Painted in 1887, Femme dans un champ de blé exemplifies Van Gogh’s stylistic experimentation following his exposure to the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists . On the advice of his brother Theo, Van Gogh moved to Paris in the Spring of 1886, to the popular area of Montmartre. Van Gogh made the most of the wealth of subjects that this new environment offered, as Belinda Thomson writes: "The Butte was a convenient location, as its popular windmills offered viewing platforms from which to enjoy panoramic views over the whole city. Socially too, Montmartre marked the raw junction between urban and rural life. The quarter was fast being colonised by artists’ studios and the entertainment world, dance halls, cheap brasseries, circuses. Yet, if one turned one’s back on the city, one confronted vineyards and market gardens, which provided a welcome reminder for Van Gogh of the scenes he had enjoyed painting at home" (B. Tomson, Van Gogh Paintings. The Masterpieces, London, 2007, pp. 47-48).
He was exposed to the Parisian avant-garde from the outset – not least through his brother’s increasing involvement with the gallery Goupil & Cie – and though his earliest paintings of Montmartre show the same darker palette and more formal style that had defined his earlier works he soon began to absorb the influences of the artists working around him. His choice of subjects broadened to include both the typically Impressionist motif of the busy suburban world of the banks of the Seine, and consciously urban views of city, and his paintings reflect a new appreciation of color and light. Aware of this gradual change he wrote to his friend the English painter Horace M. Livens, "In Antwerp I did not even know what the impressionists were, now I have seen them and though not being one of the club yet I have much admired certain impressionists’ pictures – Degas nude figure – Claude Monet landscape. And now for what regards what I myself have been doing, I have lacked money for paying models else I had entirely given myself to figure painting. But I have made a series of color studies in painting… seeking oppositions of blue with orange, red and green, yellow and violet seeking les tons rompus et neutres to harmonize brutal extremes. Trying to render intense color and grey harmony… So as we said at the time: in color seeking life the true drawing is modelling with colour" (in The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, London, 1958, p. 513).
To Theo van Gogh. Nieuw-Amsterdam, on or about Sunday, 7 October 1883.
My dear Theo,
I’m writing to you again now that I’ve walked around this village for a couple of days. What I find beautiful is everywhere here. That’s to say, there is peace here.
I find something else beautiful, too — that is the drama — but that, it’s everywhere, so there aren’t only Van Goyen effects here.
Yesterday I drew decaying oak roots, so-called bog trunks (being oak trees that have been buried under the peat for perhaps a century, over which new peat has formed — when the peat is dug out these bog trunks come to light).
These roots lay in a pool in black mud. A few black ones lay in the water, in which they were reflected, a few bleached ones on the black plain. A little white track ran alongside it, behind it more peat, black as soot. Then a stormy sky overhead. That pool in the mud with those decaying roots, it was absolutely melancholy and dramatic, just like Ruisdael, just like Jules Dupré.
Here’s a little scratch from the peat fields.
There are often curious oppositions of Black and White here. For example, a canal with white sandy banks through a sooty black plain. You can see it above, too, small black figures against a white sky, and again gradations of black and white in the sand in the foreground.
I saw an effect exactly like Ruisdael’s Bleaching fields at Overveen: foreground a high road shadowed by clouds, then a low, bare meadow on which the light fell, with two houses
in the distance (one with a slate-grey, one with a red roof). Behind them a canal and stacks of peat, changing in size depending on the plane in which they stood — far away a
small silhouette of a little row of huts and a small church tower. Small black figures laying the washing out to bleach, a single mast of a barge standing up between the peat
stacks. Above, a grey sky with a lot of movement in it. Well, I often think about Van Goyen on these misty mornings, the little houses are just like his. That really peaceful
and naive look.
I believe I’ve found my country, you know. Coming events cast their shadows before, says an English proverb.
I just wanted to write and say that you do know, don’t you, that you must never think in melancholy hours that you’re without a friend? For I believe I can give you the assurance that you can trust me. Why am I saying this? — because I’ve since been thinking over what you wrote about America. And even so, I don’t think it’s a good plan, even if you do have the best relations there, that’s to say with Knoedler or anyone else.
