In the same year that he painted Sunflowers, The Yellow House, and The Bedroom, Vincent van Gogh painted “A Garden of Olives—with a blue and orange Christ figure, a yellow angel—a piece of red earth, green and blue hills. Olive trees with purple and crimson trunks, with grey green and blue foliage. Sky lemon yellow.” But as Vincent wrote to his brother, Theo, “I scraped it off because I tell myself it’s wrong to do figures of that importance without a model” (Letter 637). Seventy-five days later, in another letter to Theo, Vincent wrote,
For the second time I’ve scraped off a study of a Christ with the angel in the Garden of Olives. Because here I see real olive trees. But I can’t, or rather, I don’t wish, to paint it without models. But I have it in my mind with color—the starry night, the figure of Christ blue, the strongest blues, and the angel broken lemon yellow. And all the purples from blood red purple to ash in the landscape. (Letter 685)
And two weeks later:
I mercilessly destroyed an important canvas—a Christ with the angel in Gethsemane—as well as another one depicting the poet with a starry sky—because the form hadn’t been studied from the model beforehand, necessary in such cases—despite the fact that the color was right. (Letter 698)
In Van Gogh’s Ghost Paintings: Art and Spirit in Gethsemane, Cliff Edwards, Professor of Religion in the School of World Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of three previous books on van Gogh, asks,
Exactly what is it about painting Jesus and the angel in Gethsemane that led to this double creation and double destruction during the height of the artist’s creativity? Why had he never composed a scene from the life of Christ before, and why would he never compose such a scene again?
The answer to the mystery of the lost paintings illuminates the relationship of joy and suffering, discovery and creation, religion and the arts in Van Gogh’s life and work. In this fascinating book Edwards solves a long-ignored mystery that provides a critical key to the relation of Van Gogh’s religion and art. Look for the book in late Spring or early Summer.