03 July 2014

Invincible Summer

"In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer." - Albert Camus

I like to think that these words by Camus make a fitting epigraph for one of Vincent van Gogh's last paintings.  First Steps - After Millet  dates from January of 1890, six months before the artist died.   During the autumn of 1889, van Gogh had admitted himself to an asylum at Saint-Remy, not the first of his many trials and setbacks. 
Vincent wrote to his brother Theo many times expressing his admiration for his predecessor, the Barbizon painter Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875).  Van Gogh's homage to a pastel by Millet from the late 1850s is one of a series the artist called his "translations" , meaning something like a musician's interpretation.  He had performed similar homages to  Japanese artists Utagawa Hiroshige and Keisai Eisen in 1887.
Millet's work is now out of fashion, as is his view of the human place in nature  but it is a view that has resonance even so.  I think here of Millet's The Gleaners (1857) and its inspiration for the filmmaker Agnes Varda, whose Le glaneur et la glaneuse (2000) follows her search for modern-day gleaners.   Using humble digital video, Varda finds common human impulses everywhere she turns her camera, , finding the wsidom of van Gogh and Millet.
But turn to the painting itself.  .The scene is one that is universally understandable: the joyful feelings that parents feel when their child takes its first steps.  Mother has brought the little one outside so that father can take time from his labor to share in this happy event.  A gentle rebuke to cynicism, Van Gogh's First Steps offers a glimpse of the artist's own invincible summer, the strength that made it possible for him work in spite of emotional torment.

Vincent van Gogh died on July 29, 1890 from an infection apparently caused by an untreated gunshot wound to the chest. His was only thirty-seven years old.  His brother Theo, who was at his side, reported that Vincent's last words were: "The sadness will last forever."   Fortunately, so does his work.

1. Vincent van Gogh - First Steps - After Millet, 1890, Metropolitan Museum
of Art, NYC.


Tom Sarmo said...

Thanks for this post. As a young illustrator (seeing an original Van Gogh for the first time)I was thunder-struck by the lushness of paint, so thick that the yellow varnish puddled above the strokes. That day also began a lifelong passion for Millet's work. If anyone out there wants to get rid of their out of fashion Millet, I'll gladly take it off your hands :)

Jane said...

Tom, this picture has always brought a lump to my throat, in more ways than one. Whether a viewer knows about van Gogh's anguish or Millet's old-fashioned-ness, so to speak, can do little to keep attentive viewers from appreciating the painting. One of my art history professors found a J.M.W. Turner etching at a barn sale in New York's southern tier, so you never know! Thanks for your comments.