Vincent van Gogh
The Sower, 1888
Oil on canvas, 32 x 40 cm
Royal Academy, London
10th 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” . 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.
 Letter 772 (To Theo van Gogh. Arles, on or about Wednesday, 21 November 1888)