On most mornings for an entire year, between 9 May 1889 and 16 May 1890, as Vincent van Gogh rose from his bed and gazed through the single window in his room, the world outside appeared to him much like it does in this painting. A wheat field enclosed within a low stone wall, a few poplars, and an old farm house loomed into view among the long shadows in the early morning half-light. Vincent’s window faced due east; each morning at the appointed moment the spectacle of the ascending, glowing disc of the sun would exhilarate and inspire him. Having begun this painting of a ploughman tilling the soil of this very plot of land during the final days of August 1889, the artist completed it on 2 September. This was a momentous development for Vincent; he had not handled his brushes for a month and a half, not since mid-July. Dr. Théophile Peyron and the attendants at the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole in Saint-Rémy had taken care to lock Vincent out of his studio, as they awaited his return to good health and a stable, less frenzied state of mind.
Six weeks previously, a devastating epileptic episode, an all-consuming firestorm, had wreaked havoc on Vincent’s mind and body. An “attack”, as the artist called it, of this magnitude and ferocity had last occurred in Arles on 23 December 1888, following a violent argument with Paul Gauguin in the small “Yellow House” they had shared for the previous two months. Vincent was already deeply upset at having received word from his brother Theo that he planned to marry; Vincent worried that this development would end their close relationship, on which he was emotionally and financially dependent. Fearing for his safety, Gauguin fled to spend the night in a hotel. Believing that his friend was departing for good—a second threat of abandonment—Vincent plunged into a delirium of hallucinations and self-recrimination. He pulled out a razor and severed the larger part of his upper left ear, wrapped it, and left it as a gift for Gabrielle, a young woman who worked as maid in the local brothel. Found at home the next day bleeding and unconsciousness, Vincent spent the next two weeks in the Arles hospital.
Local authorities again had Vincent placed under hospital care and supervision when a month later he displayed symptoms of another attack. His neighbors meanwhile successfully petitioned the mayor not to allow him back among them—it became clear that Vincent could not live anywhere on his own. Reverend Frédéric Salles, pastor of the Reformed Protestant Church in Arles, one of Vincent’s few friends in the town, suggested that he voluntarily enter the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole in Saint-Rémy. Theo agreed with this idea, and approved the additional cost of placing Vincent in a small private institution instead of a larger, cheaper public facility in which the care accorded his brother might not be as attentive or reliable.
Although Saint-Rémy lies only fifteen miles to the northeast of Arles, the winding railway trip through the Alpilles, including passage through the ominously named Hell Gate, took two hours. Reverend Salles accompanied the artist, and was present when Vincent introduced himself to Dr. Peyron at St. Paul’s Hospital. “[Vincent] thanked me profusely,” Salles wrote to Theo on 10 May 1889, “and seemed somewhat moved at the thought of the completely new life he was going to lead at that establishment. Let us hope that his stay will be truly beneficial for him and that soon he will be regarded as capable of resuming his complete freedom of movement” (quoted in J. Hulsker, "Vincent's Stay in the Hospitals at Arles and St.-Rémy," Cahier Vincent 1, 1971, pp. 35-36).
“I wanted to tell you that I think I’ve done well to come here,” Vincent reassured Theo on 9 May 1889. “In seeing the reality of the lives of the diverse mad or cracked people in this menagerie, I’m losing the vague dread, the fear of the thing. And little by little I can come to consider madness as being an illness like any other. Then the change of surroundings is doing me good, I imagine” (Letters, no. 772).
During the first month of his stay at St. Paul’s Hospital, Vincent was kept under close observation. He was restricted to the rooms and inner grounds of the institution, in which Dr. Peyron and his staff were treating only about thirty patients in all. “I assure you that I’m very well here,” Vincent wrote to Theo on or around 23 May. “I haven’t yet gone outside. However, the landscape of Saint-Rémy is very beautiful, and little by little I’m probably going to make trips into it. But staying here as I am, the doctor has naturally been in a better position to see what was wrong, and will, I dare hope, be more reassured that he can let me paint...
“Through the iron-barred window I can make out a square of wheat in an enclosure, perspective in the manner of Van Goyen, above which in the morning I see the sun rise in its glory. With this—as there are more than 30 empty rooms—I have another room in which to work...
“Speaking of my condition, I’m still so grateful for yet another thing. I observe in others that, like me, they too have heard sounds and strange voices during their crises, that things also appeared to change before their eyes. And that softens the horror that I retained at first of the crisis I had, and which when it comes to you unexpectedly, cannot but frighten you beyond measure. Once one knows that it’s part of the illness one takes it like other things. Had I not seen other mad people at close hand I wouldn’t have been able to rid myself of thinking about it all the time” (Letters, no. 776).
