Monday, December 5, 2016

From Realism to Post-Impressionism: Millet’s Visual Influence on Van Gogh’s Peasant Motifs

Although Vincent Van Gogh is better known for his Post-Impressionist work, many of his later oil paintings still bear traces of his early interest in Realism. The subject-matter of some of his paintings focus on the every-day worker’s experience  in a way which evidences these Impressionistic renditions of Realist themes. Van Gogh’s attraction to depicting the lives of the lower-class has strong biographical connections. Between 1877-1880, Van Gogh pursued a career as a minister, working as an evangelist to miners in Belgium for part of that time. This season caused in van Gogh a transformation which convicted him to become a painter, following the pattern of Jules Breton and, more notably, Jean-Francois Millet. Millet, a Realist painter who also emphasized representing the toil of the working class, continued to influence van Gogh’s subject-matter, if not his style, throughout his career. Van Gogh gradually adopted the vibrant colors and visual representation style of the Post-Impressionists, but several of the paintings in this exhibit testify to his emphasis on the mundane, ordinary, and the lives of the working class. Van Gogh’s lingering desire to depict the lower class despite his transition from Realism to Post-Impressionism is evident in this brief collection which provides strong visual connections to a few of Millet’s influential paintings.

The Potato Eaters, Vincent van Gogh, 1885, Oil on Canvas, Kröller-Müller Museum

            Considered van Gogh’s first major work, this painting focuses on portraying the reality of peasant workers’ experiences. At this early point in his career, van Gogh was primarily influenced by Realism which lent itself to this strikingly dark color palette and these unglamorous faces which are meant to show the “real.” The large size of this canvas directly confronts viewers with these peasant lives, but they are blocked by a figure’s back from participating in the meal with the peasants, creating a visual and physical distance.  

A Pair of Shoes, Vincent Van Gogh, 1888, Oil on Canvas, 1992.374


Focusing on a mundane pair of peasant shoes, Van Gogh elevates the status of the ordinary by instilling these shoes with beauty and importance. He adds visual energy by building vibrant layers of colors on the canvas and employing a deliberate, meditative brush stroke in which he carefully blends these colors. This painting represents one of van Gogh’s many still-life shoe paintings, but is significant in its relationship to the peasant, Patience Escalier, to whom these shoes are reported to belong. While being considered a part of his Post-Impressionist works, these particular shoes emphasize van Gogh’s continued focus on depicting the working-class experience.  

The Man With The Hoe, Jean-Francois Millet, 1860-1962, Oil on Canvas, The J. Paul Getty
Museum, 85.PA.114

This painting, later seen as a sort of symbol for the labor of the working class, was controversially received at the Paris Salon in 1863. Some considered it a political movement against the industrialization of France. Others thought the man to be brutish or indecent. Instead, Millet meant it to depict the reality of the laborer’s experience. He does this through the unidealized and physical nature of the composition, the naturalistic color-palette, and the large-scale of the painting which confronts viewers.

Portrait of Patience Escalier, Shepherd In Provence, Vincent Van Gogh, 1888, Oil on Canvas,
Norton Simon Museum, M.1975.06.P

            This Post-Impressionist work is one of two oil paintings of Patience Escalier, the man purported to have owned the shoes shown earlier in this exhibit. Van Gogh references this portrait in a letter, calling it “a sort of ‘man with a hoe,’” in reference to Millet’s work by this title. But while van Gogh’s connects these two paintings, his own vibrant use of color creates a visual contrast. He attempts to portray or represent the shepherd rather than naturalistically depict him. Nevertheless, van Gogh does emphasize the working-class man’s “realistic” sort of rugged, sun-burnt appearance even while continuing to be emotionally expressive through the daring colors.

The Sower, Jean-Francois Millet, 1850, Oil on Canvas, Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), 17.1485

In the genre of peasant painting popular during this time, Jean-Francois Millet gives voice to the experience of peasant workers by depicting a sower in the midst of his labor. Although the colors with which Millet builds the form of the sower are bolder than those for the landscape, he uses only the blue and rust already found in nature, providing a strong visual connection between the man and nature and emphasizing the pure, rugged beauty. This, combined with the somewhat muddied hues point to the Realist style Millet uses to express the “reality” of the lives of the lower-class.

The Sower (After Millet), Vincent van Gogh, 1889, Oil on Canvas, Private Collection

            During van Gogh’s time in the Saint-Paul Asylum, he began copying several of Millet’s previous works. Although this work imitates the form of Millet’s Sower, van Gogh builds layers of paint instead of blending it away and uses color in a more emotionally evocative way. He keeps the subject-matter of a Realist painting but infuses it with the techniques of Post-Impressionism. Despite this shift in van Gogh’s painting style, this work is representative of his lingering interest in painting peasant pastoral motifs and giving voice to the working class.

1 comment:

  1. Good article. Read also an interview with Vincent (imaginary) in