Wheatfield under Thunderclouds, 1890

This painting is among the ominous series of ‘double square’ paintings that Van Gogh made in the last weeks before his suicide. In hindsight, these portentous works seem to announce the painter’s inevitable fate. Van Gogh had returned under the northern sky expecting a healthier existence in Auvers-sur Oise. It is this message that we are to understand through the depiction of the menacing clouds above the wheat fields.

A quote from one of his letters is linked to ‘Wheatfield under Thunderclouds’ that seems to support a desperate emotional state to this work. ‘They are immense stretches of wheat fields under turbulent skies, and I made a point of trying to express sadness, extreme loneliness.’ The letter continues with a phrase that allows for a more optimistic understanding of the piece. ‘these canvases will tell you what I can’t say in words, what I consider healthy and fortifying about the countryside.’ It may be that it is hope rather than desperation that is expressed by the life-giving thunderclouds that are threatening to drown the green wheat.

Van Gogh worked feverishly during the last few weeks of his life; often at a rate of more than one canvas a day. Before they were dry, they were stowed under his bed in the tiny room above Cafe Ravoux. In the Van Gogh Museum Relievo Edition, one can seen how his thumb has smudged the still wet paint in the lower left hand corner. He piled them up on each other while they were still drying, the backside of the top canvas left an impression upon the thickly applied paint. The Edition gives us an insight in to the tumultuous last few days of the painter’s life.

By Fred Leeman Former Chief Curator of the Van Gogh Museum 09-09-2015