Vincent van Gogh was obsessed with the image of the sower, returning to it time and again. He also greatly revered Jean-François Millet’s celebrated treatments of the subject. However, while Millet captured something of the grandeur of the very act of sowing, and indeed of its sacred quality, Van Gogh thought he could make something else and more of the theme, while finding it hard to achieve what he aimed at (Letter 629).
This work from late November 1888, trialled in a smaller canvas painted shortly before, owes much to Van Gogh’s engagement with Japanese prints. He judged it a success. It was, he said, ‘a canvas that makes a picture’ (Letter 723), and contrary to his normal practice, he signed it in the lower right hand corner.
In the foreground a deeply shadowed sower in darkest blue works under a vivid yellow-green sky with pink clouds and a large lemon sun, over a violet earth. He has none of the confidence, almost swagger, of Millet’s figure, and yet the intense, incandescent colours are meant to communicate the intensity of the moment, as the sower, with the sun forming a halo behind his head, bends to his holy task. From his right hand the sower broadcasts seed on the rough (heavily impastoed) ground, and approaches a tree which, bending and twisting like the sower, dramatically divides the canvas on the diagonal.
The tree guides our eye into the picture, providing scale and depth, and also some visual relief from the wearying extent of ground over which the sower has to tread, reaching away to the long and low horizon. More importantly, however, the tree speaks of the aching mix of pathos and consolation which Van Gogh found in this motif. Just as the tree sharply divides the canvas, so the seed will fall into either good or bad soil, to live and bear fruit, or to die.
The tree is heavily pollarded, and at certain times of year, might itself seem dead, like the seed. Yet from its wounds fresh blossom springs, holding over the sower’s lowered head a sign of promise; hope and joy even as the light of the setting sun fades.
Van Gogh, Vincent. 2009. The Letters, vol. 4, ed. by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten, and Nienke Bakker (London: Thames and Hudson)