Millet: Sowing the Seeds of Modernism

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[Image: Jean-François Millet, The Gleaners (1857), oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris (donation subject to usufruct of Mrs. Pommery)]

One of the leading French painters of mid-19th Century was Jean-François Millet (1814-1875). He was hailed as a realist, a champion of rural France, ally of the peasant and aesthetic pioneer. The current exhibition Jean-François Millet: Sowing the Seeds of Modernism (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 4 October 2019-12 January 2020; touring to Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, 16 February-17 May 2020) situates Millet at the root of much of what became known as French Modernism. It includes works by artists influenced by Millet’s example, with special attention paid to his seminal influence on Van Gogh. This review is from the catalogue.

For the average viewer Jean-François Millet (1814-1875) is as unknown as he is famous. His life and oeuvre – beyond a handful of famous works – are shadowy. It is Courbet and Manet who are revolutionary painters of modern life in the country and town respectively; it is Géricault and Delacroix who are the adventurous titans developing sophisticated hybrid styles; it is Moreau who is a mysterious hermetic artist in dialogue with an imagined Orient; it is Degas who is the multifaceted technical chameleon; it is Ingres who wrestles with reinventing history painting whilst finding new ways to paint distinguished portraits. All of these artists excite scholars and curators set on proving theories and overturn art historical assumptions. One artist who does not command frequent monographic publications and exhibitions is Millet. Why should that be so?

It may largely be down to taste. Millet’s art so comfortably fits the mould of the anecdotal illustration or idealised pastoral that our sensibilities are left cool and unengaged. This is perhaps an incorrect appreciation, as noted later in this review, but it is an understandable conclusion. On a casual level judging themes and motifs, Millet seems a serving of stodgy worthiness drenched in saccharine sentimentality. On a technical level, Millet presents us no problems. He is not an artist of fragments; he is not wracked by doubt and his paintings are not conspicuously hard wrought. Although he is a painter of working people, his art is not overtly reformist. For the leftist, he is not radical enough politically. For the critic and student, his art is certainly rich veins of social and artistic material but offers few clear new “angles”. His art has seemingly nothing to say about the industrial revolution, the growth of the cities or the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars. One would search in vain for signs indicating his sympathies regarding the uprising of February 1848 and the Paris Commune. Quite the contrary – Millet appears to revel in the timeless and universal. Again, that is not quite so but superficially there is nothing particularly contemporary to his art.

Millet’s art is a place people retreat to, turning their back on novelty and difficulty. Millet, being a serious artist, has more to him than that but that part is there. One can decide the see the eternal peasant in harmony with the land he cultivates tirelessly and nothing else. Those people are not wrong and – if one is conservatively minded – Millet’s art does provide comfort in its stability and conventionality. Hence it is intriguing to anticipate what curators and scholars of today have to say about this artist to an audience who may be indifferent or even hostile to his vision of rural life.

During his lifetime and for decades after his death, Millet was a hugely popular figure domestically and internationally. His art was widely reproduced. Artists frequently copied Millet’s compositions from original paintings and prints or reproduction prints. A sale of a collection of pastels soon after the artist’s death garnered high prices. On 1 July 1889 The Angelus (c. 1857-9) sold for 553,000 francs, the highest ever price in France for a modern painting. The following year it was sold again for 750,000 francs.

Millet was born in the Normandy countryside. He pursued traditional academic training, and worked in Cherbourg and Paris. Millet was one of the most prominent figures in the Barbizon School, located in the Barbizon region, dedicated to the cause of realist depictions of landscapes and people. They advocated plein air painting and are best known for their naturalistic landscapes.

Simon Kelly states that “by the late 1850s, Millet was supplanting Gustave Courbet as the most subversive painter of peasant life as the latter turned to landscapes and hunting scenes.” Although at least one writer claimed him as a political radical upon his death, most judged him in retrospect as a link in the chain of French art. A key example is the painting that made his name at the 1857 Salon, The Gleaners. It seems that conservatives reacted against The Gleaners for the artist’s apparent sympathy for the workers gathering grain for free after a harvest, at a time when farmers had begun selling the right to glean. He did however not shy from depicting women agricultural workers (fruit pickers, shearers, milkmaids, field hands, sewers). Such unvarnished portrayals of the physical toil and the occasional indignity – particularly upon the fairer sex – drew criticism from more conservative critics when the art appeared in Salons. The ugliness of the figures was caricatured in newspapers.

