In his first month in the asylum, Vincent was not permitted or able to work outdoors. When he finally did go outside, in June, he decided to paint characteristic Provençal subjects, such as the Alpilles, the olive trees and the omnipresent cypresses. In late June 1889, he wrote to his brother Theo that he was busy painting cypresses. He explained why he was drawn to them:
“The cypresses still preoccupy me, I’d like to do something with them like the canvases of the sunflowers because it astonishes me that no one has yet done them as I see them. It’s beautiful as regards lines and proportions, like an Egyptian obelisk. And the green has such a distinguished quality. It’s the dark patch in a sun-drenched landscape, but it’s one of the most interesting dark notes, the most difficult to hit off exactly that I can imagine."
The imposing trees constituted a defining theme of his work in Saint-Rémy; he painted and drew them dozens of times, never tiring of them. In early December 1889, he wrote to his brother:
He would not get the chance, however. In December and February, Vincent suffered severe attacks that left him barely able to work outside the asylum.