The former monastery configuration of the hospital buildings enclosed a large garden, to which Vincent was allowed access. Walking its paths gave him much pleasure and induced some welcome peace of mind. The profusion of flowers—oleanders, irises, and lilacs—amid unkempt and overgrown foliage soon became the simple but ample inspiration for the first paintings and drawings that the artist created in Saint-Rémy. Working, Vincent believed, would be the key to his recovery. At the same time, he remained perpetually in fear of the next attack, the possibility of which—he understood and inwardly sensed—would become more likely, and spaced more closely together, after each event. Under the watchful eye and guidance of Dr. Peyron, however, and sheltered within the cloister-like environment of the asylum, Vincent grew hopeful there would be less danger of a relapse, and he took some comfort in knowing that should an attack recur, he would quickly receive proper professional attention and care.
While the other patients typically spent their days in idleness, Vincent began writing and working the very next day after his arrival. He penned his first letter from Saint-Rémy in two sections, the first to Theo and the second to his sister-in-law Jo, dated 9 May, which he posted around the middle of month. “I have two [paintings] on the go—violet irises [Faille, no. 608; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles] and a lilac bush [no. 579; The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg].” Vincent described to Jo how the other patients “all come to see when I’m working in the garden, and I can assure you they are more discreet and more polite to leave me in peace than, for example, the good citizens of Arles. It’s possible that I’ll stay here for quite a long time—never have I been so tranquil as here...to be able to paint a little at last. Very near here are some little grey or blue mountains, with very, very green wheat fields at their foot, and pines” (Letters, no. 772).
“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,” Vincent wrote 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” (Letters, no. 777). Around the time Vincent wrote this letter, he completed his first painting of the wheat field—The Field Enclosure (Faille, no. 720; Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo).
Each of the successive canvases that Vincent painted of the field enclosure motif share the same basic elements: the length of the wall traversing the upper edge of the landscape (in some pictures meeting at an obtuse angle a wall that rises on the left side), farm buildings beyond the enclosure, some species of tree as vertical accents (poplars, cypresses, or olive trees), and the distant hills. There are in total thirteen paintings of this kind, seven of which incorporate the rising sun, and one a full moon. A related group, but without the wall and showing a lower horizon line, are the variants and repetitions of a nearby wheat field with a cypress.
Unlike his treatment of the olive groves, comprising sixteen paintings, or the mountainous landscapes, Vincent never looked upon the field enclosures as a series, even if they represent variations on a theme. He depicted the field enclosure motif under different conditions, such as the time of day or weather, and, more significantly, their place within the planting and harvest cycle, for the duration of a single year, from one spring to the next. The reason, perhaps, that Vincent did not treat this subject in a serial manner is that this site was always there in front of him, day after day; he could turn to it whenever the idea of a new variant might suddenly occur to him, or when he was restricted to the hospital grounds. The olive grove canvases, by contrast, required that he work outdoors—having been given permission to visit the site (with an attendant present)—and there make good use of the time he planned to devote to the project at hand.
On 18 June 1889, Vincent painted The Starry Night (Faille, no. 612; The Museum of Modern Art, New York). He mentioned this picture in the letter he wrote Theo on that day: “At last I have a landscape with olive trees, and also a new study of a starry sky.” Earlier in this letter he was optimistic about the state of his health and mind: “As for me, it’s going well—you’ll understand that after almost half a year now of absolute sobriety in eating, drinking, smoking, with two two-hour baths a week recently, this must clearly calm one down a great deal. So it’s going very well, and as regards work, it occupies and distracts me—which I need very much—far from wearing me out” (Letters, no. 782). The astonishing, electrifying painting that he had just completed, however, presaged the crisis to come.
Dr. Félix Rey, a young surgeon who looked after Vincent while he was hospitalized in Arles following the ear-cutting incident of December 1888, astutely suspected that his patient was suffering from epilepsy, a diagnosis with which Dr. Peyron subsequently concurred. The condition was then known to be hereditary, and Dr. Peyron learned that relatives on both sides of the artist’s family had experienced seizures and other debilitating symptoms of mental disorders. These “latent epileptic fits resembled fireworks of electrical impulses in the brain,” Steven Naifeh and Gregory W. Smith have explained. “The brain could weather these storms, researchers discovered, but it could not fully recover from them. Each attack lowered the threshold for the next attack and permanently altered the functions that had been shaken...[leading to] a pattern of behavior—a syndrome—associated with what came to be known as ‘temporal lobe epilepsy.’” The two authors view the famous Starry Night—“Vincent’s euphoric image of a swirling, unhinged cosmos”—as the artist’s visualization of the intense reaction he had experienced during a seizure brought on by these “bolts of neuronal lightning,” an event which “signaled that his defenses had been breached” (Van Gogh: The Life, New York, 2011, pp. 762 and 763).
