Vincent van Gogh - First Steps after Jean-Francois Millet 1889

First Steps after Jean-Francois Millet 1889
First Steps after Jean-Francois Millet
Oil on canvas 72.4 x 91.2 cm. Saint-Rémy: January, 1890
New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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First Steps Jean-Francois Millet
First Steps
Jean-Francois Millet

From The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York:
In fall and winter 1889–90, while a voluntary patient at the asylum in Saint-Rémy, Van Gogh painted twenty-one copies after Millet, an artist he greatly admired. He considered his copies "translations" akin to a musician's interpretation of a composer's work. He let the black-and-white images—whether prints, reproductions, or, as here, a photograph that his brother, Theo, had sent—pose "as a subject," then he would "improvise color on it." For this work of January 1890, Van Gogh squared-up a photograph of Millet's First Steps and transferred it to the canvas.

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Anna van Gogh-Carbentus. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Thursday, 19 September 1889.
Dear Mother,
First of all, even though it’s late, I want to wish you a happy birthday. Twice I started a letter that I abandoned again because my mind wasn’t on writing. How very right of you and Wil simply both to have looked for other surroundings for a while after Cor’s departure. There was a lot of news in your last letters, first of all the particulars about Cor’s departure, and then that you’re going to move in November; I can well understand that you’d really like to be closer to your grandchildren. But all the same it will be a strange feeling to think that none of us is left in Brabant.
I’m planning to send you a painting before long, and Wil too, I’m working on them, and certainly finished by the end of the month. Although it may take another fortnight before they’re dry enough to send.
These last few weeks I’ve been perfectly well as far as my health goes, and I work almost without stopping from morning till night, day after day, and I lock myself up in the studio to have no distractions. So it continues to be a great comfort to me that the work is progressing rather than going backwards, and I do it with perfect calm, and my thoughts in this respect are entirely clear and self-assured.

And so compared with others here, who can’t do anything, I certainly have no reason to complain.
The other day I wrote to Theo that I’d like to be not so far from Paris for a while, and probably something will come of it. Not that I’m unwilling to sacrifice my freedom so as to be less of a burden to others if it gets too bad, but at the moment it comes down to much the same thing. And among artists there are so many who, despite nervous diseases — or seizures from time to time — nevertheless go their own way, and in the life of the painter it is, it seems, not enough to make paintings but one must also not let one’s relations with other painters be harmed.
My health is so good between times and my stomach so much better than before that I believe it could still be years before I become completely unfit, which I initially feared would be the case immediately.
I’m afraid that I’ll again notice in time that tomorrow always comes when one is dealing with illness. But there doesn’t appear to be any rule to it, and the doctor repeated to me many times that one can say nothing about it in advance. But when one knows that it’s a malady that persists you’ll be able to understand that although one is completely overcome at first, one starts to get used to the idea and then considers what one can still do anyway. And that could still turn out better than expected.
At first I was so despondent that I even lost the desire to see friends again and to work — now at the moment the need for those two things is beginning to act and, added to that, appetite and health are perfectly good between times. And so I really hanker for Theo and his wife, whom I haven’t even seen yet, and am interested in everything. And when I think that now there’s no need to seek new friends, then I think all the more about present and former friends.
All the same, I understand that I may not go into this too deeply, since it might have to be arranged so very differently from what I sometimes imagine, and besides I’m not disposed towards any particular desire.
Only I’m anything but courageous in distress and anything but patient when I’m not well, although I do have a fairly solid measure of patience to keep at my work. But that’s literally all.
As often as I get the opportunity, I work on portraits that I sometimes think myself are more serious and better than the rest of my work. And if it might be that my condition permits me to go back to Paris again, or in the vicinity, that will become the main thing for me.
And now I bid you goodbye for today, I beg your pardon for not writing before, and I hope to send you the paintings I’m making for you before long. Embraced in thought.
Your loving