Even if it’s only in melancholy moments that your thoughts turn to it, even if it isn’t a plan — I don’t believe it is — it’s still proof that you have your gloomy moments. Which I find remarkably understandable — even though I don’t know the circumstances, other than very generally, that it isn’t very pleasant in the firm. Wisselingh told me the story of the house in London, and all I say about it is that there’s most certainly a huge difference between the house of G&Cie in the old days (for instance, when Uncle Vincent was still there, and not even in his latter years) and now. I mean, in my view, in those days it was more a matter of personal energy and resoluteness. Now there are nullities (I don’t say mediocrities, not even in a bad sense, because that’s still much too good) like friend Bock, who, mark you, represent the house in London, and do so now that it’s organized on an infinitely lavish scale. Moreover, these aren’t isolated phenomena.
Now this must be very discouraging for people like you, everything much more discouraging than in earlier years. Personal passion for work, personal energy. Tersteeg has it, you have it, and at the same time despite that you have a position. But in the case of change, be aware that it could be that you get nothing out of it, and may everywhere come up against the ‘triumph of mediocrity, of nullity, of absurdity’.
Take Wisselingh, who had a strong character, very well, he keeps going even though he has nothing like the active life that Uncle Vincent had. Why not? — because it now comes down to different things and, if he was young now, say, Uncle Vincent would no longer be able to do now what he could do then, and you would be able to do now if now was then. So I say, what attraction does it hold nowadays, are people not bored? — as for my part I believe Wisselingh, for one, is hugely bored because he cannot act.
Furthermore, if you have personal energy, don’t wear it out, don’t let it get rusty, if things get miserable and one can’t count on anything, look for something simpler.
However, I’m so out of things, I really have such a complete lack of direct knowledge of it — I think the few words about London that I heard from Wisselingh are all that I’ve heard about the business in 1 1/2 years — that I may have got it all entirely wrong. Yet some things seem so extraordinary to me that I imagine the business in general as being out of joint, although I don’t know where or how things are disjointed the worst.
Now you’ll say, yes, but the painter’s affairs are much worse, less secure, and there too it could be that personal energy or personal passion for work couldn’t do everything, for example not provide food for someone at first. Very well, all granted, but suppose it was a question of the simplest needs, the business is no more critical for it, although it remains critical when, instead of the expensive city life, one seeks a place where it’s cheaper. Assuming I might have a bit of good fortune and we might succeed in finding a few friends for my work — then, yes, then I would be talking very differently.
Precisely because I have you to thank that I’ve been able to carry on thus far, I wanted to say to you that I don’t doubt for a moment that you would regard it as something wonderful if you had work for your hands, and even if initially it were to bring about the most impossible and conflicting relationships in your actual position in regard to life in general, nevertheless you would have a sense of ‘what does it matter to me’ to counter this, because of that view of the future. A future which, although it doesn’t depend entirely on making personal effort, would be more directly connected with it than things which aren’t manual work.
When you started you wouldn’t have to be alone, and that, I assure you, enormously shortens the time when nothing works. It’s really terrible that one sometimes has to search for a year for something that could be explained in a fortnight by someone who is further along. It comes down to personal effort, but the road is easier or harder depending on whether one is alone or not. And the worst thing is this absolutely having to know this or that, and if one asks for something the other turns his back on you. This is something beastly, but then that’s how it goes, and perhaps it goes with the manners. You’re then beaten, and it’s painful to know in advance that one will certainly go through a lot of mistakes before one finds out for oneself, which cause a waste of time and misery that could have been avoided.
One ends up not really asking anyone any more, and relying solely on oneself, but this ought to be organized rather differently. But then, there are so many things that ‘ought to be’. Enough, I simply say if you ever change (even though there isn’t the least question of it now), then become a painter.
And then start by spending the initial period with me, even though I myself don’t know as much as some other people, and although I myself still come up against many things. And I’ll speak much, much more confidently about this if I can get a little more certainty in my affairs this year. If C.M. comes, talk to him about things again. I wish above all that things would become a little easier for you through your relationship with him. Something that would also be very helpful to you is that you, in any event, come fresh from the art world, which I had already left long before when I started. For it’s necessary to feel clearly the rapports between nature and painted things in general. I’ve had to renew that in myself.
I hope to make something of the women on the heath in the scratch overleaf, and shall go back to the same field. Adieu, old chap, but all the same you mustn’t think about America, in my opinion.
With a handshake.
And never think ‘I’m not an artist’, because in so far as general gifts of energy and understanding are required, be assured that you have them.
As I said, I’m going to Hoogeveen on 12 October, but then I’m coming back here.