‘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 this 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 nothing sad, it takes place in broad daylight with a sun that floods everything with a light of fine gold.’
(Vincent van Gogh)
‘Millet is father Millet, counsellor and mentor in everything for young artists.’
(Vincent van Gogh)
‘Diggers, sowers, ploughmen, men, and women – these must I now unceasingly draw. I must examine and draw every aspect of country life just as many others have done and are still doing. I no longer stand so helpless before nature as I once did.’
(Vincent van Gogh)
‘The Millet copies are perhaps the finest things you’ve done, and make me believe that big surprises still await us the day you set yourself by doing figure compositions.’
(Theo van Gogh in a letter to Vincent)
Painted at Saint-Rémy in September 1889 at a critical moment in the penultimate year of Vincent van Gogh’s life, Le moissonneur (d’après Millet) pays homage to the artist whom he most admired and respected: Jean-François Millet. Charged with intense colour and electrifying brushwork, this painting dates from the beginning of one of the most prolific periods of Van Gogh’s career, a stage that saw an almost miraculous outpouring of work in the midst of the artist’s episodic yet ever-increasing mental breakdowns that punctuated the final years of his life. One of ten paintings that Van Gogh made after a series of drawings by Millet, Les travaux des champs (‘The Labours of the Field’), Le moissonneur sees the artist return to a figure that had come to dominate his depictions of the rural French, and earlier Dutch, countryside: the reaper. Together with the figure of the sower, these rural figures have become almost synonymous with Van Gogh’s art, imbued with symbolism to encapsulate the near-fervent devotion he had for nature and the deep affiliation he felt for those who worked within it. Pictured under a deep cobalt blue sky, toiling in the fields as he sweeps his scythe through the sea of golden corn, the male figure takes on a monumental presence; this rural labourer exalted to the heroic status of an icon amidst the land of southern France. Perhaps the most experimental of this series in terms of the vitality of the intense, exaggerated tones of blue and yellow, this painting demonstrates the groundbreaking use of expressionistic colour for which Van Gogh has become best known. Of the ten paintings in this series, Le moissonneur is one of only three to remain in private hands; the remaining seven works reside in the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
The story of how Van Gogh came to reside in the asylum at Saint-Rémy is well known; indeed, the events of the final years of the artist’s life have become the stuff of legend. After suffering the second of two successive breakdowns – the first of which had occurred at Christmas 1888, and resulted in him cutting off part of his own ear, and the second in February 1889 – Van Gogh admitted himself into Saint-Paul-de-Mausol in Saint-Rémy in May 1889. Here, the artist returned to relative peace, painting the extensive gardens of the asylum as well as the wheat fields and vistas beyond. This stability was not to last, however, and in the middle of July, after a visit to Arles to collect some of the paintings that he had left behind, he suffered another mental collapse.
Devastated by the return of the illness he thought he had overcome, Van Gogh was left unable to paint or even leave the confines of his bedroom. After a period of six weeks he had recovered his strength. His creative powers returned with an extraordinary force and by mid-September, he had completed at least eighteen paintings, a remarkable feat in such a short space of time. As Jan Hulsker has written of this astonishing recuperation: ‘When we delve into the chronology and background of the work produced in these weeks [of return to work], we encounter another of those enigmas that periodically marked the career of this highly gifted and inspired artist. The number and the quality of the works he produced almost immediately after his recovery are almost incredible’ (J. Hulsker, The New Complete Van Gogh: Paintings, Drawings, Sketches, Amsterdam & Philadelphia, 1996, p. 404).
