Join Me at the Trees.

By: Jen Shoop

In 1890, Vincent Van Gogh painted his celebrated “Almond Blossom” canvas as a love gift for his namesake newborn nephew. The baby’s parents hung it above his crib and reported that little Vincent was “enthralled” by it. When I absorb this story, I see the painting anew: I can guess why Vincent bends the branches down close the viewer, why he presses our noses against the blossoms. We are looking at the bark and buds as might a child: cheeks pressed to limbs, heads bowed to branches. The canvas feels like an invitation to participate, as children, in the phantasmagoria of early spring. Tiny, enthralled Vincent seems to have received it that way. Me, too.

I attended a writing workshop earlier this week put on by the Smithsonian in which we did a “close reading” of this painting, idling over details and tracing the visible echoes of the Japanese printmaking tradition Van Gogh so dearly loved. It is shocking, the depths one might plumb, in spending just an hour with this one work, but I have been primarily thinking about the extraordinariness of this painting as a gift. What a legacy, what a provocation, to impart on a fresh-faced nephew:

Come join me at the trees.

At first greeting, I was struck by the painting’s pulsing tension — the blue sky against the gray tree, the forking angles of the branches, and, especially, the tender, delicate petals against the rugged, aged bark. But as I took a closer look at the brushstrokes, I began to see the ashiness of the branch echoed in the sepals of the buds, and the knobbiness of the branches in the roundness of the flower heads, and it was as though the canvas dissolved into primal, circular shapes and colors that told a different, less discordant story, one of continuity and repetition and the shocking way in which life and death intersect in the natural world.

Come join me at the trees, he seems to say. They bear the signature of all things, he seems to add. The cruel and buoying cyclicality of the seasons; the hope and impermanence of spring; the hearty, weather-beaten scaliness that welcomes unmarked petals.


+Imprints of a new (suburban) lifestyle.

+The first job each morning.

+Lessons from birding.

Shopping Break.

+Most-asked question I receive via Instagram: “where is your phone case from?” It is a Goyard-inspired pink case I found on Etsy from a boutique that no longer exists. However, just found some really similar ones here! Ordered myself the green.

+This striped skirt is absolutely perfect — and $50 off with code SHOPITSF.

+Zara absolutely nailing it again with this $60 ditty.

+Stunning summer wedding guest dress.

+Just ordered one of these quick-dry hair towel wraps. I also find that this “bond smoother” dramatically reduces drying time for my hair — probably by half. I’m not joking!

+Tory Burch brought back a slightly updated platform fisherman sandal! I love the cream color. I own last season’s version in the brown and wore them constantly. (You can get last season’s style in a cool pistachio green hue on super sale here.)

+The aforementioned sandals are dreamy with a maxi/midi-length dress — love this tile-print caftan from H&M. Affordable take on Agua Bendita vibes.

+This pink and white rash guard is beyond precious. I love all of the prints Minnow uses, but this one is just forever sweet.

+It probably won’t surprise you that I just ordered this book of letters between Van Gogh and his brother.

+A bouquet of pretty new spring pens.

+These Target flip-flops have a terry cloth upper that is SO fun. I love them in the pink?! I’ve been seeing cute little terry pieces all over the place lately, and actually have this and this as potential purchases for summer…

+Sweetest petal pink top.

+A girl can dream…

+My favorite shorts for my son. I already stocked up on multiple colors for the season ahead.

+A reasonably priced woven coffee table!

+Liberty-inspired cosmetic bags.

+Love this seashell print Marysia dress.

+Sweet and soft day dress for a little lady.

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14 thoughts on “Join Me at the Trees.

  1. I have a fantasy of enrolling in the Smithsonian art/art history courses some day (retirement? an unforeseen sabbatical?). Would love to hear more about your experience with them. I peruse the catalogue of offerings, from time to time, in lust!

    1. Oh girl! Me too. I hav fantasies of somehow being back at school / auditing lectures (?) / participating in traveling academic programs at some point in my future. Like, can you imagine a trip to Europe where you read Hemingway and Fitzgerald in the settings they describe? Ahh.

      The Smithsonian workshops with Mary Surface Hall are excellent — almost designed for me! — because they are more about personal process / you don’t need to share much with the group. Instead, she guides your reading of various poems and paintings and then tees you up for timeboxed writing prompts. Then you might share a single word or phrase from your work with the group and it’s just enough to get a taste of some of the interesting things others are writing without feeling too distracting from your own efforts. Really good. I strongly suggest!


  2. Just had to tell you that your post today felt like the universe winking at me! My debut thriller releases next month, and in it I have a mini storyline with Van Gogh–and I reference this painting of his in particular. So fun that you happen to touch on it today. I was also moved by his having painted it for his baby nephew.

    And on another note, do you recommend Smithsonian writing classes–and any in particular? Interacting with paintings sounds like such a fun way to spark fresh writing. Thanks as always for your posts, they brighten my day!

    1. Oh my gosh! Meant to be. Gretel and her breadcrumb trail for sure. Please share a link to your work!!


      1. Oh! And I do really enjoy the Smithsonian workshops run by Mary Surface Hall. This was my third one, and she always involves visual arts in them. Really interesting to do “close readings” of images and then translate some of those observations/moods into writing.


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