Van Gogh, The Sower – a closer look

The Sower, Vincent Van Gogh, December 1882, pencil, brush and ink, watercolour, The Hague

After following his brother Theo’s advice to pursue art, Van Gogh went to study anatomy at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in 1880. He returned to his parents’ home in 1881, where he focused heavily on drawing, and thus begun his serious artistic exploration.
Van Gogh greatly admired Jean-François Millet’s and his work had a profound influence on the emerging artist. Millet, who had quite a modest background, created nostalgic tributes to farmers, and Van Gogh identified with them and recognised the compassion in Millet’s work, which he highly valued.
Van Gogh began studying Millet’s work and produced drawings in order to learn how to paint. He drew The Sower (after Millet), pictured below, which was based on a black and white print of the painting. Van Gogh’s interpretation of the monochrome reproduction led to some interesting, minor inconsistencies; the grains that Van Gogh’s sower is scattering behind him were actually birds in Millet’s work.
That year Van Gogh also travelled to The Hague to try and sell his work, and to also meet with his second cousin, and successful artist, Anton Mauve. He returned to The Hague to study under Mauve a few months later after working in pastels and charcoal as Mauve had instructed. However, after a short month together, and a strained relationship, they had a final falling out about drawing from plaster casts. “First and foremost, I had to draw from plaster casts. I utterly detest drawing from plaster casts – yet I had a couple of hands and feet hanging in the studio, though not for drawing. Once he spoke to me about drawing from plaster casts in a tone that even the worst teacher at the academy wouldn’t have used, and I held my peace, but at home I got so angry about it that I threw the poor plaster mouldings into the coal-scuttle, broken. And I thought: I’ll draw from plaster casts when you lot become whole and white again and there are no longer any hands and feet of living people to draw.” [1]
The Sower, which Van Gogh produced at The Hague, is particularly poignant to the body of work on exhibition at the NGV, and Van Gogh himself, because it is a depiction of the seasons and the people who toil in order to maintain a meagre life. Van Gogh had lived in many rural areas and was captivated by the sowing of the wheat, the harvest, the sheaves of wheat in fields, and the haystacks, which you see increasingly in his later work in the late 1880s. The sower, amongst other working-class figures engaged in the field, formed a body of work ‘from the people for the people’, which Van Gogh thought ‘would be a good thing – not commercially but as a matter of public service and duty’[2]. He planned to produce thirty low-cost prints to create this body of work. Van Gogh sent photographs of four of his drawings of people working in the fields, including the Sower, to his brother (first image above). This is how he described the work to Theo, “Then a second Sower, with a light brown fustian jacket and trousers, so this figure stands out light against the black field, bordered by a little row of pollard willows. This is quite a different type, with a clipped beard, broad shoulders, rather thick-set, somewhat like an ox, in that his whole frame has been shaped by his labour in the fields. Perhaps more of an Eskimo type, thick lips, broad nose.’ [2]
Van Gogh wanted to show these figures in action – not at rest, because ‘there is more drudgery than rest in life.’  He worked on these series of working-class drawings because he tried ‘to work for the truth.’ [2]

The Sower (after Millet), Vincent Van Gogh, Oil on canvas, late October 1889, Saint-Rémy.

Millet’s influence on Van Gogh was clear during the early stages of his career. When he was living in Paris in 1886-87, his focused shifted from the fields to the Parisienne cafes. However, the countryside returned to his work when he moved to Arles in 1888, and then over three months from late 1889 to early 1990, Van Gogh produced twenty-one copies of Millet’s work. During this time Van Gogh was in the asylum at Saint- Rémy, and he described to Theo his own interpretations of the Millet’s works. ‘If someone plays Beethoven, he adds his own personal interpretation; in the music, especially in the singing, the interpretation also counts and the composer doesn’t have to be the only one to perform his compositions. Anyway, especially now I am ill, I am trying to create something to comfort me, for my own pleasure. I put the black and white by or after Delacroix or Millet in front of me to use as a motif. And then I improvise in colour […] seeking reminiscences of their paintings; but the memory, the vague consonance of colours while are at least correct in spirit, that is my interpretation.’ [3]
Written by Lauren Ottaway
[1] Vincent van Gogh. Letter 229 to Theo van Gogh. Written Friday 21 April 1882
[2] Vincent van Gogh. Letter 291 to Theo van Gogh. Written 3-5 December 1882
[3] Vincent van Gogh. Letter 607 to Theo van Gogh. Written 19 September 1889