Toiling and sweating

Van Gogh depicts the peasant in this painting as he likes to see him: toiling and sweating in his hard peasant life. In this study he concentrates mainly on the representation of the figure and his clothing. The light on the shoulder and arm creates a contrast between the blue-green colour of the rough fabric of the overalls and the dark red of the digger’s face and hand.

Great desire

Van Gogh is aware that his depiction of the figure is not ‘correct in proportion and anatomy’, like the academic painters. Nor does he aspire to that. His ‘great desire is to learn to make such inaccuracies, such variations, reworkings, alterations of the reality, that it might become, very well – lies if you will – but – truer than the literal truth’.

Essentially modern

He wants to show the ‘figure of the peasant in action’: ‘this peasant has to be a peasant, this digger has to dig’. For him, this is characteristic for the depiction of a figure and ‘essentially modern’. ‘The figure of the peasant and the workman started more as a “genre” – but nowadays, with Millet in the vanguard as the eternal master, it’s the very heart of modern art and will remain so.’