Barely appreciated in his own time, positively lionised in ours, Vincent van Gogh led a life as familiar to us as that of any artist in history. His final years, in particular, hardly need recounting: including the infamous episode in which he cut off part of his ear in December 1888; a further mental breakdown a few months later; and his admitting himself to Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in Saint-Rémy (in southern France) in May 1889.
The artist found a kind of peace and tranquillity in Saint-Rémy, painting the asylum’s extensive gardens, as well as the pretty vistas beyond. In letters to his brother Theo, he wrote of the ‘health and fortifying power’ he took from ‘going out to look at a blade of grass, a branch of fir, an ear of wheat’.
The happiness wasn’t to last, however, and in late July — after returning to Arles, the town where he’d lived previously, to collect some paintings — he suffered another breakdown. Back at the asylum, he was unable to paint or even leave the confines of his bedroom for weeks. ‘My head is so deranged,’ he wrote to Theo in August 1889. ‘I no longer see any possibility of courage or hope.’
Le moissonneur (d’après Millet), which features in Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale in London on 27 June, was among the first works that Van Gogh painted as he recovered. At that point access to Saint-Paul-de-Mausole’s grounds — much less to human subjects — was forbidden, which is to say, the scope for new work was limited.
Van Gogh’s response was to copy a set of prints he possessed — of work by arguably his favourite artist, Jean-François Millet — adapting them into paintings of his own. Le moissonneur (d’après Millet), like the Frenchman’s original on which it is based, depicts a reaper at work, sweeping his scythe in the fields.
In 1852, Millet had produced a series of 10 drawings, called Les Travaux des champs, of quietly dignified peasant figures engaged in various harvest-time labours. Van Gogh would paint all of them — seven of these are now in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam; Le moissonneur — which can be translated as The Reaper — is one of just three in private hands.
‘A project born out of pragmatism soon became something far greater,’ explains Jay Vincze, Head of Impressionism & Modern Art at Christie’s in London. Van Gogh found consolation in Millet’s vision of rural existence, equating as it did the cycles of the harvest with the cycles of life.
The Dutch artist was aware of the biblical symbolism of the reaper figure — that harbinger of death, who cut down humans as if they were wheat. ‘But there’s nothing sad in this death,’ the artist observed. ‘It goes its way in broad daylight, with a sun flooding everything with a light of pure gold.’
To call the 10 paintings ‘copies’, as Theo described them, is misleading. ‘They were complete transformations,’ says Vincze. ‘The Millet source material was black and white, and Van Gogh conjured up colours that the Frenchman never dreamed of.’ Most dazzlingly is the contrast between the sky and the cornfield — in planes of cobalt blue and golden yellow, respectively. (With his yellow straw hat and blue shirt sleeves, the peasant acts as a kind of bridge between the two.)
‘It’s also a tour de force of brushwork,’ says Vincze of Van Gogh’s characteristic intensity. The field of swaying grain is imbued with an energy as dynamic as that of the reaper himself.
In due course, Van Gogh would head outside again and paint. In May 1890 he discharged himself from Saint-Paul-de-Mausole and moved north — to Auvers-sur-Oise, a town 20 miles outside Paris — to be nearer Theo, who was an art dealer in the French capital. A couple of months later, on 27 July, Vincent van Gogh shot himself in the chest. He died two days later, aged 37.
In the 21st century it has become almost impossible to separate Van Gogh’s art from the biographical context in which he made it, so deep-rooted has the myth of the troubled, transcendent genius become. Here was the suffering saint of modern art, martyred for a brilliance that his peers couldn’t comprehend. Van Gogh made little money from his paintings, yet Le moissonneur is now estimated at £12,500,000-16,500,000.
One contemporary was perspicacious enough to hail his adaptations of Millet, though: his brother. Van Gogh sent all 10 works to Theo in April 1890. The latter responded by calling them ‘perhaps the finest things you’ve ever done’.