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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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?