Late in life, the painter turned to the creation of unpeopled landscape. These were unusual in some respects, departing from the Barbizon credo of composing from direct observation. These are manipulated compositions. One influence on these landscapes was of Japanese prints. The dramatic cropping, high horizon, aerial perspective, tonal recession, blocks of pattern without features all indicate Millet in his last decade drew upon Japanese woodblock prints the way the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists did after him.

His drawings in conté crayon were considered more modern than his paintings. They were looser in execution and less finished; some of them were studies of individual figures. The building of modelling through dense shading prompted much later art, for example Redon and the smoky sfumato of Carrière. Rightly selected for this exhibition are drawing by Georges-Pierre Seurat (1859-1891). The conté drawings of Seurat are wonderful – atmospheric, stark and deeply ambiguous.

The pastels are more vigorous and brightly hued than his paintings. It may be that the pigments of the pastels have fared better than the oils, which is often the case when the oils, siccatives, fillers and adulterants of oil paint deteriorate over time in comparison to the more pigment-heavy medium of pastel. For whatever reason, viewers of a more modern aesthetic temperament may find themselves responding more strongly to the pastels. The Plain (c. 1868) is a fantastic example of tonal recession in a pastel landscape of a featureless expanse of land. The flatness of the ground is contrasted with the dramatic cloud and shafts of sunlight breaking upwards. The grey-blues and pale browns flicker across the depiction, becoming thicker at the horizon and starting to dematerialise the earth and vegetation. It conveys the impression of fine mist gathering between the tussocks of grass. For those who think of Millet as a painter of hearty peasants and sentimental family vignettes, this landscape alone will dispel their assumptions. It is easy to see why Monet revered him. The pastel paintings of sea cliff done by Millet in the 1860s and early 1870s may have been direct influences on Monet, prompting him to tackle the same subject at Honfleur and elsewhere in the 1880s. The pastels where the black conté outlining is too prominent in the landscapes the effects are less successful. These are coloured drawings, rigid and fixed by the demands of “colouring inside the lines”. Recession is diminished, energy confined, immersion broken. The two versions of The Cliffs of Gréville (1871 and 1871-2) have all the tedium of a diligent book illustration.

His great painting Haystacks: Autumn (c. 1874) has travelled from New York. It shows what Millet might yet have developed upon had he not died so soon after finishing this masterpiece. It is a painting full of excitement – the massive alien bulks of haystacks dwarfing the sheep, shepherd and buildings. The transporting inversion is the light lower area and dark sky during daytime, with heavy clouds threatening rain and dramatic shafts of direct sunlight illuminating the ground. In temperate zones we commonly encounter (and hence instinctively understand) landscapes to be dark material below a light sky. With the regular exception of winter snow, this is a rule that holds true almost all the time. When we find the rule inverted, with a dark sky and light ground, it is unusual and striking. Millet did this more than a few times (Spring (c. 1868-73)) and he must have instinctively understood the drama of the inversion even if he did not understand its perceptual basis.

Reproduction prints of Millet by Alfred Delauney (1830-1894) and Jacques Adrien Lavieille (1818-1862) are exhibited. They form an important link because it was frequently the intermediation of illustrators who summarised and transmitted Millet’s art to the broad public, including artists. One of the artists who spent more time with illustrations of Millet than with originals was Van Gogh. The catalogue contains a long essay by Nienke Bakker about Van Gogh’s veneration of Millet and numerous ways he emulated the master: copying directly in sketches, fuller drawings and paintings; adapting Millet’s motifs; adopting Millet’s manner and the peasant genre; invoking his spirit. Van Gogh decided to live in a rural agricultural setting to be closer to working life and garner material for his art. His Potato-Eaters (multiple versions; 1885) was a homage to Millet but envisaged in Dutch chromatic terms.

