On most mornings between May 1889 and May 1890, the outside world visible to Vincent van Gogh appeared much like it does in Laboureur dans un champ : a low stone wall enclosing a wheat field, a few poplars, an old farm house, a ploughman tilling the soil. Van Gogh began this painting in the final days of August 1889, completing it on 2 September.
It was a momentous development for Van Gogh, who had not handled his brushes for a month and a half. Dr. Théophile Peyron and the attendants at the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole in Saint-Rémy had locked the artist out of his studio, awaiting his return to good health and a stable, less frenzied state of mind.
Six weeks earlier, a devastating epileptic ‘attack’, as Van Gogh called it, had wreaked havoc on his mind and body. An episode of this magnitude had last occurred in Arles in December 1888, following a violent argument with Paul Gauguin in the ‘Yellow House’ they had shared for two months. Van Gogh was already deeply upset at having learnt that his brother, Theo, planned to marry; the artist worried that this development would put an end to their close relationship.
Gauguin feared for his safety, and spent the night in a hotel. Believing that his friend was leaving him for good, Van Gogh fell into a delirium and severed his left ear with a razor. He spent the next two weeks in the Arles hospital.
One month later, local authorities again placed Van Gogh under hospital supervision when he displayed symptoms of another attack. Reverend Frédéric Salles, one of the artist’s few friends in the town, suggested that he voluntarily enter the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole. Theo van Gogh agreed.
‘I think I’ve done well to come here,’ Van Gogh reassured his brother on 9 May 1889. ‘Little by little I can come to consider madness as being an illness like any other.’
For the first month of his stay at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, Van Gogh was kept under close observation, restricted to the inner grounds. ‘Through the iron-barred window I can make out a square of wheat in an enclosure,’ he wrote to his brother, ‘above which in the morning I see the sun rise in its glory.’
While the other patients typically spent their days in idleness, Van Gogh began working the day after his arrival. ‘I’ve been here almost a whole month, not one single time have I had the slightest desire to be elsewhere; just the will to work is becoming a tiny bit firmer,’ he wrote to Theo on 31 May 1889. ‘What a beautiful land and what beautiful blue and what a sun! And yet I’ve only seen the garden and what I can make out through the window.’
‘The act of painting for Van Gogh was cathartic,’ says Conor Jordan, Deputy Chairman, Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie’s in New York. ‘It allowed him to express himself and feel his way through the emotions he was experiencing.’
For one year, Van Gogh painted the field at varying times of day, in a range of weathers, and at different stages in the planting and harvest cycle. Although he never conceived of them as a series, each of the 13 canvases he painted of this view share the same basic elements: the wall traversing the upper edge of the landscape, farm buildings, and distant hills.
On 18 June 1889, Van Gogh painted The Starry Night, mentioning his ‘new study of a starry sky’ in a letter to Theo that day: ‘As regards work, it occupies and distracts me — which I need very much, far from wearing me out.’ But the electrifying painting he had just completed presaged a crisis to come.
Dr. Félix Rey, a young surgeon who had treated Van Gogh after his episode in Arles, astutely suspected that his patient was suffering from epilepsy. In July 1889, Van Gogh suffered the relapse he had long feared. ‘This new crisis,’ he wrote to his brother in August, ‘came upon me in the fields, and when I was in the middle of painting on a windy day.’ On his return to St. Paul’s Hospital, he is reported to have drunk kerosene and eaten some of his paints. Dr. Peyron had no choice but to keep his patient away from his work until he seemed recovered.
‘I’m struggling with all my energy to master my work, telling myself that if I win this it will be the best lightning conductor for the illness’ — Vincent van Gogh
‘It’s to be presumed that these crises will recur in the future, it is ABOMINABLE,’ the artist wrote to Theo. ‘For these days, without anything to do and without being able to go into the room [Dr. Peyron] had allocated me for doing my painting, are almost intolerable.’ Van Gogh did not resume painting until the end of August; the first canvas he finished is likely to have been Laboureur dans un champ.
‘Yesterday I started working again a little — a thing I see from my window,’ Van Gogh wrote to his brother. ‘Work distracts me infinitely better than anything else, and if I could once again really throw myself into it with all my energy that might possibly be the best remedy.’
Vincent Van Gogh, letter to Theo Van Gogh, September 1889
‘What I love about this painting is its life force,’ says Jordan. ‘The ebb and flow gives an insight into the complexity of Van Gogh’s own psyche.’
‘Van Gogh had always felt a connection with the subject of labour,’ Jordan explains. In the figure of the ploughman in Laboureur dans un champ Van Gogh ‘saw parallels with his own mission as an artist, which for him was a constant struggle,’ the specialist continues. ‘What marks the painting is its deep engagement with the soil,’ with the ‘turbulence of the earth.’
The painting exemplifies the artist's ‘increased expressive gusto,’ says the specialist: the paint surface of the enclosed field is executed in ‘rich, clotted pigment, giving it an almost sculptural sense,’ while the purples and warm earth colours ‘set the worker in stark relief.’ In a way, the field ‘evokes a seascape,’ says Jordan. ‘There’s a current to it, a storm to it.’
Immediately after completing Laboureur dans un champ, Van Gogh embarked on a series of portraits, hoping to impress upon Dr. Peyron and his brother that he had recovered. For a while, however, he remained in his studio, taking stock of his inner resources.
‘I’m struggling with all my energy to master my work, telling myself that if I win this it will be the best lightning conductor for the illness,’ Van Gogh wrote to Theo in September 1889. ‘I take great care of myself by carefully shutting myself away; it’s selfish if you like,’ he continued, but ‘work is progressing and we have need of that, for it’s more than necessary that I do better than before, which wasn’t sufficient... I must do better than before.’