Barely appreciated in his own time, positively lionised in ours, Vincent van Gogh led a life as familiar to us as that of any artist in history.
Barely appreciated in his own time, positively lionised in ours, Vincent van Gogh led a life as familiar to us as that of any artist in history. His final years, in particular, hardly need recounting: including the infamous episode in which he cut off part of his ear in December 1888; a further mental breakdown a few months later; and his admitting himself to Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in Saint-Rémy (in southern France) in May 1889.
The artist found a kind of peace and tranquillity in Saint-Rémy, painting the asylum’s extensive gardens, as well as the pretty vistas beyond. In letters to his brother Theo, he wrote of the ‘health and fortifying power’ he took from ‘going out to look at a blade of grass, a branch of fir, an ear of wheat’.
The happiness wasn’t to last, however, and in late July — after returning to Arles, the town where he’d lived previously, to collect some paintings — he suffered another breakdown. Back at the asylum, he was unable to paint or even leave the confines of his bedroom for weeks. ‘My head is so deranged,’ he wrote to Theo in August 1889. ‘I no longer see any possibility of courage or hope.’
Le moissonneur (d’après Millet) which features in Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale in London on 27 June, was among the first works that Van Gogh painted as he recovered. At that point access to Saint-Paul-de-Mausole’s grounds — much less to human subjects — was forbidden, which is to say, the scope for new work was limited.
Van Gogh’s response was to copy a set of prints he possessed — of work by arguably his favourite artist, Jean-François Millet — adapting them into paintings of his own. Le moissonneur (d’après Millet), like the Frenchman’s original on which it is based, depicts a reaper at work, sweeping his scythe in the fields.
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