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[Image: Vincent van Gogh, The Siësta (after Millet) (1889-1890), oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris (gift of Mrs. Fernand Halphen, née Koenigswarter, 1952)]

 

Painting prints after Millet’s compositions in colour oils was a therapy for Van Gogh while recovering in the asylum of 1889-90. These 20 paintings were a way of forming an emotional bond with common people and families while Van Gogh was deeply depressed and isolated in the asylum, coming to terms with the fact his illness (whatever exactly it was) was serious, chronic and incurable. Abandoning his dream of marriage and fatherhood, realising that he would be forever cut off from ordinary people by his behaviour and the severity of his mental collapses and mania, Van Gogh’s paintings after Millet were a way of adjusting to a radically curtailed future. It was both a way of assuaging his loneliness and finding models when there were few people around him to pose. None of the Millet translations are great paintings. None has the spark of even one of the painted wheat fields, yet the Millet translations are heartfelt and painted with gusto and accomplishment.

Millet’s paintings of country people appealed to Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), who was enamoured by the idea of primitivism revitalising art. For that reason he looked to the “less advanced” civilisations, such as those of Panama, Martinique and Tahiti, and also to the less urban, least cosmopolitan parts of France, such as Pont-Aven, Brittany and Arles, Provence. Related to this search for raw authenticity in the nativist French culture and its people, Millet’s art seemed to offer an approach that seemed fruitful for Gauguin. It may be that Millet’s influence was also transmitted to Gauguin via his mentor Pissarro. Art by Post-Impressionists Émile Bernard (1868-1941) and Paul Sérusier (1864-1927) is exhibited and discussed in relation to the model of Millet and his ideas.

Maite van Dijk writes of the influence that Millet had around 1900, at a time when Neo-Impressionism was exhausted and Symbolism and Post-Impressionism were giving way to the radical movements that largely disposed of naturalism (Suprematism, Cubism, Surrealism). Art included in Jean-François Millet: Sowing the Seeds of Modernism is by Degas, Giovanni Segantini, Angelo Morbelli, Jan Toorop, Edvard Munch, Ferdinand Hodler, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and others.

 

[Image: (left) Jean-François Millet, The Angelus (1857-1859), oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris (bequest of Alfred Chauchard, 1910); (right) Salvador Dalí, Archaeological Reminiscence of Millet’s Angelus (1933-1935), oil on panel, © Salvador Dali, Fundacion Gala-Salvador Dali, c/o Pictoright Amsterdam 2019]

One of the more notable inclusions is Salvador Dalí (1904-1989). His attachment to the art of Millet may have been part emotional, part fealty to the traditional art of his childhood, but it is in part perverse. What could be more subversive in an avant-garde than to praise pompier painters, academicians and a beloved old warhorse such as Millet? We could say that Dalí was embodying the true spirit of perversity and rebellion that Surrealism demanded by flouting every norm of Modernity. To give his perverse attachment a further twist, Dalí opined publicly about his sexual complex regarding the The Angelus. Dalí’s delirious fantasies fused the personal and universal, the nobility of religion and the animal desire of sex. He interpreted the couple as praying over the body of their son and that the woman was a praying mantis, about to devour the man. The pitchfork in the earth, Dalí saw as a Freudian symbol of copulation. The Angelus was quoted or copied by Dalí in a number of striking paintings and seems to have been a genuine obsession for the artist. The outcome was a sequence of paintings and drawings in the early 1930s. These turned out to some of the best works made during his prime period (roughly 1929-1936, at a stretch up to 1938) and have become art that is fully integrated into Dalí peculiar cosmology and expressed through his “paranoiac-critical method”. Dalí’s responses to Millet are some of the strangest and fertile in this survey.

