As an adult I've tried a number of times to track down this piece of art, find out whether it was a reproduction or a print, who painted it, what the name of it was, and whether it was available as a print or poster. Last night I finally found it - or, at least, something nearly identical from the same artist, on the Expressionism in Art website. Here it is:
This is Deer In The Forest II2 by Franz Marc (February 8, 1880 – March 4, 1916). The son of a landscape painter, Marc was a German Expressionist, an admirer of Van Gogh, who specialized in animal subjects. He died in World War I, so his output is fairly small, but he painted deer fairly often in the works he lived long enough to do. I remembered the reproduction in our living room as being more blue than this, and more soothing, but the shapes and placement of the figures here all seem correct. Having found it again, I really want to order a framed poster ($20 on Amazon). It's modern enough that I may even be able to talk John into it!
Back in the day, though, my family didn't actually own the picture, not even the print or reproduction. My parents rented it from the Syracuse University Art Library, renewing annually, or possibly every six months. Sometimes it was rented by someone else, or perhaps they got tired of it from time to time. When that happened, they rented this instead:
This is Cypresses, by Vincent Van Gogh. It was painted in 1889, the year before he killed himself. I love the sky in it, which reminds me of The Starry Night; but the cypress trees, twisted, dark and brooding, frightened me as a child. I didn't realize at the time that it showed two trees, which made the shape of the perceived single tree that much more monstrous.
In fact, the picture reminded me of a story about a particular artist in the Life Science Library volume The Mind. According to the book, which I loved, there was a profound change in the work of a particular artist who specialized in cats, as the artist became more psychotic. The earliest picture shown was pretty much a representative drawing of a cat. The second one shown gave the cat strange and frightening red eyes. The last one was abstract and geometric, an expressionist cat. The later pictures were clearly better from an artistic standpoint, but it was sad for the artist himself. Knowing very little about Van Gogh at the time, I nevertheless saw those swirly, nightmare trees on our living room wall as the work of a disturbed mind. I didn't even know back then that cypress trees have more or less that overall shape in real life.
That was something like 40 years ago. Since then, I've learned to appreciate some of Van Gogh's work, including the picture above, and especially The Starry Night. (I also like actual cypress trees, which are common in our neighborhood.) I still have no use for Van Gogh's Sunflowers series, which mostly show the flowers as brown and dying as far as I can tell. It's a personal preference thing: I don't care for still life paintings, and I don't care for flowers. But there are lots of other Van Gogh works I do like. Many of them were featured this past weekend in, of all things, Doctor Who!
In the episode Vincent and the Doctor, the Doctor takes Amy to see the Van Gogh exhibit at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, only to notice a strange and beastly face depicted in a window of Van Gogh's painting The Church at Auvers. That sends them rushing back to 1890 Provence, there to connect up with the troubled artist and track down what turns out to be an invisible alien monster - invisible to all but Vincent, that is. As the Doctor and Amy befriend Vincent, we get a touching and honest portrait of a Van Gogh's mental illness (writer Richard Curtis's conception of it, anyway). Nor does the episode shy away from stating that even after the time travelers add to Vincent's "pile of good things" with their brief time together, the artist still kills himself later that year. It is a wonderful episode, and I urge you to watch it on BBC America when it pops up several weeks from now.
At the same time, though, it brings me back to my memory of that nightmare painting on the living room wall, and my childhood reactions to it. I remember being actually upset one year when the deer went away and the scary deer came back. Perhaps I was right to think that Van Gogh's mental illness helped to twist the branches of those trees, although that makes the work no less brilliant. As the character Dr. Black says in Vincent and the Doctor:
"Big question, but to me, Van Gogh is the finest painter of them all. Certainly the most popular great painter of all time. The most beloved. His command of color, the most magnificent. He transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray, but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world, no one had ever done it before. Perhaps no one ever will again. To my mind, that strange, wild man who roamed the fields of Provence was not only the world's greatest artist; but also one of the greatest men who ever lived."That's a bit superlative and perhaps over-the-top, but I'm not one to say that that fictional character's opinion is wrong. I still don't like those vases full of orange-brown sunflowers, but I'm glad now that for a few years of my childhood, German expressionist deer gave way to Van Gogh cypresses.