Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)
Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)

Le semeur

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)
Le semeur
signed 'Vincent' (lower right)
charcoal, chalk and wash on paper
22.7/8 x 12.1/8 in. (58 x 30.8 cm.)
Executed in September 1881
Dr H.P. Bremmer, The Hague.
F. Bremmer, The Hague.
E.J. van Wisselingh & Co., Amsterdam.
F.A.C. Guépin, London, and thence by descent to the present owner in 1966.
W. Vanbeselaere, De Hollandsche Periode in het Werk van Vincent van Gogh, 1937, pp. 54, 66-67, 172-174 & 407.
The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, vol. I, London, 1958, letter 150, p. 239.
J. Hulsker, The Complete Van Gogh, Paintings, Drawings, Sketches, New York, 1980, no. 18 (illustrated p. 17).
J.B. De La Faille, Vincent Van Gogh, The Complete Works on Paper, Catalogue Raisonné, vol. I, San Francisco, 1992, no. 858 (illustrated vol. II, p. IX).
L. Jansen, H. Luijten, N. Bakker, eds., Vincent Van Gogh. The Letters, The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition, vol. I, The Hague - Etten, 1872-1881, London, 2009, Letter 172, p. 280.
Memphis, Dixon Gallery and Gardens, The Genius of Van Gogh, May - June 1982, no. 1 (illustrated p. 13).

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Adrienne Everwijn-Dumas
Adrienne Everwijn-Dumas

Lot Essay

Belonging to a series of unflagging, committed drawings, Le semeur ranks among Van Gogh’s first independent works, revealing the artist’s interest in harnessing his new-found technique and subject-matter. Capturing the peasant’s centuries-old gesture, in Le semeur Van Gogh has given his sower a monumental presence, turning the subject into a timeless image of man labouring the earth. Combining strong lines with softer, sfumato effects, the work illustrates Van Gogh’s understanding of the expressive qualities of black crayon. Le semeur also illustrates the artist’s inventiveness: using a white wash, Van Gogh has managed to subtly evoke the distinction between earth and sky, setting the figure in a rarefied, somewhat abstract, but recognizable spacial dimension.
In 1881 – at the time he executed Le semeur – Van Gogh was living at his parents’ house in Etten. Having seen his ambition to become an evangelist priest miserably fail the year before, Van Gogh had become determined to train himself as a painter and first of all as a draughtsman. Even though he never had any official training, Van Gogh had adopted the academy’s principle of copying from the Old Masters. In his letters, he urged his brother Theo to send him reproductions of Millet’s work that he could replicate and study. On August 1880, he wrote to him: ‘If I am not mistaken, you must still have “Les Travaux des Champs” by Millet. Would you be so kind as to lend them to me for a short time, and send them by mail?’ (Letter 134, The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, vol. I, London, 1958, p. 200). He explained: ‘I must tell you that I am busy trying to sketch large drawings after Millet and that I have already finished “The Four Hours of the Day” as well as “The Sower”’ (ibid., p. 200). In Etten, in 1881, Van Gogh returned to Millet’s The Sower once again, exploring the subject in a drawing now held at the Van Gogh Museum. The theme had a great significance for Van Gogh, who returned to it more than 30 times throughout his career.
Within that context, Le semeur marks Van Gogh’s first steps as an independent artist. Although exploring the same subject as Millet’s work, the drawing captures Van Gogh’s endeavour to capture reality with his own eyes. Leaving Millet’s works aside, in Etten Van Gogh started drawing from models. In September 1881, he wrote to Theo: ‘…I have begun to work from a live model again. Fortunately, I have been able to persuade several persons here to sit for me, Piet Kaufman, the gardener, for instance’ (Letter 159, ibid., p. 239). Kaufman himself may have posed for Le semeur, as his distinctive profile can be recognised. Rather than showing a spontaneous scene, Le semeur seems to depict a staged pose, set in profile in order to offer the best possible view of the subject. By asking his model to assume the pose of a sower, Van Gogh was not only paying homage to Millet, but also venturing into his own artistic adulthood, trying to perceive and portray reality according to his own means. For Van Gogh, drawings such as Le semeur constituted invaluable, crucial studies that allowed him to develop his skills, but also to grow closer to the working class, which he had vowed to depict. In September 1881, he was resolute on this point: ‘Diggers, sowers, plowers, male and female, they are what I must draw continually. I have to observe and draw everything that belongs to country life (…) I no longer stand helpless before nature, as I used to’ (Letter 150, ibid., p. 239).

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