The absence of Constantin Meunier (1831-1905) from the exhibition and catalogue is a peculiar and serious omission. Meunier is one of the most influential artists of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. His working figures were the template for the realism, social realism and Socialist Realism that dominated the period. Indeed, if we were to measure importance according to the quantity of art that followed his lead directly and indirectly, we might say Meunier was much more influential that Van Gogh or Picasso. It may be that Meunier’s preference for the miners, ironworkers, stevedores and other workers in the heavy industries of coal country may have made his art appear dissimilar to Millet. Far from it. Meunier comes directly from Millet. Woman Baking Bread (1854) is a direct forerunner to Meunier’s scenes of workers at a furnace. One does not need to know his bronze reliefs of scything peasants (Musée Meunier, Brussels) to recognise the artistic and temperamental debt that Meunier owes Millet. Surely one of the tangentially related artists could have been dropped from this exhibition to make space for Meunier.

While Millet may never be considered as revolutionary as Courbet, as daring as Gericault and Delacroix, as frank as Degas or as sophisticated as Ingres, this exhibition makes a cogent and carefully presented case for Millet being an important early pioneer of Modernism and one who had a deep influence on the artists who came directly after him. (In much the same way the recent Daubigny exhibition restored his reputation as an innovator in landscape painting.) It is most fitting that this exhibition brings Millet to Van Gogh’s museum. One can imagine the pleasure such an event would have brought Van Gogh. In a way the community of artist he longed to bring together around him has indeed happened posthumously and in his own museum in Amsterdam.

 

Simon Kelly, Maite van Dijk (eds.), Jean-François Millet: Sowing the Seeds of Modernism, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam/Saint Louis Art Museum/Thoth, October 2019, paperback, 208pp, 192 col. illus., €29.95, ISBN 978 90 6868 796 5  (Dutch version available)

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

Colonialism & Realism in Art (Gauguin & Laval in Martinique)

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[Image: Paul Gauguin (1848 – 1903), The Mango Trees, Martinique (1887), oil on canvas, 86 cm x 116 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

A current exhibition explores art made by Gauguin in Martinique, pairing him with a lesser known Post-Impressionist painter who worked beside him there (Gauguin & Laval in Martinique, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 5 October 2018-13 January 2019). This review is taken from the exhibition catalogue. That catalogue announces the forthcoming publication of a volume dedicated to scientific and historical analysis on the same subject, which should – considering the quality of the contributors and standards of the Van Gogh Museum – be a landmark in Post-Impressionist studies.

The art of Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) is too well-known to need introduction; the art of Charles Laval (1861-1894) is hardly known at all. Laval was a young painter (Parisian by birth) who came into the orbit of the older Gauguin in July 1886, while they were in Brittany. Both had lived in Paris and exhibited at the annual Salon. Gauguin had the cachet of exhibiting in the final Impressionist exhibition (1886) following the tutelage of Pissarro and the patronage of Degas, though that had not translated into sales.

Gauguin and Laval decided to travel to Panama, planning to paint on the small island of Taboga. Gauguin’s brother-in-law could provide him with a job to finance living and material costs. At the time the French were building the Panama Canal (a project later taken over and completed by the Americans), so there was work available on the project. Gauguin summoned his wife from Denmark to collect their son before his departure. The couple had not seen each other in 22 months and spent only hours together before Gauguin left. (The more one learns about Gauguin the man, the more one dislikes him, regardless of how highly one rates his art.)

In search of noble savages and exotic locales, Gauguin and Laval embarked for Panama on 10 April 1887. On the way to Panama, the pair’s ship put in at Fort-de-France, Martinique. They arrived in Panama on 30 April. They were soon disappointed by Taboga (too touristic) and Panama City lived up to its notorious reputation for unpleasantness: hot, humid, impoverished, isolated and plagued by mosquito-borne diseases. Gauguin’s in-law had no work for him. A position in the canal-construction project that Gauguin secured independently lasted only days before political events led to mass lay-offs, causing Gauguin losing his job. Disillusioned, the pair decided to try Martinique, where they arrived on 11 June.

Martinique was in all respects more suitable for the artists. It was a healthier location with picturesque views, an efficient French colonial administration, relatively direct communication with Paris and some colonists with disposable income which could be spent on art. They found a shack in the hills near the port of Saint-Pierre. A very useful map shows the precise locations the artists painted. All are on tracks within a 3-km walk from their hut.

