Van Gogh was a relentless and consummate practitioner of his art, sacrificing much for it, as ongoing myth, legend, gossip and research inform us. A chief approach of his was to do “translations” of the works of other artists whom he admired the most. We say “translated” because he did not just copy their works. Rather, he created his own versions of them and, particularly, experimented differently with the interplay of color and light. However, for the most part, he stayed true to all the still life details of the original compositions.
One of those influential and revered artists was Jean-François Millet, well-known for his realist / naturalist paintings and, above all, portraits of working peasants. Millet made the so-called “peasant genre” mainstream by showing them as the focal points and main subjects of his works rather than as peripheral embellishments.
During van Gogh’s voluntary asylum period in Saint-Rémy de Provence, he translated at least 21 works of Millet that we know of. Of these, my favorite is this particular oil-on-canvas, known by various titles: ‘The Noon’, ‘The Siesta’ or ‘Rest from Work’. Painted after his Paris and Arles periods, it carries through some of the traditions of his earlier and more well-known works like ‘Irises’, ‘Starry Nights’, ‘Yellow House’, ‘Sunflowers’ etc. It was one of the last 3 works he created before his death and is currently housed at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, France.
While not as popular as some of his other peasant paintings (e.g. ‘The Potato Eaters’, with its much darker tones), this one is typical of van Gogh’s signature style, particularly, the rich, bright blue, violet, yellow and orange hues. There’s also the careful, well-articulated detail: sickles lying next to the male figure in the foreground, the blue cart and dappled animals in the background, the gold-brown shadows that give more depth to the yellow field and the various shades of blue and violet that make the noon sky shimmer bright. Those same blue and violet colors are also mirrored in the clothes of the peasants, completing the chromatic construction that he was perfecting in that final phase of his life.
Millet’s original (part of a four-part series called ‘The Four Times of the Day’), in comparison, has the figures reversed and is rather muted in its tones – more browns and grays. And, while Millet’s rural works and peasant portraits generally show them hard at work, this one, with the couple at rest, is something of an exception. The other notable difference is that Millet generally showed harvesting with grain, not hay.
As an artist, Millet had pioneered, to mixed reviews and responses, a rather elevated and spiritual view of the peasant life. He often added a gleaming gold light to his peasant works, making them look almost ethereal, heroic and blessed. It is this reverence and love for the lowly lives of peasants that van Gogh also developed. He was deeply impressed, overall, with what he perceived as their hard-working ethic, single-minded dedication and acceptance of life as it was given. He found inspiration and identified with what he perceived as their against-the-odds spirit and sought to embody similar qualities in his own living. He also wrote about his impressions of both Millet and the lives of peasants in his many letters to his younger brother, Theo, and other family members and friends.
The earliest known reference to Millet’s ‘The Four Times of the Day’ series was in a letter that van Gogh wrote to Theo from Paris in July, 1875, describing how he’d rented a a small room in Montmartre and had several favorite prints on his wall. The Millet works on his wall were not the originals, of course, but a set of wood engravings by Adrien Lavieille.
Then, in April 1878, while in Amsterdam, he wrote to Theo about how he thought faith and spirituality could be cultivated through the knowledge of literature (Dickens was a much-loved favorite) and art (Rembrandt, Breton, Millet were the most-revered).
In August 1880, while in Cuesmes in Belgium, he mentioned to Theo in a letter that he had sketched, among other works, Millet’s ‘The Four Times of the Day’.
There are several more letters with Millet references, but the most telling and eloquent of all is the one from January, 1890, from the asylum, where he wrote the following (it is a touching letter, overall, because he refers to his “insanity”, his health concerns, being locked in, etc.):
The more I think about it, the more I find that there’s justification for trying to reproduce things by Millet that he didn’t have the time to paint in oils. So, working either on his drawings or the wood engravings, it’s not copying pure and simple that one would be doing. It is, rather, translating into another language, the one of colors, the impressions of chiaroscuro and white and black. In this way, I’ve just finished the three other ‘Times of the Day’ after the wood engravings by Lavieille. It took me a lot of time and a lot of trouble. For, you know, that this summer I’ve already done ‘The Labors of the Fields’. Now these reproductions -– you’ll see them one day -– I haven’t sent, because, more than the former ones, they were gropings, but they have, however, served me well for the ‘Times of the Day’. Later, who knows, perhaps I could do lithographs of them. I’m curious as to what Mr Lauzet will say about them. They’ll take a good month more to dry, the last three, but, once you have them, you’ll clearly see that they were done through a most profound and sincere admiration for Millet. Then, even if they’re criticized one day, or despised as copies, it will remain no less true that it’s justifiable to try to make Millet’s work more accessible to the ordinary general public.
What the Impressionists have found in color will develop even more, but there’s a link that many forget which links this to the past, and I’ll make efforts to show that I have little belief in a rigorous separation between the Impressionists and the others. I find it a very happy thing that, in this century, there have been painters like Millet, Delacroix, Meissonier, who cannot be surpassed.
It wasn’t until May, 1890, that Theo actually got these Millet translations, among other paintings, that van Gogh had shipped to him. Theo’s response to his brother, written back almost immediately, is beautiful because it shows the special relationship of the brothers and how Theo was his best, most important, and, at least in van Gogh’s lifetime, often the only supporter:
Your consignment of canvases has arrived too, and there are some that are very, very beautiful. The orderly and the other fellow with his swollen face are extraordinary, the branch of the almond trees in blossom shows that you haven’t exhausted these subjects. You may have missed the season of the blossoming trees this year, but let’s hope that that won’t be the case next time. The Millet copies are perhaps the finest things you’ve done, and make me believe that big surprises still await us the day you set yourself to doing figure compositions.
Sadly, just 2 months later, van Gogh was to die of that mysterious shot in the chest – whether suicide or something else, this is still hotly debated as there are more questions than answers.
[For the record, I do not believe that van Gogh was crazy – manic-depressive, yes; reclusive, yes; socially-awkward, yes; difficult to live with, yes. But, not crazy, for a man who wrote such a vast collection of very lucid and highly intelligent letters. And, to those who cite the ear-cutting episode, please read this excellent Adam Gopnik essay in the New Yorker from 2010.]