WAAT #30: Vincent van Gogh and the Art of Translation


Vincent van Gogh’s translations of Millet’s paintings were about a “profound and sincere admiration for Millet”, to make Millet more accessible to the “ordinary general public”, and to recognize how the Impressionist trends of his time were linked to past artistic traditions.

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It’s been a busy week with the book launch. We had a lovely little party at the legendary Deep Vellum bookstore in Dallas, Texas. There was food, drink, literary conversation, and plenty of laughter. As this was my first in-person book event ever (my earlier two books were out in late 2020 during the height of the pandemic), it was all the more special. Catch the video, shot by my husband, here.

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On to this week’s newsletter topic featuring my favorite artist, Vincent van Gogh. ‘The Siesta’ is one of my all-time favorites by him. Like much of his art, there’s a beautiful story behind how it came into being. Settle in and get comfortable for this one. Some personal pics at the end for once too.

As ongoing myth, legend, gossip, and research inform us, VVG was a relentless and consummate practitioner of his art, sacrificing much for it. One approach he favored was doing “translations” of the works of other artists whom he admired the most. We say “translated” because he did not just copy their works. Rather, he created his own versions of them. Particularly, with these translations, VVG experimented differently with the interplay of color and light. For the most part, he stayed true to all the still-life details of the original compositions.

One of those influential and revered artists was Jean-François Millet. JFM was well-known for his realist/naturalist paintings and, above all, portraits of working peasants. Millet made the so-called “peasant genre” mainstream by showing them as the focal points and main subjects of his works rather than as peripheral embellishments.

During VVG’s voluntary asylum period in Saint-Rémy de Provence, he translated at least twenty-one works of Millet that we know of. Of these, my favorite is this particular oil-on-canvas, known by various titles: ‘The Noon’, ‘The Siesta’ or ‘Rest from Work’. Painted after his Paris and Arles periods, it carries through some of the traditions of his earlier and more well-known works like ‘Irises’, ‘Starry Nights’, ‘Yellow House’, ‘Sunflowers’ etc. It was one of the last three works he created before his death. Last I checked, it was housed at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, France.

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While not as popular as some of his other peasant paintings (e.g. ‘The Potato Eaters’, with its much darker tones), ‘The Siesta’ is typical of VVG’s signature style. Note the rich, bright blue, violet, yellow, and orange hues. There’s also the careful, well-articulated detail: sickles lying next to the male figure in the foreground, the blue cart and dappled animals in the background, the gold-brown shadows that give more depth to the yellow eld, and the various shades of blue and violet that make the noon sky shimmer bright. Those same blue and violet colors are also mirrored in the clothes of the peasants, completing the chromatic construction that he was perfecting in that final phase of his life.

Millet’s original (part of a four-part series called ‘The Four Times of the Day’), in comparison, has the figures reversed and is rather muted in its tones with more browns and grays. And, while Millet’s rural works and peasant portraits generally show them hard at work, this one, with the couple at rest, is somewhat of an exception. The other notable difference is that Millet generally showed harvesting with grain, not hay. As an artist, Millet had pioneered, to mixed reviews and responses, a rather elevated and spiritual view of the peasant life. He often added a gleaming gold light to his peasant works, making them look almost ethereal, heroic, and blessed. It is this reverence and love for the lives of peasants that VVG also developed. He was deeply impressed, overall, with what he perceived as their hard-working ethic, single-minded dedication, and acceptance of life as it was given. He found inspiration and identified with their against-the-odds spirit and sought to embody similar qualities in his own living.

VVG wrote about his impressions of both Millet and the lives of peasants in his many letters to his younger brother, Theo, and others. The earliest known reference to Millet’s ‘The Four Times of the Day’ series was in a letter that VVG wrote to Theo from Paris in July 1875, describing how he’d rented a small room in Montmartre and had several favorite Millet prints on his wall. Those Millet works were not the originals but a set of wood engravings by Jacques-Adrien Lavieille. Then, in April 1878, while in Amsterdam, he wrote to Theo about Millet and how he thought faith and spirituality could be cultivated through the knowledge of literature and art. In August 1880, while in Cuesmes in Belgium, VVG mentioned to Theo in a letter that he had sketched, among other works, Millet’s ‘The Four Times of the Day’. There are several more letters with Millet references, but the most telling and eloquent of all is the one from January 1890, from the asylum, where he wrote the following (it is a touching letter, overall, because he refers to his “insanity”, his health concerns, being locked in, etc.)