The exhibition gathers paintings by the two artists, as well as sketchbook pages, plus a selection of associated letters and later art. Relevant pieces not exhibited are illustrated in the catalogue. Doubtless the forthcoming scholarly volume will include the text of letters by the artists (seven extant by Gauguin, two by Laval), as well as more data about the places they visited and their interactions with the Martinican population. Gauguin produced 17 oil paintings in Martinique. Notable features of Gauguin’s Martinican landscapes are the warmth of his greens and light dabbing brushwork. These elements assist in creating an impression of tropical heat and profuse foliage. At this stage much of the artist’s approach can be considered Impressionist in character. Gauguin’s best works must be his still-lifes and landscapes with few small figures, those paintings where the artist’s ego has little scope to suffocate his considerable sensitivity and skill. His paintings of exotic fruits are richly coloured, with highlights deftly represented. Authors have taken time to identify the fruits, using information about the local produce and indigenous flora.

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[Image: Paul Gauguin, Head of a Woman from Martinique (1887), coloured chalk on paper, 36 × 27 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

Gauguin had a keen eye for the local women, whom he drew and wrote about. His pastel and watercolour sketches document faces and costumes. (There are almost no nudes.) To be fair to Gauguin, he did seem keen to record the ordinary lives and typical scenes of local people, albeit ones that conformed to his idea of picturesque. A number of Gauguin’s later carvings, ceramics and zincographs (lithographs on zinc plates) were inspired by memories of Martinique and these are included in the exhibition. There is a still-life with flowers in a vase and a statuette made by Gauguin himself. This works as a pseudo-landscape, with the flowers as a tree and the statuette as a seated porteuse (female native fruit carrier). It is wonderfully restrained in colouration and delicate in execution. The Martinique period is Gauguin’s painting at its best – carefully made, chromatically rich, well observed.

Laval’s landscapes are very similar in handling, coloration and tone to Gauguin’s. They have less intensity and confidence than the older artist’s. There are two landscapes in oil and one scene of people bathing in the sea. It seems much of Laval’s art made in Martinique has been lost or has gone unrecognised. The catalogue authors note, “Laval’s oeuvre is small and very poorly catalogued. New works crop up from time to time, shedding fresh light on his artistic production.” It is hard to assess Laval capabilities based on such a restricted sample. On the evidence of the art in this catalogue, Laval seems on par with Émile Bernard and Louis Anquetin – second-rank artists capable of producing attractive and memorable art but who made few powerful pictures. Bernard may get more credit of late as an innovator but he managed to turn relatively little of his original ideas into synthesised art works that satisfy.

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[Image: Charles Laval (1861 – 1894), Self-Portrait (1888), oil on canvas, 50.7 cm x 60.4 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

The stay proved difficult for the two painters. Laval became sick; Gauguin contracted dysentery and caught malaria (the latter probably caught in Panama). Gauguin wrote letters requesting money so he could return to France. As soon as it arrived he left, leaving Laval behind. There is a case to be made that Laval was abandoned. Gauguin’s heroic self-interest necessitated the ditching of friends, colleagues, lovers and family members on a regular basis. It seems Laval’s adulation of Gauguin was untarnished, as he was wrote an admiring letter to him soon after Gauguin returned to France. Landscape on Martinique (1887-8), painted by Laval after Gauguin left, shows a degree of abstraction and greater ambition than his other paintings. The swirling brushwork of the clouds recalls the style Van Gogh would start to use in 1888. That year Laval, Gauguin and Bernard worked together in Pont Aven and all three sent to Van Gogh their self-portraits with dedications. Gauguin and Laval fell out when the jealous (and married) Gauguin resented Laval’s engagement to Bernard’s sister. Laval died of tuberculosis in 1894, aged 33.

The exhibition and catalogue open a window on to a fascinating episode in Post-Impressionist painting.

* * *

There is, regrettably, a misstep in the catalogue. It is a political one. Curator Dr Maite van Dijk writes: “The western image of the colonial world was remarkably unsubtle and superficial, creating a highly, subjective and misleading image.” One might equally write, “The post-colonial-studies image of the colonial world is remarkably unsubtle and superficial, creating a highly, subjective and misleading image.” Her extended passages on colonial attitudes are poorly judged – full of dismissive attitudes, application of retrospective moralising and omission of context.

