Homage to Millet
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.Christie’s
“But in this death nothing is sad…”
Vincent reports to his brother Theo,
‘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).
More Than Copying
‘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).
‘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).
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Best viewed At Sunnyside
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.
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