The Rocks, 1888
Vincent van Gogh, Dutch, 1853–1890
Oil on canvas
Canvas: 21 5/8 × 25 7/8 in. (54.9 × 65.7 cm) Frame: 30 × 34 5/8 × 2 1/4 in. (76.2 × 87.9 × 5.7 cm)
John A. and Audrey Jones Beck Collection, gift of Audrey Jones Beck

Habits of Mind

  • UNDERSTAND BIAS Understand assumption and various points of view / empathy

Computing Size and Age

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

This Curriculum Connection can be used in conjunction with Odilon Redon’s Les Arbres and Edward Steichen’s Trees, Long Island.

Curriculum Objectives

•  Calculate the height of a perpendicular element by using proportion.

•  Explain how the age of trees is determined.

•  Graph materials to illustrate collected data.






Understand Bias

Connecting to the Work of Art

A twisted oak tree dominates this rocky, windswept landscape.  This site is in the south of France, three miles northeast of Arles near the ruined medieval Abbey of Montmajour. Although van Gogh made many drawings of the abbey, The Rocks is his only painting of the countryside near Montmajour. He was so moved by these surroundings that he wrote an evocative letter, dated July 5, 1888, to his brother Theo:


Yesterday at sunset I was on a stony heath where some very small twisted oaks grow; in the background, a ruin on a hill, and wheat in the valley.  It was romantic…the sun pouring bright yellow rays on the bushes and the ground, a perfect shower of gold.  And all the lines were lovely, the whole thing nobly beautiful.  You would not have been surprised to see knights and ladies suddenly appear, coming back from hunting or hawking, or to have heard the voice of some old Provençal troubadour.  The fields looked violet, the distances blue.¹


The oak tree rises in the center of the painting, dominating the composition. Van Gogh directs attention to the tree by its large size, its central placement, and the contrast of its dark leaves against the pale sky. Typical of van Gogh’s style are the prominent brushstrokes of thick paint, which create a rich texture and sense of vitality, focusing attention on the flat surface of the painting. Layers of oil paint are built up on the canvas, giving a sculptural quality to the rocks and trees.


In van Gogh’s art, color is an important expressive element. Here the palette relies on cool blues and greens and warm yellows and oranges to capture the sunny landscape.  The harmony of colors is appropriate for the “romantic” mood and “nobly beautiful” effect the landscape evoked for van Gogh. The whites, creams, pale blues, and soft pink and peach tones describe the light-filled sky.


Although Vincent van Gogh’s paintings are now among the most famous and sought-after, he did not achieve success during his lifetime. Van Gogh was born in Holland in 1853.  His father was a strict Calvinist preacher, but three of his uncles were art dealers and Vincent grew up knowing and loving art. At the age of 26, van Gogh began painting. In 1886 he moved to Paris, where he was influenced by the loose brushwork and bright colors of the Impressionists. Financed by his brother Theo, in 1888 van Gogh moved to Arles in the south of France. During a period of extraordinary artistic productivity interspersed with bouts of insanity, he produced a large number of works, including The Rocks. On July 29, 1890, Vincent van Gogh shot himself. He died two days later.


Before moving to Arles, where he painted The Rocks, Van Gogh spent time in Paris visiting some of the early exhibitions of the Impressionists and seeing the work of artists such as Degas, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, and Seurat. During his time in Paris he became friends with the artist Paul Gauguin. While van Gogh was influenced by the methods of the Impressionists, his work explored the symbolic and expressive value of color, rather than atmosphere and light. For additional information about Impressionism, see Gustave Caillebotte’s The Orange Trees.


  1. Ronald Pickvance, Van Gogh in Arles (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1984), p. 118.



  • What aspects of nature do you see represented?
  • How has Van Gogh used the horizon line to divide the canvas?
  • Describe the sky. What type of weather does it depict?
  • In what ways does the artist draw your attention to the tree that rises in the center?
  • Examine and describe the types of brushstrokes used throughout the painting; i.e. short, thick, sweeping, layered? Locate them in the painting.
  • Describe the types of textures those brushstrokes create. Would you say they add energy to this work of art? Explain.
  • Notice areas where layers of paint are built up on the canvas. How does the application of paint resonate with the actual texture of the nature it represents, like the hard rocks and wispy sky?
  • Assess how the use of color complements those textures. Give evidence from the painting to support your assessment.
  • Observe and list the different shades and tints of colors. Distinguish between warm and cool colors. How does their juxtaposition affect the mood of the painting?
  • Upon visiting this place, the artist said he noticed “the sun pouring bright yellow rays on the bushes and the ground, a perfect shower of gold.1“ How is color used as a form of expression here?


  • Explain how the use of color might be considered to create a harmonious atmosphere. What other words could describe the tone of this painting?
  • Describe how it would feel to be standing in this scene. Where would you choose to stand? Why?
  • Have you ever visited or seen a landscape similar to this work of art? In what ways is the place you saw reminiscent of this painting? How was it different?
  • An artist makes choices in what he/she chooses to portray and here Van Gogh chose to focus on only certain parts of the wider landscape he saw. Hypothesize why he may have chosen to just focus on the tree and rocks. What parts of a landscape would you choose to focus upon? Why?
  • Van Gogh entitled this work of art, The Rocks. Correlate that title with the painting and your previous thoughts. What title would you give this painting?
  1. Ronald Pickvance, Van Gogh in Arles (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1984), p. 118.


  • Research different methods to estimate the height of trees. What formulas might you use? What tools might you need?
  • Go outside to observe trees, estimate the heights of the trees and measure their circumferences.
  • Sort trees in the area by height and circumference. Represent this data set in a graph or chart. Which kinds of graphs/charts effectively represent this data?
  • Research how the age of trees is computed. Look in the area for tree stumps, or find pictures and count the number of rings to compute the age. Represent this data set in a separate graph or chart.

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider