‘I’ve been spying on these peasant figures here for a year and a half and on their activities, precisely to get some character into it,’ Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, in July 1885, describing the extensive preparation and focus that lay behind his most recent figure studies (Letters, no. 512; 6 July 1885, in L. Jansen, H. Luijten & N. Bakker, eds., Vincent van Gogh: The Letters. The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition, Vol. 3, London, 2009, p. 257). The artist had moved to Nuenen in December 1883, and over the course of the following two years dedicated himself to recording the many different facets of life he witnessed in the small Dutch town. In a myriad of paintings and drawings Van Gogh focused his eye on the rhythms of the local community, capturing the everyday occurrences that marked the existence of these rural peasants, from figures toiling in the fields as they gathered a harvest, to the quiet domestic tasks of women in the home, and the intimacy of a shared meal amongst family after a long day of work. Created in the summer of 1885, Aardappelrooier is a monumental depiction of one such figure, pitchfork in hand, as he roots out a handful of potatoes from the ground.
Showing the FIGURE OF THE PEASANT IN ACTION, you see that’s what a figure is – I repeat – essentially modern – the heart of modern art itself—that which neither the Greeks, nor the Renaissance, nor the old Dutch school have done … this is a matter I think about every day”
In many ways, the drawings that emerged during the summer of 1885 were born out of Van Gogh’s early masterwork, The Potato Eaters (Hulsker, no. 764; Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam). At the beginning of May, the artist had sent a case containing the second, revised, and larger version of the complex, multi-figure subject to his brother in Paris. While Van Gogh considered this painting a significant achievement – indeed, his finest, most personally definitive work to date – Theo’s response to the picture was decidedly cool, critiquing the execution, content, and effect of the composition. In Vincent’s letters to Theo over the ensuing months, the artist defended the blunt naturalism he had employed in The Potato Eaters, championing most ardently the worthiness of his subjects. At the same time, he admitted that his figures needed more work and set about depicting more exact representations of the human form in a large series of drawings of rural agricultural workers, completing nearly seventy full-length figure studies of peasants at work in the fields around Nuenen through the summer months, as they gathered in the July harvest or broke ground to plant new crops.
What I try to acquire is not to draw a hand but the gesture, not a mathematically correct head, but the general expression. For instance, when a digger lifts up and sniffs the wind or speaks. In short, life”
In an effort to better understand the volumes and three-dimensionality of the human body, Van Gogh looked to the principles of Eugène Delacroix in these works, breaking bodies down into a series of circles, ovals and ellipses. Working from the torso outwards, his figures were now marked by a new physicality: ‘In these new drawings I’m starting the figures with the torso,’ the artist explained to Theo, ‘and it seems to me that they’re fuller and broader as a result. If 50 aren’t enough, I’ll draw 100 of them, and if that’s still not enough, even more, until I’ve got what I want solidly…’ (Letters, no. 506; 2 June 1885, in ibid., p. 250). Though bent over at the waist and looking downwards, there is an almost statuesque monumentality to the labourer’s stocky form in Aardappelrooier, delineated in robust strokes of black chalk, a medium the artist had come to favour over pencil for its rich expressive qualities around this time. The result is a richly worked drawing in which Van Gogh imbues the humble peasant farmer with a hardy, earthy character, as solid and unchanging as the landscape in which he stands.
Van Gogh’s ‘counsellor and guide’ in this work, as he wrote to Theo, was Jean-François Millet, whose powerful paintings of labourers the artist deeply admired throughout his career (Letters, no. 493; 13 April 1885, in ibid., p. 225). Indeed, in many ways he considered the great French Realist painter something of a mentor – by the early 1880s, Van Gogh had collected almost fifty prints and reproductions of the artist’s work, which he then tacked to his walls, and had eagerly devoured Alfred Sensier’s biography of the painter. In another letter to Theo, Van Gogh expressed his wish to understand and relate to his subjects as Millet had, explaining that he wanted to ‘paint peasants as if one were one of them, as feeling, thinking as they do themselves’ (Letters, no. 497; 30 April 1885, in ibid., p. 232). In his own work, Van Gogh hoped to approach what he saw as Millet’s allusion to profound truths through forthright realism, and the sowers, diggers, peasant women and farmers from these years in Nuenen all owe a clear debt to works such as Les Glaneuses (1857; Musée d’Orsay, Paris) and Le Semeur (1850; The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).
Lot Essay Header Image: The present lot illustrated (detail).