It was at this time that Van Gogh painted Le moissonneur. At the very beginning of his recovery, before he ventured outside, he turned to a series of drawings by Millet. Entitled Les travaux des champs, this series – first executed in 1852, and published in the periodical L'illustration, before being engraved in wood by Jacques-Adrien Lavieille the following year – encompassed ten depictions of singular male and female peasant figures engaged in all aspects of the harvest. Unable to leave his room, Van Gogh initially turned to his much loved reproduction of these harvest scenes out of practicality, using them to practice painting the figure and to experiment with colour. Towards the end of September, he wrote to his brother Theo, ‘At present I have seven copies out of ten of Millet’s Les travaux des champs. I can assure you that it interests me enormously to make copies, and that not having any models for the moment it will ensure, however, that I don’t lose sight of the figure’ (Letter 805, L. Jansen, H. Luijten & N. Bakker, eds., Vincent van Gogh, The Letters: The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition, vol. 5, London & New York, 2009, p. 100). What started as a project of necessity, however, quickly became something of a much deeper import. Over the coming months he painted a host of works inspired by Millet, including The Sower (1889, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo), Two Peasants Digging (1889, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam) and The First Steps (1890, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), amongst a number of others. His paintings after Millet consoled, comforted and reinvigorated him, gradually bringing him back to life. ‘I set myself to it by chance, and I find that it teaches and above all sometimes consoles’, he wrote to Theo. ‘So then my brush goes between my fingers as if it were a bow on the violin and absolutely for my pleasure’ (ibid., p. 101).
While Le moissonneur and the other paintings of this series are based on Millet’s drawings of the same subject, they are anything but ‘copies’ in the literal sense of the word. ‘It’s not copying pure and simple that one would be doing’, Van Gogh explained to Theo. ‘It is rather translating into another language, the one of colours, the impressions of chiaroscuro and white and black’ (Letter 839, ibid., p. 182). Van Gogh spent a great deal of time meditating on this practice of looking back to his most revered masters, extensively explaining the work he was doing through the autumn to Theo. ‘You’ll be surprised what effect the Travaux des champs take on in colour, it’s a very intimate series of his. What I’m seeking in it, and why it seems good to me to copy them, I’m going to try and tell you’, he wrote. ‘We painters are always asked to compose ourselves and to be nothing but composers. Very well – but in music it isn’t so – and if such a person plays some Beethoven he’ll add his personal interpretation to it – in music, and then above all of singing – a composer’s interpretation is something, and it isn’t a hard and fast rule that only the composer plays his own compositions’ (Letter 805, ibid., p. 101).
Taking Millet’s drawings as his foundation, Van Gogh allowed his imagination to take flight, transforming the black and white images by conjuring combinations of colours that Millet would never have dreamt of. Flooded with light, and atmosphere and filled with a definite sense of time and place, these works took on a new life in the hands of the artist. As with the greatest of Van Gogh’s works of this period, Le moissonneur is rendered with the artist’s distinctively dramatic colour and tormented brushwork, the field of swaying grain imbued with a life force as palpable and dynamic as that of the reaper himself. The deep blue sky has a dense, smothering opacity, painted in places with the same short, angled brushstrokes as the golden field and bordering vivid green hedgerow. As in many of the landscapes that Van Gogh had painted that summer at Saint-Rémy – works such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Wheat Field with Cypresses or Mountainous Landscape behind Saint-Paul Hospital in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen for example – the sky is no longer a boundless realm, but is something tangible, a burgeoning mass that weighs down upon the earth below, its turbulent formation echoed in the roiling landscape. Every part of nature is enlivened in this painting, endowed with the same teeming vitality as man himself. Landscape and man become one harmonious entity, treated by Van Gogh with a fervent reverence.
Above all, however, it is the dazzling contrast of yellow and blue that dominates Le moissonneur. The golden, impastoed corn intensifies the band of cobalt blue above. The peasant’s body links these two planes of bold almost unmodulated colour; his blue shirt sleeve vividly contrasting with the yellow field and likewise, his yellow straw hat and ochre overalls illuminated against the sky. This primary colour pairing was one of Van Gogh’s favourites and has come to epitomise his painting in the south of France; perhaps exemplified most vividly by works such as The Café Terrace (1888, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo) or The Yellow House (1888, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam). Yet, this combination had struck the artist many years previously, when he was still living in Holland; ‘I am on the lookout for blue all the time’, he wrote to Theo from Neunen. ‘The peasant figures are blue here as a rule. That blue in the ripe corn…so that the faded shades of dark and light blue are brought to life again and made eloquent by the contrast with gold tones or red-brown’ (Van Gogh, quoted in L. van Tilborgh, ed., exh. cat., Van Gogh & Millet, Amsterdam, 1988-89, p. 124). With his intense and penetrating perception of the world around him, Van Gogh painted visions of the southern landscape that were set ablaze with luminous colour.
