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Paired With Its Muse, Van Gogh Masterpiece Visits MFA

"The Sower," Vincent van Gogh, 1888, Oil on canvas
"The Sower," Vincent van Gogh, 1888, Oil on canvas

A masterpiece by one of the world’s most intriguing artists is making a cameo appearance at the Museum of Fine Arts. While in town it will be united with its source of inspiration.

Starting Tuesday, Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh’s “The Sower” (1888) will be hanging just inches away from its muse — “The Sower” (1850) by Frenchman Jean-Francois Millet.

Boston is home turf for Millet’s “The Sower.” It’s been in the city for over a century. The Van Gogh is from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. This is the first time the two works have been displayed together in the United States.

“One of the advantages of bringing together van Gogh’s “Sower” with our Millet “Sower” is that it brings a great clarity of focus onto both works,” said George Shackelford, the MFA's chair of the Art of Europe department and curator of Modern Art. “Both are major masterpieces from both our museums and we value them extraordinarily in terms our visiting public."

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The pairing kicks off the MFA’s new “Visiting Masterpieces” series. This isn’t a full-blown exhibition, but rather a mini-display that highlights a short but dramatic period in van Gogh’s life.

As a young artist, van Gogh was a huge fan of Millet. Millet’s name can be found sprinkled throughout van Gogh’s letters to his brother, Theo.

Van Gogh first discovered Millet’s work in 1875. At the time, van Gogh worked at a Paris art dealership. A few years later — as van Gogh was starting his own career — he wrote that “Millet is father Millet, counselor and mentor in everything for young artists.”

And Millet's "The Sower" held a special place in van Gogh's heart.

“It influenced him from the beginning of the 1880s all the way to the end of his career, which, after all, is only 10 years later,” Shackelford said.

While van Gogh had access to photos and pastel’s of “The Sower,” he never actually saw the original painting with his own eyes. That’s because it moved from France to Boston in 1885.

But van Gogh was able to study — and ultimately copy — versions of Millet’s notable work to stretch his own technical abilities as an artist.

Millet is known for his affinity for farmers. Van Gogh admired and connected with the peasant themes in “The Sower,” but also in Millet's other iconic paintings such as “The Gleaners.” Through Millet, van Gogh became comfortable and more intimate with peasant forms and subjects: diggers, plough-hands, sowers; in other words, people of the earth.

But while the subject matter is the same in the two artist's paintings, the works are very different.

“The Millet is dark and brooding,” Shackelford explained. The working man in it occupies the center of the painting. He’s captured in the act as he scatters seeds at dusk. His movements are vivid, even in two dimensions. The landscape is moving into night behind him. This sower is clearly the focal point of the painting.

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Van Gogh’s version pops with unexpected color. While it’s set at dusk, bright, unnatural colors fill the frame — a green sky, pink clouds and a lemon-yellow setting sun scream out for our attention. The sower here works in the lower left corner of the painting. A nearby tree is larger than he is. The work resembles a Japanese wood block print, but it exhibits van Gogh’s textured, tell-tale strokes. They’re densely painted.

Van Gogh really delved into Millet and “The Sower” after leaving Paris in 1888. He’d been in the city for two years, but left to find a new source of inspiration in the town of Arles, Provence.

“He hoped to find a new light and a new people, in effect, to paint,” Shackelford said. “In fact, he came at it with a new vision."

While living in Arles, van Gogh experienced a creative burst starting in June of 1888. (Just months later, the sickly, tormented artist cut away at his own ear after a nervous breakdown. He was a heavy drinker (Absinthe included), smoked and suffered with physical and mental illness.)

But in Arles, van Gogh painted a a slew of works inspired by Millet's “The Sower.” The MFA is also featuring three other van Gogh’s in this mini-show to illustrate how this period in Provence helped the artist find his voice, his palette and his easily recognizable use of color.

“Ravine” was painted outside of the asylum to which van Gogh committed himself in the spring of 1889. “We see van Gogh moving from October 1888 into the fall of 1889 over just four paintings, but with the comparison to Millet starting us off,” Shackelford said.

And we've only touched on a tiny piece of the fascinating story this line-up of paintings aims to tell. I haven't even mentioned van Gogh's complex and disastrous friendship with his contemporary, Paul Gauguin.

As it turns out three of the works in the "Visiting Masterpieces" series — including van Gogh’s “The Sower” — were late for their rendezvous at the MFA because of the Icelandic volcano eruption. The mini-show was supposed to open to the public more than a week ago.

Vincent Van Gogh's "The Sower" goes back home to Amsterdam in August, 2010.

This program aired on May 11, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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