The Sower

It seems hard to believe now, but until my first visit to an art museum, I didn’t understand why Van Gogh was considered a great artist. I had never been exposed to art…never visited a museum…never taken any art classes in school. Better late than never, in my mid-twenties my first art museum visit was to the Honolulu Academy of Art (now the Honolulu Museum of Art). I don’t recall what motivated me to go there but it was an electrifying experience. The first gallery you saw upon entering was the museum’s modern collection, including works by Monet, Modigliani, Gauguin, Picasso, Braque, and others. Among these works, the Van Gogh leaped out with its bright yellow wheat field.

Wheat Field by Vincent Van Gogh, June 1888, 55 x66 cm.; Honolulu Museum of Art.

Wheat Field by Vincent Van Gogh, June 1888, oil on canvas, 55 x 66 cm.; Honolulu Museum of Art.

The emotional nature of Vincent’s paintings, expressed through his brilliant use of color, the thick impasto of paint laid down in visible strokes, not to mention his masterful drawing, evoke a response in me that few other artists do.

During Van Gogh’s relatively short and troubled life (1853-1890), there was a period when he felt called to the ministry and wrote to his brother Theo, “I suppose that for a `sower of God`s words`, as I hope to be, as well as for a sower of the seed in the fields, each day will bring enough of its own evil, and the earth will produce many thorns and thistles.” He failed at ministry and decided to become an artist. The image of the sower would be a recurring theme in his work. He was inspired by this 1850 painting by Jean-François Millet.

The Sower by Jean-Francois Millet 1850; oil on canvas 101.6 x 82.6 cm; Boston Museum of Fine Arts

The Sower by Jean-Francois Millet 1850; oil on canvas 101.6 x 82.6 cm; Boston Museum of Fine Arts

When Millet painted this work it was quite novel for an artist to depict poor or working people, a subject considered beneath the dignity of fine art, or best left relegated to part of the picturesque background. Millet, however, painted them in a heroic manner, bringing them close to the viewer and depicting their toil in a rough yet ennobling manner. Vincent was an avid admirer of Millet, describing his works as “something on high” with religious feeling.

In addition to making his own copies of Millet’s work, in June 1888 Vincent painted this Sower at Sunset, which he told his brother was “a failure” though to us it may seem an incandescent glory.

Sower at Sunset by Vincent Van Gogh; June 1888, oil on canvas, 64 x 80.5cm; Rijksmuseum Kroller-Muller, Otterlo

Sower at Sunset by Vincent Van Gogh; June 1888, oil on canvas, 64 x 80.5cm; Rijksmuseum Kroller-Muller, Otterlo

In November he painted another version, this time bringing the sower close to the viewer, adding a greenish sky, a tree to balance the figure, and the setting sun as a halo behind him. The halo lifts the humble sower to an eternal figure and also makes explicit his link to the parable told by Jesus.

The Sower by Vincent Van Gogh, November 1888, Oil on canvas 64 x 80.5 cm, Rijksmuseum Vincent Van Gogh, Amsterdam.

The Sower by Vincent Van Gogh, November 1888, Oil on canvas 64 x 80.5 cm, Rijksmuseum Vincent Van Gogh, Amsterdam.

On another occasion, Jesus began to teach by the sea.
A very large crowd gathered around him
so that he got into a boat on the sea and sat down.
And the whole crowd was beside the sea on land.
And he taught them at length in parables,
and in the course of his instruction he said to them,
“Hear this! A sower went out to sow.
And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path,
and the birds came and ate it up.
Other seed fell on rocky ground where it had little soil.
It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep.
And when the sun rose, it was scorched and it withered for lack of roots.
Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it
and it produced no grain.
And some seed fell on rich soil and produced fruit.
It came up and grew and yielded thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.”
He added, “Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear.”

And when he was alone,

those present along with the Twelve
questioned him about the parables.
He answered them,
“The mystery of the Kingdom of God has been granted to you.
But to those outside everything comes in parables, so that
they may look and see but not perceive,
and hear and listen but not understand,
in order that they may not be converted and be forgiven.”

Jesus said to them, “Do you not understand this parable?
Then how will you understand any of the parables?
The sower sows the word.
These are the ones on the path where the word is sown.
As soon as they hear, Satan comes at once
and takes away the word sown in them.
And these are the ones sown on rocky ground who,
when they hear the word, receive it at once with joy.
But they have no roots; they last only for a time.
Then when tribulation or persecution comes because of the word,
they quickly fall away.
Those sown among thorns are another sort.
They are the people who hear the word,
but worldly anxiety, the lure of riches,
and the craving for other things intrude and choke the word,
and it bears no fruit.
But those sown on rich soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it
and bear fruit thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.”

Mark 4:1-20

Seeing this reading in the lectionary today naturally reminded me of Vincent’s paintings. Surely his work has sown fruit a hundredfold, though he died penniless and unknown. Despite his severe emotional problems, he responded to the promptings of the Spirit and produced a staggering array of paintings that lift the souls of those who view them. His furrows were certainly sown deeply.

My chance museum visit in Honolulu that day sowed the seeds in me of the love of art. When I left the museum I immediately went to the public library and began checking out books about the artists whose works I had seen that day. It took many more years until I started college to pursue my love of art history. In hindsight, I can see how God was sowing seeds throughout my life but I often didn’t recognize them. Can you look back and see the seeds in your own life? Luckily our Sower is generous with his seed, casting many more than will take root. How can we dig deep in our own lives to ensure that the seed in us is planted firmly?


9 thoughts on “The Sower

  1. Patrick Emmett says:

    lovely writing Jane

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good Woman says:

    Very interesting post. When I saw the “secular” painting I wondered how you were going to relate it to Biblical references which you generally do so well. I assumed this post would have a different focus. But you so expertly brought in the parable of the sower and further related it to sowing the seeds for your love of art, and then our responsibility as the recipient of the sower’s seeds. Really well done. i feel that I have learned so much from your posts..


  3. aboyd85 says:

    I really love this blog. I have nominated you for the Versatile Blogger award, the details are here:

    Liked by 1 person

  4. hermitsdoor says:

    About a year ago, we visited the Philips Collection in Washington, D.C. for an exhibit they had on Van Gogh’s paintings.

    I am mostly familiar with is later works, you know, those swirly night sky and golden piles of hay. This exhibit followed his progression, highlighting his meticulous attention as he made variations on the same image, whether landscapes or portraits. Part of his early study was to copy artists’ paintings, lithographs, etc. to understand how they drafted their images. One room of the exhibit had these other artists’ works, which were repeated by Van Gogh in later rooms. One of the images (I do not recall the artists, though) was of a sower.

    Just as your imagination was captured by that composition and sermon of the sower, so was Van Gogh’s by another artist’s representation of the idea. My inner art historian enjoys finding these direct, and indirect, pathways from one generation to another.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jane arney says:

      Yes, what Van Gogh did in copying others’ works was (is?) standard training for an artist at that time. You can still see artists in museums today with their sketchbooks or their easels, imitating the works of the masters to learn from them. I think the Sower he copies is Millet’s, as I wrote in my post, though there may be another that wasn’t mentioned in my book on Van Gogh.


  5. Shirley Burley says:

    So Wonderful Jane 🙂 Articulated the main reasons I also love Van Gogh’s work – powerful abilities to communicate through emotive colour use, expressive line, superb draughtsmanship… Beautiful to include a related bible passage.


  6. erikleo says:

    To understand Van Gogh you should read his letters – if you havent already that is! They are among the most moving letters ever of any artist and also describe waht he was aiming at in his paintings.

    Liked by 1 person

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