I recently traveled from Bangkok to Amsterdam and on the flight KLM were showing on its in-flight entertainment a BBC drama-documentary on Van Gogh. It was really excellent . Presented by Alan Yentob with Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role. Incidentally try to see the same actor in BBC’s latest Sherlock Holmes series. My youngest son says it’s the best thing he has seen on the TV. Anyway I digress. Every word spoken by the actors was sourced from the letters that Vincent Van Gogh sent to his younger brother Theo.
Towards the end of the drama the above painting was shown depicting a reaper in a sun-drenched wheat field. This was painted in Saint-Rémy, a small village near Arles. In the wake of several mental crises, Van Gogh had decided to commit himself to the hospital there at the end of April 1889.
Van Gogh worked in the garden, drew the hospital’s corridors and barred windows, painted the view from his cell, and made several portraits of other patients. Occasionally, he was allowed to venture outside the hospital walls to the fields beyond, but never alone.
We are very lucky with this painting because Van Gogh himself later wrote about the meaning, “In this reaper – a vague figure laboring like the devil in the terrible heat to finish his task – I saw an image of death, in the sense that the wheat being reaped represented mankind. But there is nothing sad in this death, it takes place in broad daylight, under a sun that bathes everything in a fine, golden light.”
I find all of Van Gogh’s paintings moving and wonderful and this was no exception . However it also very much reminded me of a painting The Veteran in a New Field by, another artist I greatly admire, Winslow Homer.
After General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at the battle of Appomattox in April 1865, the Union and Confederate armies were peacefully disbanded. The soldiers who had survived the ordeal were free to go home and resume their pre-war occupations. The Veteran in a New Field depicts one of those Civil War veterans recently returned from the front, harvesting a field of grain in the midday sun. The wheat has grown high, and the field stretches all the way to the horizon. The farmer’s military jacket and canteen lie discarded in the foreground, almost covered by fallen wheat stalks.
Winslow Homer completed The Veteran in a New Field only a few months after Appomattox. The optimistic spirit of Homer’s painting only makes its darker undertones more moving. The “new field” of the title can’t mean this wheat field but to the change in the veteran’s occupation — which necessarily calls to mind his previous activity on the battlefield. Homer’s veteran handles a single-bladed scythe, which was actually a farming implement well out of date in the United States (but not France) by this time but effectively gives us an image of the grim reaper, the age-old personification of death.
This picture therefore refers both to the destruction caused by war and the country’s hope for the future. It summons up the conflicting emotions that took hold of Americans at that time — relief that the Civil War was over, and grief for the many lives that had been lost. The image of a soldier returning to his farm would have reassured Homer’s audience that life went on. Even in the aftermath of the worst disasters, the artist seems to say, life has the capacity to restore itself.
Whilst these paintings are of vastly different artistic style they have similarity of theme. The image of the grim reaper but with optimistic over – (or should it be “under”) tones. One painted by a troubled artist in a time of peace and the other by an artist in troubled times. Could Van Gogh have seen and been influenced by Winslow Homer’s painting? I doubt he would have. His attention was rather closer to home where he was hugely influenced by Millet, the French Impressionists – notably Gauguin and the Japanese Woodblock artists such as Hiroshige.
I’ll leave you with another Van Gogh painting of similar theme also painted near Arles at the same period – no accompanying words this time but I think we can get his drift by now.