Van Gogh’s letters: the years before Paris

Van Gogh has been described as a comet: a fiery blaze of creativity that was over before anyone could fully take note of it. We tend to think of this comet in terms of colour: the deep blue of the starry sky; the sulphurous, sparkling yellow of the wheat fields; or the glaring red walls of the infamous Night Café.

It wasn’t until I read his letters (mostly written to his brother, Theo) last year that I realised how, for around half of his decade-long artistic career, these colours were largely absent. It wasn’t until he went to Paris in 1886 that the Van Gogh that we think of today emerged from earthy paintings of peasants and bleak rural landscapes. These artworks are not entirely uncoloured, but far from the dazzling effects that we see from his time in Arles and Saint-Remy.

However, since revisiting the letters, I’ve come to see that his famous instinct for colour was there before he went to Paris. In fact, it was in him long before he took up the brush. In 1877, he wrote to Theo about his memories of his time in “the French coast…near Dieppe”.

“The little white curtains and green pine branches in the windows, the carts with white horses harnessed in large blue halters and red tassels, the drivers with their blue smocks…”

The inclusion of an adjective denoting colour with almost every noun suggests that for him, colour was an integral part of the way in which he thought about his experiences, and this makes theories that he had synaesthesia seem very feasible.

The most famous of these pre-Paris paintings is ‘The Potato Eaters’.  He described it as “a genuine peasant painting”, saying that “I am convinced that in the long run, one gets better results from painting them [peasants] in all their coarseness that from introducing a contemporary sweetness.” He compared painting this picture to a weaver creating a cloth, with particular reference to the difficulties of finding the most effective colour combinations. He also emphatically requested that it be framed by gold, because, “associating it with a gold tone lends brightness to areas where you would least expect it” and that in real life, the scene is framed in gold: the gold of the hearth and the candlelight. Taking this into account, this painting is  better viewed in terms of yellow and gold than muddy browns.

The brushstrokes in this painting are thick and wet, giving the figures’ faces a heaviness that speaks of physical weariness. They are all grouped around a little table, lit only from above so as to highlight the steam rising from the potatoes, and we are looking on voyeuristically, as the circle is completed by the girl sitting in front of us. The warm light and the cosy grouping makes this painting almost comfortable, but at the same time it feels roughened by hardship: the thickness of their clothes and the bareness of their house speaks very clearly of poverty.

The circular grouping of the figures and the light shining from above, as well as the title itself, tells us that the potatoes are the focus of this work. And yet they appear here as nothing more than pale yellow smudges, with none of the attention that is given to the dwelling and the figures. This painting is not about the meal itself: it’s about what the meal means. It’s food which was planted and cared for and harvested by the diners themselves, and it is food which brings warmth and togetherness in the midst of rural poverty. It’s a painting about sustenance, and about the rawness and simplicity of living as a peasant at this time. The roughened faces and clothes of the figures indicate that it’s not idealistic, but it sees the warmth that can come in the midst of hardship. In Van Gogh’s words, “it… suggests manual labour and a meal honestly earned.”

The artist I believe had one of the largest influences on Van Gogh is Millet, referred to by him as “father Millet”, and someone who “set an example to painters as a human being”. By this he means that Millet did not just paint peasants, he lived like a peasant and worked with the vigour of a peasant too.

This was Van Gogh’s aspiration when he first set out to be an artist: to be a ‘painter of peasant life.’  He saw an inherent dignity in the land workers and wanted to express that on canvas. He says that many have a ‘fine and noble bearing’, and we can see this in his drawings of peasants at work. They are thickly outlined and solid-looking, giving them a tangible connection to the land which they are working.

We also see this in Millet. His most famous painting, ‘The Gleaners’, places the workers in the centre foreground, so they are the protagonists of the painting. They are unaware of the viewer, totally absorbed in their work, and it is this which gives them a kind of monumentality: they are in their own world but they are heroes of that world.

One motif which I’m really interested in is that of the Sower.  Van Gogh refers to this in terms of the Biblical parable frequently in his early letters. He drew a copy of a Millet painting of a sower in 1881, and he went back to this motif many times throughout his career.

For me, this demonstrates that Van Gogh didn’t change as much as we think he did after he moved away from his early religious fervour and paintings of peasant life. The ideas of fruitfulness, as advocated by the Bible, and the attachment which he felt towards a way of life rooted in the patterns of nature and the dignity of physical labour were born in his early work and endured through the years. With this in mind, it is perhaps best to view Van Gogh’s oeuvre as one continuous, unbroken flow of fervent creativity.

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