After a serious breakdown in the summer of 1889, Van Gogh starts copying etchings and woodcuts after his example Jean-François Millet. He tells Theo that he is working on them zealously. In the asylum ‘I was growing flabby by dint of never seeing anything artistic, and this revives me’.

Translation in colour

Van Gogh regards such a copy as a ‘translation in colour’, comparable to the personal interpretations of pieces of music by performing musicians. He is very well aware of ‘the value and originality and superiority’ of Millet, but also of his own abilities: ‘then I make a point of telling myself, yes I am something, I can do something’.

Colour contrasts

He wants to distinguish himself mainly through the use of colour contrasts. In his use of colour he goes a step further than Millet, who worked mainly in earthy, sombre tones, similar to those of Van Gogh during his period in Brabant. When he suffers another breakdown, the copying also becomes too much for him, ‘when it would involve such masterpieces’.