There are numerous instances of Western travellers and administrators visiting colonies and engaging sympathetically and in an open-minded fashion with the local population, being critical of authorities and advocating for decolonisation. Many of these narratives have been subsequently published. The fact that the preponderant narratives that appeared in print at the time were largely favourable towards colonialism and overseas colonial-owned agricultural industry was in part due to the sponsors (and publishers) of those writers/artists being colonial authorities or agricultural companies. Often writers had vested personal interests in presenting the colonies in a good light. Missionaries had a theological imperative to present the Christianisation of the non-West as a virtuous mission, and so forth. There were many reasons of justifiable self-interest to present the colonial project as mainly favourable. Whether or not pro-colonialist viewpoints expressed publicly were sincerely and constantly held is another matter.

One finds similarly idyllic narratives regarding remote rural communities in colonial home countries. Consider all those bucolic paintings of buxom milkmaids, rosy-cheeked country children and sturdy fishermen, which were exhibited in salons and reproduced as lithographs in mass-circulation journals. Consider the Breton paintings of Gauguin and Laval and the Arlesian paintings of Van Gogh, both groups where the picturesque costumes, physiognomies and landscapes of remote rural regions were treated like those of the colonies. A dissenting attitude was inaugurated with Courbet’s Stone Breakers in 1849. The subsequent trends of Social Realism and Naturalism grew slowly and only became prominent strands in fine art in the 1870s. Even then, Social Realism, Naturalism and (later) Cosmopolitan Realism frequently had a maudlin, sentimental and essentially paternalistic attitude towards the rural poor of the painters’ homelands – exactly mirroring what one sees in art depicting the colonies.

Consider Van Gogh’s use of working-class types in his art. Although he frequently expressed his genuine heartfelt concern for the miners, labourers, weavers and prostitutes he lived beside, he almost never adapted his opinions or art after consulting his subjects. In his many letters he names hardly any of his numerous models and does not discuss their characters. He treats them as types, categorised by region or employment. He shared the working people’s suffering at times but was never accepted as one of them. Numerous statements attest to the fact Van Gogh was considered by locals to be the painter son of a middle-class Dutch pastor, who used workers as pictorial subjects. In other words, if we adopt a Marxist/post-colonial viewpoint we must consider Van Gogh hardly more than a class colonist or deprivation tourist. Yet this view is ultimately demeaning and devalues the insight and empathy elicited by Van Gogh’s art – and all successful art. If van Dijk’s assessment of colonialist patronisation and exploitation (dare one say “cultural appropriation”?) of the colonised natives holds true then practically every painter who has ever attempted to portray groups outside of his or her demographic origin is guilty of similar insensitivity – including Van Gogh.

In short, this line of reasoning is unhelpful, divisive and destructive. It is essentially a moralistic stance which simplifies the complexity of a historical situation (or – more accurately – multiple historical situations over many places and periods) in order to gratify the moraliser. Relations between colonisers and colonised were complex, interdependent, shifting and personal. Making gross generalisations about Nineteenth Century colonial visitors, administrators and journalists is as dismissively ignorant as the purported ignorance within those colonialist societies.

Dr Maite van Dijk is an esteemed scholar of Van Gogh and his era, whose work has earned her justified respect. In her text about the art of colonialism she has seriously erred. Curators and art historians should be wary of uncritically adopting tenets of feminist and post-colonialist studies. These fields are essentially political in content and purpose. It is right and valuable to selectively study and discuss art issues related to gender and colonialism – but not to take any of those ideas directly from fields which are specifically orientated to push express political agendas. Unless they are willing to assess evidential bases for claims regarding social issues considered indicative of injustice or power relationships (as opposed to taking on trust the interpretations of social activists holding academic positions), art historians might be best advised to largely avoid those approaches.

 

 

Maite van Dijk & Joost van der Hoeven, Gauguin & Laval in Martinique, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 2018, paperback, 176pp, fully illus., €24.95, ISBN 978 90 6868 769 9 (hardback, Dutch and French versions available)

21 October 2018

© 2018 Alexander Adams

View my art and books here: www.alexanderadams.art