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)
13 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat there; and the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they had not much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, 6but when the sun rose they were scorched; and since they had no root they withered away. 7Other seeds fell upon thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9He who has ears, let him hear.”
10 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 13This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. 14With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah which says:
‘You shall indeed hear but never understand,
and you shall indeed see but never perceive. 15For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are heavy of hearing,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should perceive with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their heart,
and turn for me to heal them.’
16But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.
18 “Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When any one hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in his heart; this is what was sown along the path. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. 22As for what was sown among thorns, this is he who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the delight in riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 23As for what was sown on good soil, this is he who hears the word and understands it; he indeed bears fruit, and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
4 Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea; and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. 2And he taught them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: 3“Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. 5Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it had not much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil; 6and when the sun rose it was scorched, and since it had no root it withered away. 7Other seed fell among thorns and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8And other seeds fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” 9And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
10 And when he was alone, those who were about him with the twelve asked him concerning the parables. 11And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; 12so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven.” 13And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? 14The sower sows the word. 15And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown; when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word which is sown in them. 16And these in like manner are the ones sown upon rocky ground, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy; 17and they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. 18And others are the ones sown among thorns; they are those who hear the word, 19but the cares of the world, and the delight in riches, and the desire for other things, enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 20But those that were sown upon the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.”
4 And when a great crowd came together and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable: 5“A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell along the path, and was trodden under foot, and the birds of the air devoured it. 6And some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. 7And some fell among thorns; and the thorns grew with it and choked it. 8And some fell into good soil and grew, and yielded a hundredfold.” As he said this, he called out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
9 And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, 10he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but for others they are in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand. 11Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. 12The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, that they may not believe and be saved. 13And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy; but these have no root, they believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away. 14And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. 15And as for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience.