Vincent van Gogh arrived in Arles, France, in February 1888, happy to escape the Parisian cold. But the southern city was under snow. Four months later, however, he wrote to his friend, Australian painter John Russell, "We have harvest time here at present and I am always in the fields."
The harvest greatly appealed to him - the earth's fruition, field workers' industry, the heat. His oil painting "Harvest in Provence" depicts a harvesting scene with calm passion. The view is over a plain near Arles, "La Crau." This landscape reminded him of his native Netherlands. Ripe golden fields and a pale green field already cut make a receding patchwork. Vivid blue shadows coolly contrast with the sunlight striking occasional farmhouses. This blue also appears on fences, on the horse and cart crossing the fields, and on the stationary cart in the center. Sometimes referred to as "the blue cart," its blue is possibly shadow rather than the cart's actual color.
This painting is included in an exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (which owns it). But the exhibition is not about the artist's oil paintings. It is about his drawings - works on paper. He was fascinated by graphic art - by monochrome book illustrations, by colored Japanese prints. He was inventive in his use of drawing materials. The thick nib of a reed pen was, in his drawings, the equivalent of the brush marks typical of his paintings.
Drawing, he believed, was the basis of painting - contour and outline; dots, dashes, and marks made with pencil, pen, or chalk; accumulations of lines describing grasses and leaves, tree trunks, stems, roof tiles, clouds, even the starry skies, as ever-moving seas.
The watercolor (actually ink and gouache) of "Harvest in Provence" shown here preceded the painting. It deliberately imitated Japanese prints. After the painting came the reed pen - almost pointillist - version, actually drawn for John Russell.
All three versions shown here (and there are others) are signed - meaning Van Gogh was happy with them. The chronology of drawings and painting in this case suggests that he didn't simply sit in a field and paint directly. He had already explored the subject fully on paper. Later, when he repeated it in ink, it was to emphasize its symbolic importance in his mind.
• "Van Gogh, Draughtsman: the Masterpieces" is at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, until Sept. 18. It will be at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York Oct. 11 to Dec. 31.