The recurrent attack that Vincent had been fearing indeed took place, probably on 16 July 1889. He had recently returned from an escorted visit to Arles, where he collected some of the paintings he had left behind. Neither the kindly Dr. Rey nor Reverend Salles, however, both of whom Vincent was anxious to see, were there to meet him. Memories of events six months before began to trouble and confuse Vincent. On the 16th he was painting outdoors— away from the asylum grounds, with an attendant present—the cavernous entry to one of the many quarries, worked from Roman times, in the foothills of the Alpilles. He recalled his relapse in a letter to Theo dated 22 August. “This new crisis, my dear brother, came upon me in the fields, and when I was in the middle of painting on a windy day. I’ll send you the canvas, which I nevertheless finished” (Letters, no. 797; Faille, no. 744; Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam).
The swirling foliage in this painting surrounds and appears to strangle the quarry opening, a telling expression of the uncontrollable forces that had again begun to ravage Vincent’s mind. On his return to St. Paul’s Hospital, he is reported to have drunk kerosene and eaten some of his paints, squeezed from the tubes. Vincent remembered trying to swallow dirt; he experienced pain in his throat for weeks afterward. Dr. Peyron had no choice but to keep Vincent away from his work until he seemed sufficiently recovered.
“For many days I’ve been absolutely distraught,” Vincent wrote Theo, “as in Arles, just as much if not worse, and it’s to be presumed that these crises will recur in the future, it is ABOMINABLE. I haven’t been able to eat for 4 days, as my throat is swollen... Dr. Peyron is really kind to me and really patient. You can imagine that I’m very deeply distressed that the attacks have recurred when I was already beginning to hope that it wouldn’t recur. You’ll perhaps do well to write a line to Dr. Peyron to say that working on my paintings is quite necessary to me for my recovery. For these days, without anything to do and without being able to go into the room he had allocated me for doing my painting, are almost intolerable to me” (ibid.).
Dr. Peyron allowed Vincent to return to his studio at the end of August. He quickly resumed painting. The first canvas he likely completed is the present Laboureur dans un champ. The artist referred to this painting in his letter to Theo dated on or around 2 September: “Yesterday I started working again a little—a thing I see from my window—a field of yellow stubble which is being ploughed, the opposition of the purplish ploughed earth with the strips of yellow stubble, background of hills. 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” (Letters, no. 798).
The image of the horse and ploughman is repeated in only one other Saint-Rémy painting, a related version but with variant motifs, which Vincent painted later in September (Faille, no. 706; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). The best known of the St. Paul’s Hospital wheat field pictures contains the figure of a reaper (Faille, no. 618; Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam). Following the present ploughman canvas, Vincent painted a smaller version of the reaper in the field during 5-6 September (Faille, no. 619; Museum Folkwang, Essen), which he discussed in a concurrent letter to Theo. “I’m struggling with a canvas begun a few days before my indisposition. A reaper, the study is all yellow, terribly thickly impastoed, but the subject was beautiful and simple. I then saw in this reaper—a vague figure struggling like a devil in the full heat of the day to reach the end of his toil—I then saw the image of death in it, in the sense that humanity would be the wheat being reaped. So if you like, it’s the opposite of that Sower I tried before. But in this death is nothing sad, it takes place in broad daylight with a sun that floods everything with a light of fine gold. Good, here I am again, however I’m not letting go, and I’m trying again on a new canvas. Ah, I could almost believe that I have a new period of clarity ahead of me” (Letters, no. 800).
To the opposition of the Sower and Reaper, Vincent added a third man, the Ploughman. Indeed, he might identify himself with any one of these three peasant laborers at different times. In the letter quoted immediately above, the artist further wrote: “My dear brother—I’m still writing to you between bouts of work—I’m ploughing on like a man possessed, more than ever I have a pent-up fury for work, and I think that this will contribute to curing me” (ibid.). Following the enforced hiatus of the previous six weeks, Vincent found himself, at this critical stage in the evolution of his work, acting the role of the ploughman—the forerunner—who turns over the upper layer of soil, bringing fresh nutrients to the surface, preparing the ground for the sower of seeds.
Immediately after completing Laboureur dans un champ, Vincent embarked on a series of portraits—two depicting himself, and two versions of the head attendant Trabuc (Faille, nos. 626, 627, and 629; the original portrait of Trabuc, given to the sitter, is lost). He painted himself again later in September, having shaved his beard, with the intent of giving the picture to his mother for her seventieth birthday (Faille, no. 525; sold, Christie’s New York, 19 November 1998, lot 325). Vincent hoped to impress upon both Dr. Peyron and Theo that he had recovered from his ordeal. For the while, however, he remained indoors, working 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. I take great care of myself by carefully shutting myself away; it’s selfish if you like, not to become accustomed to my companions in misfortune here instead, and to go to see them, but anyway I feel none the worse for it, for my 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. (ibid.)