By February of 1890, Van Gogh had painted all ten of Millet’s Travaux series, and had also undertaken his own versions of the artist’s Les quatre heures du jour (‘The Four Hours of Day’), as well as works after Delacroix and Rembrandt. He most likely sent Le moissonneur and the rest of his copies after Millet to Theo at the end of April 1890 (Letter 863, op. cit., p. 213). Theo responded to this consignment, which also included works such as the famed Almond Blossom (1890, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam), with great praise, writing on 3 May 1890: ‘Your consignment of canvases has arrived too, and there are some that are very, very beautiful… The Millet copies are perhaps the finest things you’ve done, and make me believe that big surprises still await us the day you set yourself by doing figure compositions’ (Letter 867, ibid., p. 228).
Millet’s Les travaux des champs were by no means new to Van Gogh; entirely the contrary in fact: the artist was deeply familiar with these drawings and had admired them, as well as the rest of Millet’s oeuvre, since his earliest days as an artist. When, in Holland in the early 1880s, Van Gogh began his career as an artist, Millet’s life and work served as an essential model. Painting predominantly rural scenes and subjects, Van Gogh spent time studying and copying Millet’s work, particularly his iconic Un semeur (1850, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). In August 1880, he wrote to Theo asking if he could borrow his brother’s copy of the woodcuts of Les travaux des champs. A month later he wrote again to update him on his progress: ‘I’ve sketched the ten sheets of Millet’s Les travaux des champs and… I hope you won’t be too unhappy with the drawings… these little wood engravings are wonderful. As I’ll already have twenty sheets after Millet, all told, you can well understand that if you could obtain some more for me I’d be very keen to do them, as I’m trying to study this master seriously’ (Letter 157, ibid., vol. 1, p. 252).
For Van Gogh, the nineteenth-century Barbizon school and realist painter was a mentor, hero and spiritual guide, an artist whose life and art both deeply inspired and provided an exemplar for his own path as an artist. Van Gogh had a fervent devotion to the French radical, regarding him with a quasi-religious zeal; ‘if I compare Pa with the great Father Millet, his doctrines are so great that it makes Pa’s outlook terribly small’ (Van Gogh, quoted in L. van Tilborgh, op. cit., p. 17). Like Millet, Van Gogh felt a strong affiliation with the working class, the peasants and rural labourers whom he saw in the fields and villages of Holland. The simple, rural existence lived by these men and women was something that the evangelically-inclined and almost obsessively ascetic Dutch artist was particularly sympathetic to; he wrote once that he wanted nothing more than ‘to be content with food, drink, clothing, sleeping, with what the peasants are content with. Millet did that and desired nothing else’ (Van Gogh, quoted in ibid., p. 12).
The figure of the reaper had featured in Van Gogh’s work just a few months before he painted Le moissonneur. In the summer of 1889, before he suffered the breakdown that kept him infirm for the rest of the summer months, he had embarked on a landscape, Wheatfields behind asylum with reaper (Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo), which he returned to once he was recovered in September. ‘Work is going quite well’, he reported to his brother. ‘I’m struggling with a canvas begun a few days before my illness. A reaper, the study is all yellow, terribly thickly impasted, 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 this 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 nothing sad, it takes place in broad daylight with a sun that floods everything with a light of fine gold’ (Letter 800, op. cit., vol. 5, p. 80). Standing at opposite poles of iconographic symbolism – life and death, creation and destruction – the reaper and the sower are likewise the overarching figures of Van Gogh’s oeuvre. For Van Gogh, these rural labourers assumed a profoundly divine, religious symbolism, working in perfect accord and union in the eternal cycle of nature. While the sower was the symbol of creation, depicted in 1888 with an orb-like halo above him, the reaper was ‘an image of death as the great book of nature speaks about it’ (ibid., p. 85). Yet, this is not a sinister or ominous image, but is rather demonstrative of the endless, unchanging cycles of nature, and by extension life. This innate union was something that Van Gogh endlessly marvelled at and is what lends his unique visions of the Provençal landscape and those who lived within it their transcendent power. ‘And it is something’, the artist once remarked, ‘in the snows of winter, in the autumn with its yellow leaves, in the summer with its ripe corn, in the spring with its lush grass, it is quite something being with the reapers and the peasant girls, in the summer with the huge sky above, in the winter under the black mantelpiece. And to feel what has always been and what always will be’ (Van Gogh, quoted in L. van Tilborgh, op. cit., p. 18).