“The Sower” – Jean Francois Millet
For three years Van Gogh (1853-1890) single mindedly pursued his calling to the ministry, first as a student of theology and then as a missionary to the coal miners in Belgium. Deeply moved by the poverty surrounding him, Van Gogh gave all his possessions, including most of his clothing, to the miners. Van Gogh admired Christ’s humility as a common laborer and “man of sorrows” whose life he tried to imitate. The church came to see Van Gogh suffering from excessive zeal and he did not preach well. He left the church in 1879. “I wish they would only take me as I am,” he said in a letter to Theo, his brother. He wrote,” I think it a splendid saying of Victor Hugo’s, ‘Religions pass away, but God remains’. He saw Jesus as the supreme artist By 1880, he had abandoned a religioous career and turned to art helped by brother Theo. In the next 10 years, he would move 10 times, his life characterized by periods of depression and periods of a sort of mania.
The sower was inspired by Jean-François Millet’s ‘Sower’ from 1850 which was inspired by the Matthew 13. Van Gogh had tried several times to produce a serious painting on the same theme and then abandoned it. Van Gogh’s early work comprises dour portraits of Dutch peasants and depressing rural landscapes
In 1886-88 he moved to Paris, where Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism had a big impact on his painting. He brightened his palette, experimented with shorter brushstrokes, impasto, and complementary colors.
Vincent van Gogh returned to a motif that he had tackled several times since his move to Arles, in the south of France, in 1888. The change in scenery may have provided what he needed. Arles was bathed in brilliant light and color in contrast to his earlier life in the north of Europe.
Van Gogh regarded the seasonal growth cycle of the crops – particularly that of wheat- as a metaphor for the creation of new life, growth, flowering and finally decline. As such the activity of sowing as evening falls constitutes an apposite symbol for the continuity of life.
His painting’s originality was to lie in the violent juxtaposition of bold colors, which he tried to achieve by painting the top part of the picture predominantly yellow and the lower part in complementary violet. The sower’s trousers are white to ‘allow the eye to rest and distract it from the excessive contrast between yellow and violet together’
What is different now also 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 deviated from the rest of the impressionists. Van Gogh’s sun is diffferent from the impressionists who tried to shape suns based on optics. For Van Gogh color always fit the meaning.
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 . The other impressionists did it differently. 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.
Although Van Gogh had faithfully adhered to artistic principles he so firmly believed in, he was disappointed with the result. His confidence somewhat shaken, he made various changes to the painting. He softened the contrast by mixing green into the yellow sky and orange into the field. The white of the sower’s trousers, though useful as a device to rest the eye, was nevertheless an odd color for a peasant’s working clothes, and he subsequently changed it to blue. As a final gesture, Van Gogh then painted a surround in complementary colors violet around the yellow sky and yellow around the violet field – presumably in the hope of salvaging at least part of his original idea. He radically recast his own sower after the example of Millet’s figure, moved it further from the center of the composition, and painted out the trees on the horizon to the right of the sun. It became “Sower with Setting Sun.” (1888)
In spite of his disappointment, the motif continued to haunt him. By December he had made four more attempts at it. Probably under the influence of Gauguin, he sought to imbue his adaptation of Millet’s example with fresh vitality by working on the form rather than the colors.
“The Sower” – Vincent VanGogh
The other one
In contrast to earlier versions, the composition of this painting also 1888 draws the eye firmly to the figure of the sower. He is enlarged. His silhouette is balanced by an almost equally dark tree trunk on the right, cropped at the top and bottom of the picture.
Both are seen directly against the light of the setting sun unlike the other painting, which, vastly enlarged as it nears the horizon, glows like a halo behind the sower’s bowed head. Van Gogh toned down the yellow of the sky with green and gave the sun a dark outline, so successfully capturing the onset of nightfall.
The sun dominates more here , looming over the shoulders of the sower and right on the horizon line, a domineering terrible presence.
Especially striking in this version are the bright, unnatural colours and the unusual composition, in which the knotty tree in the foreground constitutes a diagonal division of the canvas. His inspiration for this may have come from a Japanese print.
The level fields and the sky are saturated with color, predominantly hues of green and violet. This work dates from a period when Paul Gauguin was staying in Arles at van Gogh’s invitation, the two of them painting together. In this context it can be seen as a revealing response in which van Gogh disassociates himself from the work of his friend and rival.
Gauguin’s paintings from the days in Arles are characterized by an attempt to merge figures and their surroundings into one large common pattern. Van Gogh’s Sower, in contrast, derives its power from the succinct juxtaposition of figure and landscape. He was so pleased with this work that he signed it, quite against his usual practice.