First Steps, after Millet, 1890. Vincent van Gogh. Oil on canvas. Gift of George N. and Helen M. Richard, 1964.
In fall and winter 1889–90, while a voluntary patient at the asylum in Saint-Rémy, Van Gogh painted twenty-one copies after Millet, an artist he greatly admired. He considered his copies "translations" akin to a musician's interpretation of a composer's work. He let the black-and-white images—whether prints, reproductions, or, as here, a photograph that his brother, Theo, had sent—pose "as a subject," then he would "improvise color on it." For this work of January 1890, Van Gogh squared-up a photograph of Millet's First Steps and transferred it to the canvas.
After pursuing several occupations, including teacher, bookshop assistant, and preacher, Vincent van Gogh decided to become an artist at the age of twenty-seven. In just ten years, from 1880 to 1890, he created over 800 paintings and more than 1,100 works on paper— in addition to keeping up a voluminous correspondence, especially with his brother Theo, an art dealer.
Largely self-taught, Van Gogh considered it necessary to master drawing before attempting color. He studied art manuals, zealously copied prints—especially those of Jean-François Millet, whom he greatly admired—and drew constantly. It wasn’t until 1882 that he first tried painting.
In 1886, the artist left the Netherlands to share an apartment with Theo in Paris. For the first time, he came into contact with avant-garde artists like Paul Gauguin. He saw the last group exhibition of the Impressionists and the launching of Neo-Impressionism. As a result, Van Gogh abandoned his dark palette and adopted the bright colors of the Impressionists and the dots and dashes of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac.
Van Gogh moved south to Arles in 1888. He hoped to establish a community of artists but, aside from Gauguin’s brief stay that fall—cut short when Van Gogh had a breakdown—his primary contact with family and friends was through correspondence. To keep them abreast of his work he drew sketches of paintings in his letters and sent large pen-and-ink drawings. Fearing another breakdown, Van Gogh entered the asylum at Saint-Rémy in May 1889. There he painted some 150 canvases.
A year later, the artist moved to Auvers-sur-Oise, near Paris, where he kept up the pace, averaging a painting a day. On July 29, 1890, his painting came to an abrupt end when he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. By the time of his death, his work had begun to attract the attention of artists and critics and, by the early 1900s, Van Gogh had come to be regarded as a vanguard figure in the history of modern art.