Vincent van Gogh: First Steps (after Millet)

In fall and winter 1889-90, while a voluntary patient at the asylum in Saint-remy-de-provence, France, Van Gogh painted twenty-one copies after Jean-Francois Millet, an artist he greatly admired. (This is the ‘after Millet’ mentioned in the title, giving homage to the artist that a work is previously by, whether its more inspiration or in this case a more realistic rendering).

In October, 1889 Van Gogh wrote to his brother of his admiration for one specific Millet drawing:

Ah, now certainly you are yourself deep in nature, since you say that Jo already feels her child move–it is much more interesting even than landscapes, and I am very glad that things should have changed so for you. How beautiful that Millet is, ‘A Child’s First Steps’

(See Letter 1 at bottom)


Vincent van Goghs – First Steps

Print: Vincent van Gogh: First Steps – after Millet 1890

Vincent van Gogh: First Steps - after Millet 1890

For this work of January 1890, Van Gogh squared-up a black and white photograph of Millet’s “First Steps”, transferred it to the canvas, and then “improvised color on it.”

Theo (Vincents brother) had sent the photograph of Millet’s First Steps with perfect timing. Theo’s wife, Jo, was pregnant with their child, so it had special meaning to the family. In addition, Van Gogh was still saddened by recent seizure episodes that impacted his mental clarity. Rather than vibrant colors, here he used softer shades of yellow, green and blue. The picture depicts the father, having put down his tools, holding his arms outstretched for his child’s first steps. The mother protectively guides the child’s movement.

Van Gogh considered his copies “improvisations” or “translations” akin to a musician’s interpretation of a composer’s work.


Millets – First Steps (The Original)

Millet created three version of his work. This, the first version was completed in 1858 for Millet’s patron Alfred Feydeau. It measures 32 x 43 cm. and is now in the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art in Lauren, Mississippi. Theo sent a photograph of this version of First Steps to Vincent in October, 1889. Three months later Van Gogh would draw a squared grid on the photograph (now in the collection of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam) and commence his painted copy of the work.


The two works side by side:
millet_vangogh


Van Gogh completed his version of Millet’s work in January-February, 1890. He sent it and the other painted copies of Millet to Theo in Paris on April 29, 1890.

Theo received these works with great enthusiasm:

The copies after Millet are perhaps the best things you have done yet, and induce me to believe that on the day you turn to painting compositions of figures, we may look forward to great surprises. – Theo van Gogh. Paris, 3 May 1890

(See Letter 2 at bottom)


Conclusion:

First Steps remains one of Van Gogh’s most admired works. The intimate family scene has a universal appeal and the harmonious color scheme would be typical of Van Gogh’s final paintings. The subject of Millet’s original and Van Gogh’s copy may have spoken to Vincent on several levels: a passionate admiration for the great master Jean-Francois Millet, delight at the prospect of the impending birth of his brother’s son, and perhaps a sense of regret for a family life that Vincent had long hoped for, but never attained.

Van Gogh’s – First Steps (after Millet) 1890 – sold at auction in 1987 for $53.9 million.

I should very much like to see Millet reproductions in the schools. I think there are children who would become painters if only they saw such good things. – Vincent van Gogh. Saint-Remy 19 September 1889

(See Letter 3 at bottom)





LETTER 1
Letter to Theo van Gogh from Vincent van Gogh – (St Remy – October 25, 1889)

My dear Theo,

Thanks for your letter and the 150 francs, which I handed over to M. Peyron, asking him once more to tell you each month if there had been any expenses or not – so that it does not accumulate – I also have to thank you for a package of paints, and finally, last night the canvas arrived and the Millet reproductions, of which I am very glad.
M. Peyron said to me again that there is a considerable improvement and that he has good hopes for me – and that he has no objection to my going to Arles just now. And yet very often terrible fits of depression come over me, and besides the more my health comes back to
normal, the more my brain can reason coldly, the more foolish it seems to me, and a thing against all reason, to be doing this painting which costs us so much and brings in nothing, not even the outlay. Then I feel very unhappy, and the trouble is that at my age it is damnably difficult to begin anything else.

