Sower with Setting Sun – Large Canvas

Sower with Setting Sun – Large Canvas

"From time to time a canvas that makes a painting, such as that sower, which I too think is better than the first one. If we can withstand the siege, a day of victory will come for us, even though we wouldn’t be among the people who are being talked about"

It is late Autumn in Arles in 1888 and Paul Gauguin has been living and working with Van Gogh for about a month when Vincent creates this canvas and its smaller companion in the waning days of November.  The artists are beginning to struggle with each other as their large and powerful personalities begin to clash over everything from art to cleanliness.  The partnership will dissolve in a furious late night argument fueled by passion and wine just four weeks later and Gauguin will leaves Arles forever.

In The Sower, Vincent exaggerates colors and imagines a composition based upon a sunset walk he has taken in the past week before painting the scene in his Yellow House studio, all from his mind’s eye.  He frames this view much like a Japanese woodblock print with a trimmed or pollard tree trunk cutting a dark diagonal across the right third and then adds bold and demarcated areas of color.  More detail can be found by selecting the audio accompaniment to the imagery.

The weather has turned for a week and Vincent is confined to his studio.  For one of the last times, the dutchman will delve into his imagination and create a canvas that is imagined as Gauguin has been advising and arguing for along what he believes to be the path to new modern art.  This canvas is a more personal work for Vincent in that it honors one of his heroes of the art world, Jean-François Millet, as he captures a beloved peasant sowing a harvested field under the final minutes of a setting sun enlarged on the horizon.  Vincent creates a citron-yellow halo of sorts above the worker under lime green sunset skies.

Vincent signs the tree trunk at bottom right – a clue that he was pleased with the resulting depiction which is not as thickly impasto as the smaller canvas.  Related items include the smaller work of the same subject and a letter to Theo with a sketch of the canvas drawn hastily.  There are also canvases of sowers by two of Vincent’s favorite painters of the working class – Jean Francois Millet and Leon Augustine Lhermitte.

By using the Compare feature, we can see the tree is bigger in the signed canvas and the sower’s hand is less out of proportion.  The sower is farther away from the viewer with the sun centered directly above his head in the big canvas comparitively and the transition from sun to sky is not as abrupt in the larger piece.  The most obvious difference is perhaps the thickness of paint applied in the smaller work.  Scholars argue about which canvas was created first with most now leaning toward the larger, size 30 having been completed before the smaller work.  Both were painted within the same couple of weeks of late November but the letters between he and Theo are not conclusive on this point.

Around the same time The Sower is on Vincent’s studio easel in the Yellow House, Gauguin creates two canvases which somewhat display Vincent’s chosen artistic path and initially troubled Van Gogh to a degree. The first with Vincent painting his trademark sunflowers, and the second, a portrait of the proprietor of the night cafe, Madame Ginoux, in her restaurant.

In the sunflower painting, Gauguin unflatteringly depicts Vincent in front of a canvas contemplating his next brushstroke as the artist attempts to capture nature’s beauty and design from a jumble of drying sunflowers in front of him.  It is hard to avoid Gauguin’s underlying angst between seeking the essence of things in the imagination versus through the eye and portraying what one sees as an artist – in Vincent’s case from dead flowers in a vase and too careful an eye he seems to argue.

Gauguin Portrait of Vincent Van Gogh – painter of Sunflowers – Arles late November – 1888

In Madame Ginoux’s portrait,Vincent fills his canvas with his subject, at her customary station in the restaurant. Both artists portray her wry smile but Gauguin includes the pool table from Vincent’s Le Cafe Le Nuit and paints Vincent’s friend the postman Roulin at a table with prostitutes as well as Vincent’s friend Milliet, The  Zouave, (with an incapacitated man fallen asleep next to him at their table in the background at left).    Gauguin has taken Vincent’s prior Arles portraits and placed the subjects cleverly in a complex composition.  His own unique and burgeoning style is evident in this Provence work and this approach will be honed and then revered in the coming years to the present day.

