Sunday, 27 June 2010

Vincent van Gogh
The Sower, 1888
Oil on Canvas 32 x 40cm
Royal Academy, London
10 March 2010

Unfortunately the recent exhibition of van Gogh’s letters, drawings and paintings proved to be so popular that it was difficult to even stand still in the press of the crowds in the Royal Academy. However, there were a lot of fine paintings on display and it was especially interesting to see them accompanied by his descriptive letters.

I had gone with the intention of reviewing his portrait of the stoic and melancholic looking Madame Ginoux (L’Arlesienne, 1888) but instead I was captivated by a small jewel like version of The Sower painted in the same year. It is a theme he had addressed several times before, originally inspired by the work of Jean-François Millet, a painter who idealised the ‘monumental’ work of French peasants.

This version is very much his own though, and shows the influences of Japanese prints on his style. In a letter to his brother Theo from around 21st November of 1888, Van Gogh drew a sketch of the Sower and described the colours he was using “Here’s a croquis of the latest canvas I’m working on, another sower. Immense lemon yellow disc for the sun. Green-yellow sky with pink clouds. The field is violet, the sower and the tree Prussian Blue”[1] . The faceless sower works on the left of a canvas divided by a pollarded willow, a motif that had appeared in a watercolour sketch from 1882. The landscape is schematic and flat, but a strong diagonal leads the eye to the huge yellow ball of the setting sun that almost becomes a halo for the working peasant.

The colour is laid on with short definite brush marks with all the energy of someone working hard against the clock. This energetic expressive brushwork not only adds to the vibrancy of the colour in the painting but also serves to dispense with some elements of ‘reality’ in order to highlight others, particularly the sense of twilight. The lavender touches to the fields provide a strong complimentary contrast to the sun making it jump forwards. But despite the strength of the yellow, there is a darkness to the image, as both the foreground subjects, the sower and the tree, appear as dark silhouettes. It is this combination of denial of detail and unusual colour choices, such as the lime green skies casting a sickly pallor over his homestead on the horizon that perhaps reveal a hidden truth about van Gogh’s version of reality and gives the painting its melancholic feel.

[1] Letter 772 (To Theo van Gogh. Arles, on or about Wednesday, 21 November 1888)

©blackdog 2010


  1. This is a very fine description and analysis of this famous, almost iconic painting by Vincent van Gogh - I saw it myself in the Amsterdamse exhibition "The Colours of the Nights" (!)- there was an own room showing only some of his sower- paintings- and there is a special relationship to the "blessing of corn" Van Gogh was always fascinated by- life and death combined -also in this painting- but the darker colours (the sower echos the tree) and the big sun ball, the setting sun, the sickly apple-green sky... may evoke a feel of melancholy- but in general it is rather an ambivalent feelin,g for life goes on... the corn wil be growing up, the sun will be rising tomorrow again!
    I am very interested in van Gogh's biography and his letters to his brother, and I own a German edition of them, but I would prefer reading them in Dutch and French! The colours were a kind of therapy for his hurted- wounded poor soul! And as I was once in the Provence (Arles, St. Remy) I saw the landscape and the magic light there with his eyes!

  2. another letter to Theo, 5th Sept. 1889:
    "A reaper, the study is all yellow, terribly thickly impasted, but the subject was beautiful and simple.8 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. 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."
    In this case the "sower" could be an image of life (filled with some sadness, indeed)- but I'm not sure.

  3. I wish I had seen the room with the sower paintings - it is one of my favourite compositions. Agree about the fascination of his letters - something we have lost these days (letter writing) that intimacy isn't found in Blogs on the internet!