In some Dutch newspaper which you put in with the Millets – I notice some Paris letters that I attribute to Isaacson.
They are very subtle and one guesses the author to be a sorrowful creature, restless, with a rare tenderness – a tenderness which makes me instinctively think of H. Heine’s Reisebilder. No need to tell you that I think what he says of me in a note extremely exaggerated, and that’s another reason why I should prefer him to say nothing about me. And in all these articles I find, side by side with very fine
things, something, I don’t quite know what, that seems to me unhealthy.

He has stayed in Paris a long time – I suppose he is wiser than I, and has not been drinking, etc., but all the same I find in him again, as it were, my own mental weariness of Paris. And I think that soon his spirit will become dimmed with sadness, wearied out with the fixed idea of seeking after what is good, if he stays there much longer. You feel so much in what he says that he’s a grievously suffering human being, and is very kind, happy when he can admire.

I began the “Diggers” this morning on a size 30 canvas. You know, it might be interesting to try to do Millet’s drawings in painting, that would be quite a special collection of copies, something like the works of Prevot, who copied the less known Goyas and Velásquezes for M. Doria. Perhaps I should be more useful doing that than doing my own painting. Mother has also written me news of Cor.

I have worked on a study of the fever ward at the Arles Hospital, and then having had no more canvas these last days, I have taken long walks in all directions across the country. I am beginning to feel more the total effect of the scenery in which I am living. In the future I shall perhaps come back again and again to the same subjects of Provence.

What you say of Guillaumin is very true, he has found one true thing and contents himself with what he has found, without going off at random after divergent things, and in that way he will keep straight and become even stronger on these same very simple subjects. My word, he isn’t far wrong, and I like that serenity of his tremendously. I hasten to finish this letter. I have already started writing you four times without being able to finish the letter.

Ah, now certainly you are yourself deep in nature, since you say that Jo already feels her child move – it is much more interesting even than landscapes, and I am very glad that things should have changed so for you.

How beautiful that Millet is, ‘A Child’s First Steps’!

A handshake for you and Isaacson, kindest regards, especially to Jo. I am going to work again at the “Diggers” the days are very short.

Goodbye for now.
Ever yours, Vincent

* Diggers, is a work representing two workers digging, completed in 1889.





LETTER 2

Letter to from Vincent van Gogh from Theo van Gogh – (Paris – May 3, 1889)

My dear Vincent,

I cannot tell you how glad I was of your letter, or rather your two letters; on the eve of my birthday I said to Jo, If a letter should arrive from Vincent! I should be hard put to it to mention anything I need to be completely happy. And look, there was your letter. Please understand that I should like you to feel better, and your fits of sadness to disappear. Your consignment of pictures arrived too, and there are very beautiful ones among them.

The guard and the other fellow with his swollen face are extraordinary; the branch of almond blossoms shows that for these themes you have missed the time of blooming of the trees and flowers. Let’s hope that this will not be the case next time. The copies after Millet are perhaps the best things you have done yet, and induce me to believe that on the day you turn to painting compositions of figures, we may look forward to great surprises.

The consignment of paints from Tasset and Tangui has been sent off. I hadn’t received your second letter, and I said to myself that you might have use for half the quantity extra. The picture for Aurier is one of the finest you have done so far; it has the richness of a peacock’s tail. I am going to take it to him very soon; I had the frame made according to your description, for that much I certainly owe him, and he is not rich.

And now what is most important is your second letter in your telling me of your intention to come here. I am very happy that you feel strong enough to attempt a change, and I approve absolutely of your coming as soon as possible, to make a decision, for, after taking Dr. Peyron’s advice, only you can bear the responsibility. Your trip to Arles was definitely disastrous; is it certain that traveling will do you no harm this time? If I were in your place I should only act in conformity with Dr. Peyron’s views, and in any case as soon as you have decided to come here, it will be absolutely necessary for you to get somebody you trust to accompany you during the whole journey.

