The legendary quarrel between Van Gogh and Gauguin in Arles, in December 1888, was the first, dramatic manifestation of Vincent's mental instability, which was to express itself repeatedly during the next year and a half in the forms of periods of extreme depression, followed by moments of complete apathy.
After a second breakdown in February 1889, Arles' Reverend Salles wrote to Theo warning him that a petition signed by his neighbours had confined his brother to a special cell in the hospital. In May, Reverend Salles asked Theo's consent to have Vincent committed to the asylum of Saint Rémy de Provence (about fifteen miles north-est of Arles), which was housed in the 12th Century monastery of Saint-Paul de Mausole. On 8 May, he accompanied a 'completely calm' Vincent to the asylum (the Reverend's letter to Theo, quoted in J. Hulsker, op. cit., 1996, p. 390). In the asylum, thanks to Theo's intercession, Vincent was treated as a special patient: in addition to the cell where he slept (on the second floor), he had a room at his disposal for use as a studio (on the second floor). The building was surrounded by a large garden with flowers and pine trees, enclosed by a fenced wall - which we see in the present drawing, silhouetted against the tormented sky.
Vincent started work in the garden immediately. His studies of the irises, moths, butterflies (F601-H1699, F1523-H1700; H1701; F610-H1702), of the cloister's fountain (F1531-H1705), and, touchingly, of the barred windows of the cells (H1704) kept him busy and alert - even quite good humoured, as we know from his comment to Theo: '... considering my life is spent mostly in the garden, it is not so unhappy' (letter 592, The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, vol. 3, London, 1958, p. 174). The spring had been so balanced and serene, that Vincent had been allowed by the director of the institution, Dr T. Peyron, to venture into the wheat fields and hills surrounding the asylum. The summer, however, saw another relapse. The artist was again confined to his room, from which he wrote, in despair, to Theo: '... You can imagine that I am terribly distressed because the attacks have come back, when I was already beginning to believe that it would not return.... these days without anything to do, and without being able to go to the room they had alotted me to do my painting in, are almost unbearable' (letter 601, ibid., p. 194). He slowly recovered in August and September, when his creative powers reached an extraordinary peak, and he was again allowed to leave the asylum. So intense was his productivity in September, that by the beginning of October he lacked the canvasses and zinc white to paint. Although he emphatically urged Theo to send him the material he needed (letter 610, ibid.), for reasons we ignore, his brother could not help him before the 22 October. Thus, between 5 and 22 October, Vincent was unable to make a single painting. During these two weeks, he found an outlet for his creative urge in drawing - and the most compelling subject for his drawings in the garden.
The present sheet belongs to this remarkably inspired series.
Trees had been an early interest of Vincent: ever since his stay in the Borinage, he had shown an almost obsessive, visionary empathy with them. 'His vision and interpretation [of trees] is human. In his mind a dramatic, poetic vision of the tree had developed, at times an identification took place. The fact of being rooted in the earth, of being nearly uprooted, played an important part in his interest in trees... Occasionally in St. Rémy he produces almost trance-like visions of trees' (A. M. Hammacher, Van Gogh's Life is his Drawings. Van Gogh's Relationship with Signac, London, 1962, p. 75). By their broken, swirling lines, and their angular nervousness, the pine trees in this drawing acquire a metaphorical significance. Anxiously trying to escape the walls of the asylum, they are the most intense alter ego of the artist himself, terrified by the violence of his recurrent crises, desperate to leave his asylum cell.