And in a picture I want to say something comforting as music is comforting. I want to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and which we seek to convey by the actual radiance and vibration of our coloring. —Vincent Van Gogh, from a letter to his brother, Theo, quoted in: Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art by Debora Silverman
In her book, Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art, Debora Silverman follows the development of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, examining their work, their writings and letters, and each man’s quest after new artistic forms and processes. In a section of her book devoted to van Gogh’s pictorial experiments in the summer of 1888, she considers his painting: The Sower and characterizes the work as an effort “to render the tangibility of the infinite.”
”While The Sower expressed powerful continuities with his earlier ideals and practices, the painting also marked an important point of departure for van Gogh . . . The composition coheres not only in its rough, textrous physicality but in its blazing, incandescent sunlight, which seems to blast through and saturate every pore of the canvas surface. In this combination of grounded peasant work and immaterial irradiation, van Gogh identified a new theory of art and attitude toward reality that he connected for the first time to ‘symbolism’ and to the aspiration for a modern sacred art.”
“The letters about The Sower registered his distinctive definition of its ’symbolic’ features. Writing to (the painter) Bernard, van Gogh noted that, at work in the fields, he was beset by ‘memories of the past’ and ‘a longing for the infinite, of which the sower, the sheaf are the symbols.’ Rather than assigning the sower a discrete literary meaning derived from the biblical parable, he interpreted the symbolic quality of the subject in the more elastic and inclusive terms of ‘longing for the infinite,’ the aspiration for a permanent, eternal order beneath the surface of appearances.”
( . . . )
“In The Sower, he configured a present redemptive incandescence. The thick and loaded brushwork, visual equivalents of the laborer van Gogh admired, emphatically showed his work. Yet he also aspired in The Sower to find formal means to convey the infinite, to evoke the presence and comfort of an invisible totality that moved beyond the active laborer and beyond the artist vigorously working the image of work depicted. The combination of rough texture and blazing light, crusted pigment and glowing irradiation, now fused the artist as weaver with the artist as mediator of transcendent light. Built into this experiment in embodiment was art’s triple power to channel the ‘exalting and consoling’ powers of nature, to provide comfort to the human community, and to evoke the immaterial infinity that related all individuals to an eternal, sacred wholeness beyond the self. Van Gogh’s blending of these particular qualities at the threshold of his symbolist art carried his Dutch modernist theology of realism into painting, a distinctive pictorial structure to bind, through representation, the immanent and transcendent orders.”
It is fascinating to note the artist’s own aspirations and intentions given the great popularity his work enjoys.