First Steps – after Millet

First Steps – after Millet

" My Dear Theo... ....I’m hurrying to finish this letter, I had already begun to write to you four times without being able to finish. Ah, at the moment you yourself are fully in the midst of nature, since you write that Jo already feels her child quicken – it’s much more interesting even than landscape, and I’m very pleased that it has changed like this for you. How beautiful the Millet is, A child’s first steps! Handshake to you, to Isaäcson, my best regards above all to Jo. Ever yours, Vincent"
Painting Date
15th of January 1890
Detailed Image Links


Jean Francois Millet was a great hero to Vincent.  His mid-1800’s depictions of peasant life resonated with Vincent’s view of modern art in a changing world.  The industrial revolution is underway and Vincent seeks the countryside to paint landscapes and portraits of the workers he finds there.  When a cold winter descends upon the asylum at Saint Paul de Mausole in Saint Remy, Vincent turns to a photograph of a painting by Millet called “First Steps” by Millet and works indoors.


By the time the winter months of 1889-90 have passed, he will re-create 21 works by Millet and a dozen or so of other artists he admired from small photographs or magazine articles or photographs of works.  Many are in black and white and Vincent enjoys infusing colors he selects for each depiction.  He finds them to be not so much copies as his own interpretation of how they might be colored.  His letters to Theo reveal how enjoyable he finds the process of creating the canvases and that this canvas was special between the brothers and the future founder of the Van Gogh Museum, Theo and Jo’s soon to be born son they will name Vincent.


In his rendition of First Steps, Vincent uses short, curved strokes and a palette of greens, blues and browns.  He also uses dark outlines around people and objects — as Bernard and Anquetin have been experimenting with and is prevalent in the Japanese woodblock prints adored by Vincent and Theo.  As in most of his works with laborers as subjects, the worker’s facial feature is subdued if visible at all.  Great care is taken with posture, setting and gesture conveying emotion.  Vincent adds color to this formula along with his chosen brushstrokes to enhance Millet’s original efforts.


The Related Items are a pastel and drawing by Millet which Vincent modeled his painting after.  Also included is an intended companion canvas “Snow Covered Field” after a Millet work and finally, a Millet copy of “Evening: The Watch” which Vincent had completed a few months prior and shows a peasant couple with a baby in a cradle.  The Compare one, two and three show Vincent’s works alongside those of Millet allowing the viewer to see how Vincent chose to apply color to Millet’s harmonious browns.  The Detailed Images show Vincent’s careful choice of brushstroke shape and thickness of paint application beautifully.


Vincent’s illness returned in December, as happened the year before on the same day, the 23rd when he cut off part of his ear in Arles after arguing with Paul Gauguin.  He was stricken for a week this time and bedridden until he regained lucidity on December 30th.  His physician wrote Theo to let him know of Vincent’s condition and that while he was incapacitated he consumed some of his paints.


Vincent began painting again about a week after feeling better and about two weeks after completing First Steps and a few other copies of Millet works, he will be stricken down again. This time he will be incapacitated for ten days at the end of January, 1890.  When he recovers in February, he will have only 6 months to live and a move from the asylum to a suburb of Paris, Auvers where he completes his last series of landscapes.



When Vincent is alerted to the forthcoming birth of Theo and Jo’s baby, he writes Theo in October from St Remy:


” My Dear Theo…


….I’m hurrying to finish this letter, I had already begun to write to you four times without being able to finish.  Ah, at the moment you yourself are fully in the midst of nature, since you write that Jo already feels her child quicken – it’s much more interesting even than landscape, and I’m very pleased that it has changed like this for you.


How beautiful the Millet is, A child’s first steps! Handshake to you, to Isaäcson, my best regards above all to Jo….


Ever yours, Vincent”


To Theo. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, on or about Friday, 25 October 1889.




“This week I’m going to start on Millet’s ‘Snow-covered field and ‘First steps’ in the same format as the others. Then there’ll be 6 canvases forming a series, and I assure you that I’ve worked on them, these last three of the ‘Times of the day’, with much thought to calculate the colour.


You see, these days there are so many people who don’t feel made for the public but who support and consolidate what others do. Those who translate books, for example. The engravers, the lithographers. Take Vernier, for example, and Lerat.  So that’s to say that I don’t hesitate to make copies.”


To Theo. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, on or about Monday, 13 January 1890




“My dear Theo,


I haven’t been able to write to you until now, but as I’m feeling a little better these days I didn’t want to delay wishing a happy year to you, your wife and your child, since it’s your birthday. At the same time, please accept the various paintings I’m sending you with my thanks for all the kindnesses you’ve shown me, for without you I would be most unhappy.


You’ll see that first there are canvases after Millet. As these aren’t destined for public viewing, perhaps you’ll make a present of them to our sisters sooner or later. But first you must keep the ones you consider good, and as many as you wish, they’re absolutely yours. One of these days you must send me some other things by ancient and modern artists to do, if you find any.”

To Theo. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Tuesday, 29 April 1890


Oil on canvas – 72.4 x 91.2 cm.  – Size 30 figure
Saint-Rémy: January, 1890 – Winter
F 668, JH 1883

Where Vincent Was:
Saint Remy

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