Gogh, Vincent van - by James Romaine
Sowing the Seeds of Faith
Vincent van Gogh’s Sower with Setting Sun visits the United States at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts
by James Romaine
Vincent van Gogh’s Sower with Setting Sun, 1888, is a small painting, even compared to most of his other work. The painting’s size, 64 x 80.5 cm, might also suggest that the artist made this study for himself. In any case, Sower with Setting Sun was clearly an intensely personal work for Vincent, who preferred to be known by his first name. This work was inspired by a 1850 painting by Jean-François Millet of a sower. Vincent felt an intense bond with Millet’s art. Both Vincent and Millet were Christians and the former regarded the latter’s work as a preeminent example of “Christian” art. For Vincent this meant an art that breathed the spirit of Christ, a spirit of peace and redemption, into a troubled world.
Vincent saw in Millet’s Sower a reference to Christ’s parable, found in the Gospel of Mark chapter 4, the Gospel of Matthew chapter 13, and the Gospel of Luke chapter 8, of a sower who sowed seeds in various types of soil. Luke writes, “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. Some fell on rock, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.” (That Millet’s painting shows birds in the background devouring some of the sown seeds further supports the connection between the parable and painting.) Vincent, who had spent several years as a theology student and evangelist, regarded his art as a form of ministry; he hoped that his art would bring some comfort and solace to the spiritually and socially downtrodden. For Vincent, the motif of the sower was a type of self-portrait. The artist is the sower; we are the soil. But what sort of soil are we? Are our eyes and hearts open to Vincent’s art? Do the cares of this world cloud our sacred imagination, that God-created capacity to see the three-dimensional material world (or, in the case of a painting, two-dimensional world) as a spiritual world of infinite dimensionality.
Vincent van Gogh’s Sower with Setting Sun changed my life. Although I had been surrounded by art and architecture of great significance all of my life, I did not have the eyes to really see the art. I don’t know why this painting presented itself in a new way. However, when I encountered Sower with Setting Sun, in the Vincent van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, I understood it as something more than a picture, more than a type of interior decoration. I recognized the motif of the sower. I knew the parable of the sower. I knew I was the soil in that parable. I understood that Vincent was challenging me to open myself to it, to let the work take root in me. For almost two decades I have pursued a vocation as an art historian, including a master’s thesis on the faith and art of Vincent van Gogh. My work has been motivated by a particular interest in how works of art can visually realize, and thereby implant within the viewer, spiritual themes that are alive in the present. That is if we have the eyes—visual literacy—and spirit—a sacred imagination—to engage the work.
Vincent only knew Millet’s Sower, which was in Boston by 1855, in reproduction. Millet, who died in 1875, never saw Vincent’s painting. These two works were brought together, for the first time, in the summer of 2010 when the Vincent van Gogh Museum lent Sower with Setting Sun to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where Millet’s Sower has resided since 1917. This was an opportunity to compare these works not only visually but also in terms of how each artist made the motif of the sower their own. Millet’s Sower is a vertically oriented painting, which is almost entirely dominated by the striding figure of a sower. One of the effects of this vertical format is that the sower’s motion is arrested; time itself is arrested. Millet has attempted to alleviate some of the flattening of space within the painting by suggesting a bit of background space by placing another farmer, standing on a plow pulled by two cows. At the same time, the suggestion of a background only further pushes the sower towards us.
Millet’s sower is a heroic figure who commands the landscape. He looks straight ahead, toward an unknown future, with confidence that the seeds that fall from his hand will rise up. There is a subtle, but no doubt intentional, contradiction in the upper and lower parts of Millet’s figure. The sower’s torso is mainly vertical; one can draw a straight line from his head to his hip. This creates a sense of stability and suggests a mood of confidence. However, the lower part of the sower’s body is forcefully in motion. His front, right, foot is firmly planted while his back, left, foot is torqued behind the sower’s body, almost awkwardly. Captured mid-stride we anticipate and are caught up in the sower’s movement. We feel the pull of his body as it is propelled by the stride of his gait. This draws us visually across the picture. There is a personal and spiritual determination evidenced in Millet’s sower. This is a fulfillment of a mandate given to Adam in Genesis 1:28 “fill the earth and subdue it.” Millet, the son of a farmer, was an artist with a special affinity for rural labor. His sower has a sculpturesque monumental presence. Perhaps Millet wanted to impress the viewer with the personhood and dignity of the sower. In 1850, peasants were not regarded as a “proper’ subject for “fine art.” He certainly impressed Vincent.
Vincent van Gogh’s Sower with Setting Sun is a horizontally oriented work, measuring less than half the actual size of Millet’s Sower. However, in both pictorial and spiritual presence, Sower with Setting Sun is a monumental work. If Millet’s Sower is visually dominated by the single figure, Vincent’s Sower with Setting Sun develops a reciprocal relationship between the figure of a sower, on left, and a tree, on the right. Because the viewer reads this figure of the sower balanced against the growing form of the tree, Vincent’s sower is less confrontational than Millet’s. The anonymity of Vincent’s sower allows us to identify with him, just as Vincent had identified with him.
This humble sower and his labor are blessed by a sun which sets behind the figure like a halo. There are numerous “disguised” halos in Vincent’s oeuvre but this is probable the most obvious one. Instead of resorting to symbolism which he felt was outdated, Vincent preferred to “paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and which we seek to convey by the actual radiance and vibration of our coloring.” Indeed there is a radiance of color that pervades this painting.
By planting the tree to the right of the sower and suggesting that it occupies a place beyond the forefront of the picture, Vincent’s painting opens up a depth of space that extends not only away from us but also opens up space moving towards us. The sower, in fact, seems to be moving off the bottom of the picture, descending into the earth. Framed by nature, Vincent’s sower is a lonely figure, perhaps reminiscent of a figure of death. I say this with hesitancy because there has been a tendency by some scholars to over-read themes of instability, tragedy and death in Vincent’s art. In fact, even if Vincent’s life was often marked by disappointment, his art is almost always radiant with hope. In the presence of the tree, which grows up right out of the place below the actual horizon of the painting to which the sower’s hand descended, we have an image of resurrection. This tree, which grows up beside the river, fills the space with evidence of life and growth. In the background, to the right, there is a house. Perhaps it is the sower’s house. It may evoke the rest and joy of home that Vincent longed for.
When I first encountered Vincent van Gogh’s Sower with Setting Sun, I connected it, and Millet’s painting, with the parable of the sower. However, as I later meditated on Vincent’s painting, it increasingly spoke to me of Christ’s words in the Gospel of John chapter 12, “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.” I think that Vincent van Gogh wanted to be this sort of seed. He would be willing to lose his life in order to save it. Speaking of the resurrection of the body, the Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians chapter 15 that a seed sown in weakness is raised in glory; it is sown perishable and raised imperishable. I have had a foretaste of this sort of transformation as the art of Vincent van Gogh and Jean-François Millet, works of art which are themselves perishable objects, have become within me imperishable experiences of faith.
Dr. James Romaine is a New York City based art historian who is an Associate Professor of Art History at Nyack College. He has a Master’s degree in art history, with a thesis entitled A Modern Devotion: The Faith and Art of Vincent van Gogh, from the University of South Carolina and a Ph.D. in art history from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the cofounder of the Association of Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art, www.christianityhistoryart.org.