"The Sower" (1888)
In a career lasting no more than ten years, Vincent Van Gogh produced about 900 paintings and 1,100 drawings and sketches. He often painted quickly, almost feverishly, once writing that "the emotions are so strong that one works without knowing one works".
His best paintings were undoubtedly produced in the last 15 months of his life, which he spent in Arles, in the South of France, where he went to live in 1888, partly to recover his health after a breakdown in Paris and at nearby St Remy, where he spent a year in a mental asylum. During this intense period of prolific activity and increasing mental strain, Van Gogh managed to produce many of his best-known masterpieces. Indeed, in Arles alone he produced more than 200 paintings. It is a number that amounts to about a third of the total output of Paul Gauguin, his friend and fellow post-Impressionist.
Among these 200 paintings are the iconic sunflowers, the simple straw-woven chair on which lay his comforting pipe and tob-acco pouch, the Night Café in the Place Lamartine in which the whole room looks as if seen through a drunken green and red haze and the walls appear to be collapsing inwards, his portrait of the matronly Madame Ginoux in her Arlesienne costume, its cloth intensely blue against the blazing yellow backdrop and The Sower, that bold, Japanese-print-inspired painting with its huge lemon-yellow sun and its Japanese-style tree.
Many of these paintings can now be seen in an exhibition at the Royal Academy which attempts to separate the myth of the tortured genius from that of the thoughtful and dedicated artist he clearly must have been to produce such work, and in the sheer quantity in which he produced it.
The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and his Letters (until 18 April) features 65 paintings and 30 drawings, as well as 40 original letter-sketches that each refer to a finished work in the exhibition. In one letter-sketch on display, written to Théo, his younger, art-dealer brother and confidant, we see a detailed sketch of The Sower. Always keen to keep his brother informed of the paintings he was working on, Van Gogh adds a description of the colours he is using: "Here's a croquis [sketch] of the latest canvas I'm working on, another sower. Immense lemon yellow disc for the sun. Green-yellow sky with pink clouds. The field is violet, the sower and the tree Prussian Blue."
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