Van Gogh’s “First Steps”. How a masterpiece came out during a lockdown

Are you feeling that the current lockdown won’t take you anywhere and you are wasting your time doing nothing? Let’s abandon that feeling, then. Read this story to discover how the painting genius van Gogh made it to release a masterpice during a lockdown time…and don’ forget to plan a trip to see this painting live!!!!

Post by Luca Simoncello (aka Luca Boerio) – art expert and good friend!!

During a hot summer in New York, as a boy, I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Arts (the MET), in New York.

I’ve always been fond of ancient painting, almost refusing modern times, thus limiting myself to appreciating the French 1800s Impressionists and, above all, a gifted genius called van Gogh. I’m not going to tell you about his life, as you can find everything with a simple google search, I just want to share with you the shock I felt when I stepped in the Impressionists section of the MET.

Whenever we hear the name of Vincent Van Gogh, our thought goes immediately to the “sunflowers” or to the “starry night” and to its bright spirals, where the color matter and the mellow brushstrokes have almost carved the canvases.

However on that distant day in my life I was dumbfounded in front of a painting that had little to do with van Gogh usual production: “The first steps”.

Van Gogh – “The first Steps” – Oil on canvass, 1890 – Met, New York

It’s a simple rural scene, depicting a farmer returning from work in the fields who sees his son in the farmyard taking his first steps to go greet him, leaving his mother’s loving arms. It’s an intimate and emotional picture, although full of bright colors on a sunbathed land. You can feel the heat of the evening, the harmony of simple life and the beauty of almost a stolen shot, as a moment suspended in time that becomes eternal.

I still remember my surprise and even today, if I close my eyes, I still can see myself as a young boy entering that museums room and the spot on the wall where this painting was hanged and still can’t recall what other paintings were around.
Years later I found out that Van Gogh copied such painting in January 1890 from a drawing that Jean-François Millet sketched between 1858 and 1866. At that time van Gogh was forcibly closed in the Saint Rémy psychiatric hospital. During his lockdown van Gogh painted copies of the works of Millet, leader of the Barbizon school, who elevated peasant life to dignity by turning back-curved men and women into heroic and statuesque figures.

Jean-François Millet – First steps (1858 – 1866). Pastel and black grease on paper

Artists always copied one another especially when, as students, they were taking the first steps to perfect their techniques by comparing their works to those of the old masters. But Van Gogh is unique in this respect: he just made copies during his lockdown period at the psychiatric hospital, when his opportunities to enjoy fresh air were very limited, preventing him from depicting real nature on a canvass. No photo can give us the same emotion we get when we see his works live: his canvasses are alive. If you see the “Starry Night” at the MOMA and you watch close to the spirals you see that colors were not brushed but spread with his fingertips: at the end, van Gogh fingerprint is right there, before you!

Where can I see Van Gogh’s “First Steps”?

At the Metropolitan Museum of Arts (the MET), New York City

But let’s go back to our painting, to the sunlight and the colorful matter: these are the aspects that speak about the endless van Gogh’s search for the light that is testified by his long stay in southern France. Light is what he was longing for, while he was held captive at the hospital. Thus, in order to stick to the outside world, he started copying paintings of others, experimenting bright colors. In fact, there are no dark winter tones in tis work; everything reflect the freshness of the good season, as if living was an urge.

The MET – New York City – Photo courtesy of MET

That might be what struck me the first time, when I still didn’t know about van Gogh’s lockdown at the hospital nor about Millet. Before me stood the depiction of joy, of life, far away from celebratory portraiture, turning something epic, such as the very first step of a child, into a simple and daily fact. We all took those first steps and we all jumped into life, leaving safe and secure affections to make our own way.  We cannot remember the day it happened, but it’s exactly in that precise moment that we grew up and we opened up to the world.

Nowadays, moments like that are kept for sure with a cellphone or a camera, while at that time, such moments were not even considered worth painting, until Millet started sketched daily lives as an epic tale; then came Van Gogh and those clear color lines seem to support that child’s first steps.
All of us have been that child, we simply don’t remember.

Perhaps we would like to have that child’s courage again, to launch ourselves into the unknown faithfully, because that child is limitless brave. Thus, when we believe we cannot do it, we should remember that we have been that child too.
And we were not scared. That’s the message van Gogh left us.

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