Saturday, August 16, 2008

Van Gogh, The Sower

The Sower, 1888

The Sower with the Sun, 1888

Both of these paintings are variations on The Sower by Jean-Francois Millet, one of Vincent Van Gogh's heroes. Millet probably based his grand figure striding across the fields on the parable of the Sower in Matthew 13:4-43. Van Gogh certainly had that parable in mind. The Sower in the Gospel of Matthew is about the Last Judgment. God sows the seeds of the spirit in the soil of humanity and returns at the Last Day to reap the harvest. That almost certainly accounts for the terrible grandeur of both of these paintings.
These paintings were made in the south of France near Arles in Provence, a very different place from the village of Nuenen in the Borinage region of Belgium where he began painting. Instead of the cold damp gloom of northern Europe, Van Gogh found himself immersed in the brilliant sunshine of the Mediterranean. At that time, Provence was a backwater, certainly not the playground of stylish international plutocrats that it is today. Like the Borinage in Belgium, it was inhabited largely by marginal farmers. As he did in Belgium, Van Gogh took a keen interest in the life and work of the local farming people. These paintings are the culmination of a long series of pictures of farm work outside of Arles.
What is different now is the large role that nature plays in the drama. Nature begins to overtake the people working the land as the principal actor in Van Gogh's painting. The main drama in the painting at the top is between that huge sun in the center and the ploughed earth that fills the bottom three quarters of the picture. Van Gogh's composition is very deliberate placing the sun in the center like something to be worshipped and revered on an altar or in an icon. The sun dominates even more in the bottom picture, looming over the shoulders of the sower and right on the horizon line, a domineering terrible presence. The pollard willow tree cuts across the center, emulating the fragmentary compositions of Hiroshige that Van Gogh admired, making the painting seem even more expansive by implying a breadth beyond the framing edges.
Gone are the dark earthy colors of Rembrandt. Instead, we now have brilliant colors, unmixed, straight out of the tube, troweled on with a palette knife and a bristle brush. Yes, this does reflect his experience of Impressionism during his stay in Paris with Theo. But, what he is doing is sharply different from the optical painting of the Impressionists. By the standards of Impressionism, those big yellow suns are downright childish. Van Gogh's work has none of that optical luminosity of a work by Monet. Monet thought of color in terms of the spectrum and optical science. He was familiar with the writings of everyone from Newton to Chevreul on the physics of color. For Monet, yellow was a particular wavelength of visible light. For Van Gogh, colors were filled with meaning; he wrote about the "tragedy of malachite green." Yellow almost always played the role of quickening light and power in his paintings. Van Gogh never bothered much with overall light effects because he believed that every color had its own light. Color played a role in his painting almost completely separate from any description of visual experience, despite the fact that he often worked from life.
Monet used the brushstroke to equalize all the elements in the field of vision that he was recording; the sky, water, trees, and people all were painted with the same general size and type of brushstrokes. What counted was the overall color effect, not the particular things in a scene. Compared to the brushwork of Monet or Renoir, Van Gogh's is much more deliberate and orderly. Each particular in the picture gets its own unique mark of the brush. The sky in the top picture is filled with short strokes of yellow and ochre that radiate out from the sun in the center. The ploughed field in the foreground is made with short curving strokes of blue and orange .
In the foreground of the top painting is a path that leads straight out from us, the viewer, into the ploughed field and peters out. This is one of the earliest uses of a kind of inconclusive perspective that will play an ever larger and more meaningful role in Van Gogh's work.


Padre Mickey said...

Nice pichures.
An award? Okay, I gibbitayoo

Anonymous said...

But there was another painting almost identical to "The Sower", 1888. I have a fairly good visual memory, but none at all for abstract information. Who is he copying?

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

I was lucky enough to attend the Studio of the South exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, which included both of these paintings. I love the way he so often paired yellow and blue, or red and green in his work. I often sense so much energy in his paintings.

Counterlight said...

Van Gogh was copying Millet's Sower which is linked at the beginning of the post.

Anonymous said...


And the link goes to a detail of the original painting, right? I mean, the link doesn't go to the entire piece?

Counterlight said...

Yes, that's the entire painting, Millet's Sower.

Anonymous said...

No, there is someone else. It has to do with the rocky soil and someone saying that the whole thing looks like rocky soil, and how is the seed going to grow anywhere at all? Sorry, this is very silly, and very troubling. It may have been Audacious Deviant. I'll go check.

Anonymous said...

Ok. It was Audacious Deviant, here...

I would really like to know which of you has the tonal elements right, because I will not have the honor of seeing this painting in the flesh, I am quite sure.


Counterlight said...

My colors are probably too bright, and Audacious Deviant's are certainly washed out (not his fault, or mine).
I've not seen the originals of these pictures, but Van Gogh's colors in the originals I have seen are usually very bright.

That's the peril of reproductions, they tend to vary in quality a lot. In my experience, the artist whose work never looks right in reproduction is Rembrandt. He's actually a very subtle colorist, but his paintings all reproduce a kind of reddish brown. I've never seen reproductions that get his colors right, only more or less.
Keep in mind that none of these artists anticipated mass reproduction.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Doug.


Helen Canzoneri kept telling us that in Newton, KS when I was in the high school extracurricular gathering that she did out of her own generosity for us, 1968-69 (as you do here).

We also broke Venetian glass by virtue of her husband and sons and my chamber music (string quartets - very loud and "sonorous"). That was scary, let me tell you. She had *just* been to Venice, and she was so relieved and pleased to have finally brought the glass back to KS!

So anyway, I'm going to Minneapolis in September. What, if you please, may I see there in addition to the workshop I will attend? I mean, which museums or other venues would you suggest, please?

Counterlight said...

I've never been to Minneapolis, but I know that the collection of the art museum there is definitely worth checking out.

fobbo said...

I find your contrast and comparison of Monet and van Gogh to be cogent and insightful. Your analysis of van Gogh's use of color is particularly apt.Such clearly expressed and accurate observations regarding painting are quite refreshing.