"Under the twilight and brown; the peasant twice bronzed; His forehead bathed in the pale sky; Returns - his work done".
Van Gogh is one of the world’s greatest and most enduringly popular artists whose bold use of color and striking imagery mark him as unique. Unable to support himself by his paintings, and beset by mental disturbances (such as the incident where he cut off part of his ear), he died a...
Van Gogh is one of the world’s greatest and most enduringly popular artists whose bold use of color and striking imagery mark him as unique. Unable to support himself by his paintings, and beset by mental disturbances (such as the incident where he cut off part of his ear), he died a suicide aged only 37. In addition to art, Van Gogh was very knowledgeable in literature, and his correspondence is full of both literary and artistic references. He enjoyed quoting to his friends and family the poetry that he loved, thus preserving for us the ability to identify and read the works that inspired him.
In late March, 1884 Van Gogh wrote a letter to his friend Anthon van Rappard, giving him samples of the poetry of the French artist and writer Jules Breton, whose work Van Gogh admired. “Herewith a few more poems by Jules Breton; if you don’t have them, I feel sure you will be greatly impressed by them. Today, or rather during the past few days, I painted a study of the weaving loom of which you have the sketch. I am also trying to find the color of the winter garden. But it is already a spring garden by now; it has changed into something quite different. Goodbye, Ever yours, Vincent.” He added, “When I was with you last winter you were opposed to ‘enthusiasm’- I mean, you said that Jaap Maris said that enthusiasm was I don’t know what. But he, that is, Jaap, didn’t exactly put this into practice in his own life – even though he may have said something like that, applying it to some special case – since he himself continued to paint under all circumstances. If it were so, then birds would stop singing and painters would stop painting if they were forever asking themselves whether or not they were too ardent.” This letter is included in Van Gogh’s Letters, Unabridged. As promised at the start of the letter, he then wrote out some of Breton’s poetry. Over the years some stanzas of the poem were cut from this letter, and a few have found their way to the marketplace.
We offer one of these, four lines in Van Gogh’s hand, in French, a section of an autograph poem entitled “Le Retour des Champs, a Francois Millet (Return from the Fields, after Francois Millet).” “Sous le crepuscule et le hale/ Le paysan deux fois bruni/ Baignant son front dans le ciel pale/ S’en revient – le travail fini.” The translation is: “Under the twilight and brown/ The peasant twice bronzed/ Bathing his forehead in the pale sky/ Returns – his work done.”
This poem segment is of extraordinary importance because it directly inspired a Van Gogh painting. It is known that the artistic and poetic works of others influenced him, and that he admired the realistic sentiments about peasant life drawn by artist Jean-François Millet and poet Jules Breton. He painted a number of works specifically in homage to Millet (best remembered for his “Reaper”) and Breton he poetically termed “the song of the golden wheat.” The line of Breton’s poem he wrote out here apparently stayed on Van Gogh’s mind and made its mark. His painting “Evening: The End of Day (After Millet),” 1889, not only pays homage to Millet in the title (as does Breton’s poem), but brings to life the exact scene imagined in this poem segment, right down to the browning and pale sky at twilight, with the forehead of the bronzed peasant turned towards it. The painting is now part of the Menard Art Museum collection in Japan.
Van Gogh’s letters are virtually all in institutions, as are his poetry books and journal, and his holograph is nearly impossible to obtain. We have found less than half a dozen letters sold at auction over the last 30 years, and are aware of just five of these poetry fragments having been offered during that time. This segment is matted with a color illustration of the work it inspired, “Evening: The End of Day (After Millet).”
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