The exertion of traveling and the sensations awakened by the sight of well-known spots may have an effect on your malady. If it
should be possible I should so much like to have you with us for some time at least, and if you do everything to take care of yourself, it is very probable that all will go well.

You say that people down there understand nothing of painting, but it is absolutely the same here, and don’t think that you will find things different anywhere else, exceptions apart. We have held intercourse with one category of people who have made painting their principal occupation, but if you don’t count these, it is Hebrew to the general public, and the simple things are even less understood than those whose subject gives them something to puzzle over, etc.

I hope you will soon be able to tell me that your health is improving more and more, and that you will be able to carry out your plans. Please don’t have too many illusions about life in the North; after all, every country has its advantages and disadvantages. I shall write you another letter before long, and I shall look for lithographs of the masters. I shall send them at the same time as the drawings from Brabant. Have courage, and a cordial handshake!

Once again thanks for your letters and pictures. If you should want anything, please say so. Business is good, and I have everything I want. Kindest regards from Jo and the little one. Their portrait enclosed.

Yours, Theo





LETTER 3

Letter to from Vincent van Gogh from Theo van Gogh – (Saint-Remy, September 19, 1889)

My dear Theo,

Many thanks for your letter. First it gives me very great pleasure that you on your side had already also thought of old Pissarro. You will see that there are better odds there other than elsewhere. Meanwhile business is business, and you ask me to answer you categorically – and you do right – if I would consent to go into a home in Paris in case of an immediate departure for this winter.

I answer Yes to that, with the same calm and for the same reasons I had when I came to this place – even if this home in Paris should be a makeshift arrangement, which might easily be the case, for the opportunities to work are not bad here, and work is my only distraction.
But having said this, please note that in my letter I gave a very serious reason as a motive for wishing to make a change.

And I insist on repeating it. I am astonished that with the modern ideas that I have, and being so ardent an admirer of Zola and de Goncourt and caring for things of art as I do, that I have attacks such as a superstitious man might have and that I get perverted and frightful ideas about religion such as never came into my head in the North.
On the supposition that I am very sensitive to surroundings, the already prolonged stay in those old cloisters such as the Arles hospital and the house here would be enough in itself to explain these attacks.

Then – even as a last resort – it might be necessary for the moment to go into a private asylum instead. Nevertheless, to avoid doing, or having the appearance of doing, anything rash I assure you, after having thus warned you of what I might wish at a given moment – that is, to go away – I assure you that I feel calm and confident enough to wait here another length of time to see if a new attack materializes this winter. But then if I write you I want to get out of here you should not hesitate and arrange things beforehand, for you would know then that I had a serious reason or even several for going into a home not run, as this one is, by nuns, however excellent they may be.

Now if by some arrangement or other, sooner or later, I should make a move, then let’s begin as if practically nothing was wrong, being very cautious all the same and ready to listen to Rivet in the smallest matters, but don’t let’s begin by taking too formal measures straight off, as if it were a lost cause. As for eating a lot, I do – but if I were my doctor, I’d forbid it. I don’t see any advantage for myself in enormous physical strength, because it would be more logical for me to get absorbed in the thought of doing good work and
wishing to be an artist and nothing but that.

Both Mother and Wil have changed their surroundings after Cor’s departure – they were damned right. Grief must not gather in our heart like water in a swamp. But it is sometimes both expensive and impossible to change. Wil wrote very nicely, it is a great grief to them, Cor’s departure.