L’arlesienne – Madame Ginoux –  Nov, 1888 Arles – Vincent

Gauguin – Night Cafe in Arles – Madame Ginoux – 1888 Arles


Vincent writes his brother in late November, 1888 as he is painting The Sower:


“Here’s a croquis of the latest canvas I’m working on, another sower. Immense lemon yellow disc for the sun. Green-yellow sky with pink clouds. The field is violet, the sower and the tree Prussian Blue. No. 30 canvas. Let’s calmly wait to exhibit until I have around thirty no. 30 canvases. Then we’ll exhibit them once in your apartment for the friends, and not exerting any pressure even then. And let’s not do anything else. There are lots of reasons for not stirring now. Besides, it won’t take long, I think I’ll be able to send it to you at the time of the exhibition or a little later. In the meantime it will dry thoroughly here, and I can go over all the canvases again once they’re thoroughly dry, even the impasted areas. If at the age of forty I do a painting of figures or portraits the way I feel it, I think that will be worth more than a more or less serious success now.

Have you seen the studies that Bernard brought back from Brittany? Gauguin has told me many things about them. He himself has one which is simply masterly. I think that buying one from him, from Bernard, would be doing him a service, and that he really deserves it.  Only we mustn’t forget that either at New Year or in March, Gauguin will have to be repaid the money he may have laid out, for example for sheets or things that would remain in the studio.  For on both sides I think we’ll find it best to change nothing, absolutely nothing, in the financial arrangement we’ve established. If at the end of a year we continue to find it satisfactory, time will tell.


The weather here is cold, but we see some really beautiful things all the same. Such as yesterday evening, a sickly lemon yellow sunset, mysterious, of extraordinary beauty — Prussian blue cypresses, trees with dead leaves in every broken tone against that, not half bad.


You couldn’t imagine how pleased I am that you have painters with you and aren’t staying alone in the apartment, just as I too am very pleased to have such good company as Gauguin’s.


More soon, and thanks once again for your kind letter.”


Ever yours,




To Theo. Arles, on or about Wednesday, 21 November 1888




“From time to time a canvas that makes a painting, such as that sower, which I too think is better than the first one.  If we can withstand the siege, a day of victory will come for us, even though we wouldn’t be among the people who are being talked about.

I think we’ll end up spending our evenings drawing and writing, there’s more to work on than we can do.  You know that Gauguin has been invited to exhibit at the Vingtistes. His imagination is already leading him to think of settling in Brussels, which would indeed be a means of finding himself in a position to see his Danish wife again. Since he has some success with the Arlésiennes in the meantime, I wouldn’t consider that as being absolutely without consequences.
He’s married and doesn’t much appear to be, in short I fear there may be an absolute incompatibility of character between his wife and himself, but naturally he’s more attached to his children, who judging from the portraits are very beautiful. We, on the other hand, aren’t too gifted in that respect. More soon, a handshake for you and for the Dutchmen.”




Gauguin will write to you tomorrow, he’s waiting for a reply to his letter and sends his warm regards.

To Theo. Arles, on or about Saturday, 1 December 1888.



…almost a year later from the asylum in Saint Remy de Provence:


 “I’m writing you this letter bit by bit in intervals when I’m tired of painting. Work is going quite well – I’m struggling with a canvas begun a few days before my indisposition. A reaper, the study is all yellow, terribly thickly impasted, but the subject was beautiful and simple. I then saw in this reaper – a vague figure struggling like a devil in the full heat of the day to reach the end of his toil – I then saw the image of death in it, in this sense that humanity would be the wheat being reaped. So if you like it’s the opposite of that Sower I tried before. But in this death nothing sad, it takes place in broad daylight with a sun that floods everything with a light of fine gold. Good, here I am again, however I’m not letting go, and I’m trying again on a new canvas. Ah, I could almost believe that I have a new period of clarity ahead of me.”


To Theo. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Thursday, 5 and Friday, 6 September 1889.



Painting, Oil on Burlap on Canvas – 73.5 x 93 cm – Size 30 Figure
Arles: November 20, 1888
Foundation E.G. Bührle
Zurich, Switzerland, Europe
F: 450, JH: 1627

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