautiful botanicals order a copy of Plant here, and for more of Vincent van Gogh's work, order a copy of our book here.


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