The genre of landscape held a particular significance for the artist for its relationship to the politics behind his first masterpiece, The Potato Eaters, completed earlier that same year. We have a tantalising glimpse of this humble sensibility in letter 499: ‘How rightly it was said of Millet: his peasants seem to be painted with the soil he sows’. Van Gogh was not merely painting the local people as a voyeur, but hoping and trying to express a profound empathy with them. This was achieved through the exploration of landscape, as well as through portraits of peasants at work. A visit from the landscape artist Willem Wenckebach in July of 1885 no doubt encouraged him to focus on this genre and the two figures in the present work may well have been inspired by the gentle companionship he had finally discovered during this visit.
It is also evident from the letters that when his mind was not occupied with The Potato Eaters, Van Gogh focussed on landscapes: ‘Lately I have made several studies outdoors, of the autumn landscape’ (letter 537), ‘I hope that the painting of those potato eaters will progress a bit. Besides that, am also working hard on a red sunset. To paint peasant life one has to be master of such an enormous number of things’ (letter 495). Van Gogh’s relief at completing his masterpieces of this period is palpable through these letters and indeed he soon resolves to move to Antwerp in order to establish his reputation as an artist. The avenue of poplars is a recurring motif and features in numerous other works of this period. It would appear to have been a subject that particularly interested him, for he took a more brightly coloured version of this work with him to Antwerp as part of his portfolio (Leon Janse, Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker (ed.), Vincent van Gogh, The Letters, vol. III, illustrated in colour p. 307) and sketched the same scene in a letter to his brother Theo (ibid illustrated p. 315, see fig. 1).
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