Mark Harden's Artchive VAN GOGH, Vincent
Sower with Setting Sun
1888
Oil on canvas
64 x 80.5 cm
Rijksmuseum Krueller-Mueller, Otterlo

From J. van der Wolk, "Vincent Van Gogh: Paintings and Drawings":

In the second half of June, Van Gogh decided to put his skills to the test. Not only did he work on size 30 canvases, but he set out to prove himself in the genre he considered superior to all others and produce a figure piece of his own invention. The outcome of his first, rather tentative attempt was 'The Sower', now in Otterlo, which he painted around 17 June. 'The Sower' and, later, 'The Night Café' were among the few 'attempts at composite paintings' he ever made, as he wrote subsequently.

He wrote a great deal about this first attempt to enliven a landscape by using a human figure as the focal point of the composition. He described it in no less than four letters and sent hastily-executed sketches of it to his friends John Russell and Emile Bernard. He later made two drawings after the completed painting for Bernard and Theo.

Inspired by Jean-François Millet's 'Sower' from 1850 (Boston, Museum of Fine Arts), Van Gogh had tried several times to produce a serious painting on the same theme as the French master's chef d'oeuvre. His first attempts, undertaken in the Netherlands, were unsuccessful. However, encouraged by his increasing technical competence, he tackled the theme again in Arles. He apparently did not yet possess sufficient confidence to attempt the work without preparing himself first, as the canvas in Otterlo is a study - though an extremely promising one.'The sketch [ ... ] keeps tormenting me', he wrote to Theo, 'and I wonder whether I shouldn't tackle it seriously and make a terrific painting of it. My God! how I should like to do that' The Otterlo canvas was his first step towards this goal. He envisaged the ultimate masterpiece as speaking 'a symbolic language through colour alone', and in this sense it was to be a truly modern piece. 'Could the sower be painted in colour, contrasting yellow and violet together, for example', he asked Theo rhetorically,'yes or no? Yes - of course. Well do it then! Yes - that's what pére Martin said, too: "Il faut faire le chef-d'oeuvre"'

The work represents Van Gogh's first attempt to make an original contribution to modern art since his art studies in Paris. Its originality was to lie in the violent juxtaposition of bold colours, which he tried to achieve by painting the top part of the picture predominantly yellow and the lower part in complementary violet. The sower's trousers are white to 'allow the eye to rest and distract it from the excessive contrast between yellow and violet together' Van Gogh was following the advice given in Charles Blanc's Grammaire des arts du dessin that white can be used in combination with strong colours to rest the eye, 'to provide relief and reduce the dazzling impact of the picture as a whole'.

Although Van Gogh had faithfully adhered to the artistic principles he so firmly believed in, he was disappointed with the result. On around 24 June, his confidence somewhat shaken, he made various changes to the painting. He softened the contrast between the complementaries by mixing green into the yellow sky and orange into the field. The white of the sower's trousers, though useful as a device to rest the eye, was nevertheless an odd colour for a peasant's working clothes, and he subsequently changed it to blue. As a final gesture, Van Gogh then painted a surround in complementary colours violet around the yellow sky and yellow around the violet field - presumably in the hope of salvaging at least part of his original idea. He radically recast his own sower after the example of Millet's figure, moved it further from the centre of the composition, and painted out the trees on the horizon to the right of the sun.

However, reworking the canvas failed to produce the result he had anticipated, and he referred to it as a 'failure' and a 'glorified study'. In spite of his disappointment, the motif continued to haunt him. By December he had made four more attempts at it. Probably under the influence of Gauguin, he sought to imbue his adaptation of Millet's example with fresh vitality by working on the form rather than the colours. The solution he found to the problem in his last version was innovative and evidently a source of satisfaction. 'Once in a while [there is] a canvas which will make a true painting,'he wrote to Theo, 'such as that sower, which I also think is better than the first one'

Nevertheless, the fact that he later reappraised the 'failure' from his Arles period in a more favourable light reveals the strength of his commitment to his initial objective - to produce a work that would be modern by virtue of its colour rather than its form. Though he never mentioned the final tableau after December 5, he wrote to Theo in February suggesting that he might exhibit the June canvas, which Vincent had in the meantime sent to him, at the annual exhibition of the Independants in Paris. His first serious attempt at working with extravagant colour thus apparently had an enduring importance for him. 'Later, though I will have progressed with these experiments', he had anticipated five months previously, 'the sower will always represent my first real attempt in the genre. The night café continues from the sower, as does the head of the old peasant and the poet [ ... ]. It is thus a colour which is not true from the point of view of a realistic trompe loeil, but a colour which suggests one sort of emotion, a passionate temperament'