It is odd, just when I was making that copy of the “Pieta” by Delacroix, I found where that canvas has gone. It belongs to a queen of Hungary, or of some other country thereabouts, who has written poems under the name of Carmen Sylva. The article mentioning her and the picture was by Pierre Loti, and he made you feel that this Carmen Sylva as a person was even more touching than what she wrote – and yet she wrote things like this: a childless woman is like a bell without a clapper – the sound of the bronze would perhaps be beautiful, but no one will ever hear it. I have now seven copies out of the ten of Millet’s “Travaux des Champs.”

I can assure you that making copies interests me enormously, and it means that I shall not lose sight of the figure, even though I have no models at the moment. Besides, this will make a studio decoration for me or someone else. I should also like to copy “The Sower” and “The Diggers.” There is a photograph of the drawing after “The Diggers.” And there is Larat’s etching of “The Sower” at Durand Ruel’s. Among these same etchings is the snow-covered field with a harrow. Then the “Four Hours of the Day”; there are copies of them in the collection of wood engravings. I should like to have all these, at least the etchings and the wood engravings. It is a kind of study that I need, for I want to learn. Although copying may be the old system, that makes absolutely no difference to me. I am going to
copy the “Good Samaritan” by Delacroix too.

I have done a woman’s portrait – the attendant’s wife – which I think you would like [Lost]. I have done a duplicate of it which is less good than the one from life. And I am afraid they will take the latter; I should have liked you to have it. It is pink and black.
I am sending you my own portrait today, you must look at it for some time; you will see, I hope, that my face is much calmer, though it seems to me that my look is vaguer than before. I have another one which is an attempt made when I was ill, but I think this will please you more, and I have tried to make it simple. Show it to old Pissarro when you see him.

You will be surprised at the effect “Les Travaux des Champs” takes on in color, it is a very profound series of his. I am going to try to tell you what I am seeking in it and why it seems good to me to copy them. We painters are always asked to compose ourselves and be nothing but composers.
So be it – but it isn’t like that in music – and if some person or other plays Beethoven, he adds his personal interpretation – in music and more especially in singing – the interpretation of a composer is something, and it is not a hard and fast rule that only the composer should play his own composition. Very good – and I, mostly because I am ill at present, I am trying to do something to console myself, for my own pleasure.

I let the black and white by Delacroix or Millet or something made after their work pose for me as a subject. And then I improvise color on it, not, you understand, altogether myself, but searching for memories of their pictures – but the memory, “the vague consonance of colors which are at least right in feeling” – that is my own interpretation.

Many people do not copy, many others do – I started on it accidentally, and I find that it teaches me things, and above all it sometimes gives me consolation. And then my brush goes between my fingers as a bow would on the violin, and absolutely for my own pleasure. Today I tried the “Woman Shearing Sheep” in a color scheme ranging from lilac to yellow. They are little canvases of about size 5. Thank you very much for the package of canvas and paints. In return I am sending you with the portrait the following canvases:

Moonrise (ricks)
Study of Fields
Study of Olives
Study of Night
The Mountain
Field of Green Wheat
Olives
Orchard in Bloom
Entrance to a Quarry

The first four canvases are studies without the effect of a whole that the others have I rather like the “Entrance to a Quarry” – I was doing it when I felt this attack coming on – because to my mind the sombre greens go well with the ochre tones; there is something sad in it which is healthy, and that is why it does not bore me. Perhaps that is true of the “Mountain” too. They will tell me that mountains are not like that and that there are black outlines of a finger’s width.

But after all it seemed to me it expressed the passage in Rod’s book – one of the very rare passages of his in which I found something good – about a desolate country of somber mountains, among which are some dark goatherds’ huts where sunflowers are blooming.

The “Olives” with a white cloud and a background of mountains, as well as the “Moonrise” and the night effect, are exaggerations from the point of view of arrangement, their lines are warped as in old wood. The olives are more in character, as in the other study, and I tried to express the time of day when you see the green rose beetles and the cicadas flying about in the heat. The other canvases, the “Reaper,” etc., are not dry.

