In October 1884, Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, and mentioned a recently completed painting where he had managed to capture the essence of autumn. He described a long avenue of towering poplars with yellowing leaves, with the sun highlighting the fallen leaves in "glittering patches" on the ground, all interspersed with the long shadows of the trees.
"Avenue of Poplars in Autumn" was painted by Van Gogh in October 1884, in Nuenen (the Netherlands). It is an autumnal pastoral landscape, oil on canvas, 99 x 65 cm, and currently hangs in the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
The painting has never left the Netherlands (except for exhibitions). Vincent's mother left the painting with Janus Schrauwen when she moved to Leiden in 1889. In 1902, it was consigned to the Kunstzalen Oldenzeel in Rotterdam. It was then sold, in 1904, to Nolst Trenitré of Rotterdam. It stayed in the Nolst Trenité family until 1977 when it was sold to the Vincent van Gogh Rijksmuseum. It has been in the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, since 1994.
In 1884, Van Gogh was living in the village of Nuenen, near Eindhoven. Here, he began experimenting and painting on a regular basis. He was inspired by Jean-Francois Millet (1814 - 1875), who painted scenes depicting the hard life and work of peasants.
It was a prolific year for Van Gogh: lots of weavers, church towers and portraits of peasants. But, nestled among all these, stand the magnificent high-reaching trees of "Avenue of Poplars in Autumn", which he painted in late October. It was preceded by two similar works, painted in the same month: "Avenue of Poplars at Sunset" and "Lane in Autumn" which depict a rather more sombre rendition of autumn.
Vincent's autumn poplars
Van Gogh's double row of sky-high poplars, lining a cart-track leading to a simple cottage, are crowned with gorgeous yellow. The leaves are preparing to fall, they are hesitant, it is a long way down. Here, Van Gogh's rich colours, between the mottled blue sky above the trees and the tawny yellow of the leaves, have recreated the mellow autumn light of October. Despite the bright afternoon sunshine, there is clearly a nip in the air: the solitary figure in the foreground is warmly cloaked, and shadows are long. But these stretching autumn shadows have been criticised. Indeed, the trees, the figure and the wooden railings cast shadows that are slightly at odds. A trifling detail. Here, we have a magnificent picture of rural autumn light, in all its unique glory. Captured and preserved for us by Vincent Van Gogh.