“Long Grass with Butterflies” was painted at the end of Van Gogh’s stay at the Saint-Paul Asylum, since renamed the Clinique Van Gogh. In his letters, he described the “abandoned gardens” depicted in the painting, in which “the grass grows tall and unkempt, mixed with all kinds of weeds.”
We cannot speculate about his mental or emotional state, but the fact that these “abandoned” gardens are behind an asylum is poignant and telling in itself. Van Gogh’s characteristically vibrant colors are underscored with a discordant black, and the eponymous black-outlined butterflies are beautiful when found, but are nearly lost in the chaotic, kinetic landscape.
The viewer of the garden is looking downwards, limited to a perspective that is quite literally depressed. Beyond the long, untended grass we can see a thin, faraway footpath with an unseen destination, as well as the beginnings of trees that are abruptly cut off. The world has become very small, this tells us–small and loud with tantalizing signs of an expansive elsewhere just outside of our field of vision.