The Old Cemetery Tower at Nuenen, executed between the May and June of 1885, is an oil-on-canvas painting by Vincent van Gough that depicts a church tower which stands in a graveyard. The tower was all that remained of a church that had collapsed and which was, at the time of the painting’s creation, in the process of being demolished. Nuenen, a rural municipality in the Netherlands, was inhabited by agricultural workers and the graveyard was known to contain the remains of peasants who worked the land. The Dutch painter, a resident of the town from 1883 until 1885, was inspired to paint local landmarks.
The cemetery, having the appearance of open field that lacks walls or other clear boundaries, contains thirteen gravestones that are not aligned in a uniform pattern while eight black birds can be seen flying near the roof of the building. The headstones are simple and cruciform, which indicates that this is a Christian burial site and that the interred persons lived simple lives of modest means, while the chaotic manner in which they are scattered across the burial site suggests a lack of central planning. The medium-length grass, which may have been cropped by grazing animals, and the shrubs that line the base of the tower give the cemetery the appearance of open pasture land.
The blue hues of the sky, melding with the white clouds, contrasts with the salmon and ochre tones of the stone tower and well as the green hues of the vegetation that has taken root at the burial site. Yellow flecks, representing clover or dandelions which appear in the spring and summer, appear at random among the green of the vegetation. A rectangular object, appearing on the horizon and at the right-hand side of the canvas, could be an agricultural building or a pile of haystacks. The black birds, which may have taken up residency in the tower, are likely to be crows which are sometimes regarded as a nuisance in rural communities due to their tendency to feed on crops.
It is said that the Dutch painter, in a letter to his brother who later came into possession of the painting, regarded the dilapidated condition of the building as being analogous to state of religion. The role of religion was declining in the eighteen-eighties, a time of societal change and scientific advancement, due to the influence of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution as well as the rise of atheistic socioeconomic theories and philosophies at the end of the nineteenth century.