The more I think about it, the more I find that there’s justification for trying to reproduce things by Millet that he didn’t have the time to paint in oils. So, working either on his drawings or the wood engravings, it’s not copying pure and simple that one would be doing. It is, rather, translating into another language, the one of colors, the impressions of chiaroscuro and white and black. In this way, I’ve just finished the three other ‘Times of the Day’ after the wood engravings by Lavieille. It took me a lot of time and a lot of trouble. For, you know, that this summer I’ve already done ‘The Labors of the Fields’. Now, these reproductions — you’ll see them one day — I haven’t sent, because, more than the former ones, they were gropings, but they have, however, served me well for the ‘Times of the Day’. Later, who knows, perhaps I could do lithographs of them. I’m curious as to what Mr. Lauzet will say about them. They’ll take a good month more to dry, the last three, but, once you have them, you’ll clearly see that they were done through a most profound and sincere admiration for Millet. Then, even if they’re criticized one day, or despised as copies, it will remain no less true that it’s justifiable to try to make Millet’s work more accessible to the ordinary general public.


What the Impressionists have found in color will develop even more, but there’s a link that many forget which links this to the past, and I’ll make efforts to show that I have little belief in a rigorous separation between the Impressionists and the others. I nd it a very happy thing that, in this century, there have been painters like Millet, Delacroix, Meissonier, who cannot be surpassed.

Gogh, Vincent van. The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh (3 Volume Set). Translated by Johanna Gezina van Gogh-Bonger. 3 vols. Bulfinch Press, 2000.

I so identify with VVG’s sentiments above about how his translations were about a “profound and sincere admiration for Millet”, to make Millet more accessible to the “ordinary general public”, and to recognize how the Impressionist trends of his time were linked to past artistic traditions.

Theo got these Millet translations along with other VVG paintings in May 1890. Theo’s response, written back almost immediately, is beautiful because it shows the special relationship of the brothers and how Theo was, during VVG’s lifetime, often his only supporter.

Your consignment of canvases has arrived too, and there are some that are very, very beautiful. The orderly and the other fellow with his swollen face are extraordinary, the branch of the almond trees in blossom shows that you haven’t exhausted these subjects. You may have missed the season of the blossoming trees this year, but let’s hope that that won’t be the case next time. The Millet copies are perhaps the nest things you’ve done, and make me believe that big surprises still await us the day you set yourself to doing figure compositions.

Gogh, Vincent van. The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh (3 Volume Set). Translated by Johanna Gezina van Gogh-Bonger. 3 vols. Bulfinch Press, 2000.

Sadly, just two months later, VVG was to die of that mysterious shot in the chest — whether suicide or something else, this is still hotly debated as there are more questions than answers. For the record, I do not believe that VVG was crazy. Manic-depressive, reclusive, socially awkward, difficult to live with? Sure. Not crazy, given his vast collection of lucid and intelligent letters. To those who cite the ear-cutting episode, please read this excellent 2010 Adam Gopnik essay in The New Yorker.

Anyway, this whole thing about VVG translating his revered artists, being inspired by working people and their struggles and joys, and working away with hardly any support while the world thought him not worth their time speaks to me on many levels. That is all.

Some other time, I’ll write about his luminous letters, which we would never have been able to read in English if it hadn’t been for an unsung hero: Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, Theo’s wife and VVG’s sister-in-law. She doggedly persisted to get VVG’s art recognized. And she translated his many beautiful letters (‘At the time of her death, she was still occupied translating 526 of Vincent’s letters into English.”) They’ve been re-translated by others and are literary works in themselves.

And this travel itinerary following VVG’s footsteps across Europe has been on my bucket list for some time now. It covers important places from his life and, apparently, several of them are still very much as they were during his time.

Oh, here’s a pic of ‘The Siesta’ hanging in my home. And there’s me on book launch day. And there’s the complete VVG letter collection, with a more portable selection as well.

WAAT The Siesta My Copy
WAAT TSV Book Launch
WAAT VVG Letters

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Do let me know your thoughts on all or any of the above. You can respond below or share on social media and tag me (links below.)

Some interesting links

SUBMIT: Armory Square Prize for South Asian Literature in Translation

SUBMIT: The  Fifth Jawad Memorial Prize for Urdu-English translation, 2022-2023

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APPLY: NCW Emerging Translator Mentorships 2023

READ: A new dictionary will document the lexicon of African American English by Jeevika Verma (NPR)

READ: Fictional Notes toward an Essay on Translation by Anton Hur (Asymptote Journal)

READ: How our brains cope with speaking more than one language by Nicole Chang (BBC Culture)

READ: Translating Multilingualism: An Interview with Ros Schwartz by Sheela Mahadevan (Asymptote Journal)

READ: What Science Can Tell Us About How We Express Ourselves by Batja Mesquita (Lit Hub)

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Jenny Bhatt is an author, a literary translator, and a book critic. Currently, she is a Ph.D. student of literature at the University of Texas at Dallas. She has taught creative writing at Writing Workshops Dallas and the PEN America Emerging Voices Fellowship Program. Sign up for her free newsletters, We Are All Translators and/or Historical Fiction Craft Notes. Jenny lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Texas.

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