Although this choice of background indicates van Gogh’s evident preoccupation with Japanese prints—he also made individual copies of selected print at this date—the painting does not indicate any profound influence of Japanese graphic styles or perspectival devices upon his work. But it is important to note that the motifs represented in the prints anticipate those that van Gogh would shortly resume when he left Paris and moved once again into a more rural setting—seasonal landscapes and portraits of regional types in costume.
In early December 1888 van Gogh began a pair of pendant paintings of chairs, Gauguin’s and his own. These pictures are not just great still lifes, however much the iconography is reminiscent of the allegorical use of motifs in seventeenth-century Dutch still life. The flame of a candle, for instance, is a commonplace in these, symbolizing light and life. But these paintings are also oblique portraits. On Gauguin’s chair van Gogh has placed two books, recognizable from the color of their covers as contemporary French novels. On his own chair he has placed a pipe and a tobacco pouch, and in the background there are sprouting onions. Gauguin’s Chair is a night scene; his own, a daylight scene. There is a further level of connotation in this pair of paintings.
In 1883 van Gogh told his brother of a story he had read about the English novelist Charles Dickens (1812–70) and the illustrator Luke Fildes (1843–1927). When Dickens died, Fildes made a drawing that was reproduced in The Graphic, an illustrated periodical the engravings in which van Gogh collected. The drawing showed Dickens’ workroom and now empty chair. Van Gogh explained to his brother what this image signified to him: he saw it as a symbol of the loss, through death, of the great pioneers of literature and graphic illustration. Moreover, these men— especially the illustrators, who had created images to accompany and illustrate modern literature—had, so van Gogh believed, worked in a collaborative and communal spirit. Their artistic community and shared endeavors provided him with a model for his own dream of a new co-operative society of artists based on the Studio of the South, which had been initiated by Gauguin’s arrival in Arles.
During the spring and summer of 1888 he corresponded regularly with Émile Bernard, giving his friend reports on work in progress and describing his color experiments such as this still life. The complementary pairs of blue and orange, yellow and violet, can be easily recognized in this painting, and from the color notes added to a sketch of it, included in a letter to Bernard, it is clear that the red and green pair was also employed. The background, which in reproduction appears yellow, was in fact a greenish tone. Around the picture, van Gogh has painted a red border, which serves to heighten and emphasize that green. The practice of painting a border of complementary color on to the canvas was initiated by Seurat, who also employed modern color theory.
The canvas was planned in the yellows and violets, though it did not finally conform to that scheme. In the autumn he resumed The Sower, making two paintings, of which this one is a smaller and probably later version. He has used violet and yellow. The appeal of the sower motif for van Gogh was complex. It signified Millet, and van Gogh’s allegiance to what he had stood for—rural scenes in modern art; it signified the seasons and cycles of life and work. But it also referred to the Bible, especially the parable, a particular way of using a commonplace story to convey allegorical meaning. Finally, it evoked modern literature, for instance Émile Zola’s recent novel La Terre (1888), which is structured round the cycles of sowing and harvesting. In July 1889 van Gogh painted the complement to his sower, The Reaper, also in violet and yellow tones.
The painting is curious. The barges and their workmen are solidly and attentively painted, but the setting is minimal and unfinished. Nothing indicates exactly where this is all taking place. A small stretch of quayside suddenly gives way to a sketchy riverbank, a beach even. Beside the barges a man in a rowing boat is fishing, but his relation in space and scale to the barges is not clear. Van Gogh sent the painting to his friend and fellow artist Émile Bernard. In the accompanying letter, van Gogh admitted that the painting was only an attempt at a picture, and he stressed that although it was painted directly from life, it was not in the least "impressionist. " Perhaps van Gogh was intending to take on the older Impressionists such as Monet on their own territory—using their subject matter—and to transform the scene by a more solid handling and greater solidity of form. But apart from the foreground this has hardly been accomplished.
The sense of enclosure and fruitfulness, dreaminess even, has parallels in the illustrations of the medieval devotional books of hours, such as the Très Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry. Van Gogh selected this painting, which he titled Orchards in Bloom (Arles), for exhibition with the Belgian vanguard group Les XX in Brussels in 1890. He exhibited three times with the Parisian Indépendants: in 1888 he showed two paintings, two in 1889, and ten in 1890. To Brussels he sent four pictures: two canvases of sunflowers, a field of wheat at sunrise, and The Red Vineyard, which was bought by the Belgian artist Anna Boch (1848–1936). To accompany the exhibition the organ of Les XX, the magazine L’Art Moderne, published extracts from the lengthy and enthusiastic essay on van Gogh by Albert Aurier (1865–92), first published in 1890 in the Mercure de France newspaper.
La Berceuse was a significant work for van Gogh. He painted five versions of it, one of which was given to the sitter. He offered versions to Gauguin and Bernard and suggested a special setting for the painting, flanked by twin canvases of sunflowers whose brilliant yellow warmth was to underscore the feeling of gratitude that the painting was intended to convey. However, when he later turned his back on Gauguin and Bernard and the ideas that they had encouraged him to pursue, van Gogh also rejected this portrait.
However, if, as van Gogh was given to doing, the artist deviates from the single viewpoint, looking above, below, or to the sides of the perspective frame and thus incorporating many viewpoints, the effect can be quite disarming, as is the case in this painting. The foreground and background do not match. The foreground, painted as if the grass and poppies are immediately beneath our feet, seems to tilt and slide forwards and downwards, thwarting the intended planar recession to the infinitely more distant background. The deviations from traditional geometric systems for representing space, created by Van Gogh’s unsystematic use of these systems, serve, however, to produce an effect of dynamic space and immediacy.
In June 1889 van Gogh painted a picture he called Starry Sky (now known as The Starry Night), an imaginative composition not painted from nature or the motif but composed from various sites and scenes of Brabant and Provence. He offered it to Bernard and Gauguin as his demonstration of a new form of religious painting. Both ignored the picture and thus overlooked van Gogh’s most ambitious painting in his French period, which had been conceived with reference to their joint concerns. Van Gogh responded to this cruel blow by angrily rejecting their work and the directions they had encouraged him to take. In June 1890, in a rare letter to Gauguin, he mentioned Road with Cypress and Star. He called it a “last attempt” at a star painting. It shares many features and motifs with the disregarded Starry Sky—a crescent moon, stars in the sky, Brabant cottages with lighted windows, a tall, solitary cypress. But there is no church; the theme has been “secularized.” It is just a landscape with cottages, trees, wheat fields and workers. It signifies a decisive retrenchment and a rejection of his flirtation with the Paris vanguard.