And now in the bad weather I am going to make a lot of copies, for really I must do more figures. It is the study of the figure that teaches you to seize the essential and to simplify. When you say in your letter that I have always only been working, no – I cannot agree – I am myself very, very dissatisfied with my work, and the only thing that comforts me is that people of experience say you must paint ten years for nothing. But what I have done is only those ten years of unfortunate studies that didn’t come off. Now a better period may come, but I shall have to get the figure stronger and I must refresh my memory by a very close study of Delacroix and Millet. Then I shall try to get my drawing clearer. Yes, misfortune is good for something, you gain time for study. I am adding a study of flowers to the roll of canvases – nothing much, but after all I do not want to tear it up.

Altogether I think nothing in it at all good except the “Field of Wheat,” the “Mountain,” the “Orchard,” the “Olives” with the blue hills and the portrait and the “Entrance to the Quarry,” and the rest tells me nothing, because it lacks individual intention and feeling in the lines. Where these lines are close and deliberate it begins to be a picture, even if it is exaggerated. That is a little what Gauguin and Bernard feel, they do not ask the correct shape of a tree at all, but they do insist that one can say if the shape is round or squared honestly, they are right, exasperated as they are by certain people’s photographic and empty perfection. They will not ask the correct tone of the mountains, but they will say: By God, the mountains were blue, were they? Then chuck on some blue and don’t go telling me that it was a blue rather like this or that, it was blue, wasn’t it? Good – make them blue and it’s enough!

Gauguin is sometimes like a genius when he is explaining that, but as for the genius Gauguin has, he is very fearful of showing it, and it is touching the way he likes to say something that will really be of some use to the young ones. What a queer creature he is all the same. I am very pleased to hear that Jo is well, and I think that you will feel much more in your element thinking of her condition, and of course having worries too, than alone without these family worries. For you will feel more in nature.

When you think of Millet and Delacroix, what a contrast. Delacroix without a wife, Millet surrounded by a big family, more than anybody. And yet what similarities there are in their work. So Jouve has still kept his big studio and is working on decoration. That man came very near to being an excellent painter.

It is money trouble with him, he is forced to do a hundred things besides painting for a living; if he does do something beautiful, it costs him more money than it brings in. And he is quickly losing his knack of drawing with the brush. That is probably caused by the old way of education, which is the same as nowadays in the studios – they fill in outlines. And Daumier was always painting his face in the mirror to learn to draw.

Do you know what I think of pretty often, what I already said to you some time ago – that even if I did not succeed, all the same I thought that what I have worked at will be carried on. Not directly, but one isn’t alone in believing in things that are true. And what does it matter personally then! I feel so strongly that it is the same with people as it is with wheat, if you are not sown in the earth to germinate there, what does it matter? – in the end you are ground between the millstones to become bread. The difference between happiness and unhappiness! Both are necessary and useful, as well as death or disappearance … it is so relative – and life is the same.

Even faced with an illness that breaks me up and frightens me, that belief is unshaken. How I should have liked to see those Meuniers! Well, let it be understood that if I were to write again expressly and briefly that I should like to go to Paris, I should have a reason for it, which I have explained above. That meanwhile there is no hurry, and that, having warned you, I have confidence enough to wait for the winter and the attack which will perhaps come back then. But if it is a fit of religious exaltation again, then no delay, I would like to leave at once, without giving reasons. Only we are not permitted, at least it would be indiscreet, to meddle with the sisters’ management or even to criticize them. They have their own beliefs and their own ways of doing good to others, sometimes it does very well.

But I do not warn you lightly. And it is not to recover more liberty or anything else that I don’t have. So let’s wait very calmly till an opportunity to settle things presents itself.

It is a great advantage that my stomach is behaving well, and then I do not think I am so sensitive to cold. And besides I know what to do when the weather is bad, having this project of copying several things that I like. I should very much like to see Millet reproductions in the schools. I think there are children who would become painters if only they saw such good things.

Regards to Jo and a handshake. Goodbye for now.

Ever yours, Vincent


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