To some, the most derogatory comment one might make about an artist is that he copies someone else's work. It would seem to be close to the artistic version of plagiarism! Yet in Paris, at the Orsay Museum no less, there hung 40 paintings by a well-known artist displayed side-by-side with those of the man he copied. And, while none of them are likely to be "for sale" in the near future, it's probably safe to say those of the "copyist" are worth several times those of the artist he copied. The two men had a lot in common. Separated by a generation, both artists were intimately concerned about the plight of the common people in France and chose this subject for much of their work. And both artists struggled against the mainstream of art during the time when they painted their most searing works. The artists were Vincent van Gogh and Jean-Francois Millet. The show ran in January 1999.
Of course there was no attempt on van Gogh's part to pass his work off as Millet's. Even if he'd tried, a blind man could have spotted the copies. Van Gogh so layered the paint on his canvases they could almost pass for Braille art. Yet in painting after painting the theme, the composition, even much of the colour is identical. Van Gogh's La Sieste (The Nap) is a blatant copy of Millet's La Meridienne (Midday Sun). The only difference seems to be one of style. Another of Millet's paintings, Sower, van Gogh didn't stop with a single copy, but made thirteen, and another 30 drawings on the subject. Other paintings by both artists depict a baby's first steps, and such peasant tasks as chopping wood, harvesting crops, and shearing sheep.
Van Gogh first saw Millet's work at auction when he returned to Paris from Holland in 1875. He was 22 and still struggling to find himself, even to find a job at the time. He's already failed as a clergyman and art dealer. It would be another ten years before he completed his first painting. Yet he so identified with Millet's "men of the earth" he admitted practically no other influence his entire life. The vast majority of van Gogh's copies were made during the last year of his life while he was a patient in an insane asylum. Several of them he sent to his brother Theo in Paris, who saw them as a good omen that his brother might be getting better. "Copies like those aren't really copies," he wrote. "They lead me to believe...some big surprises are in store." Alas, his prognosis was wrong but his prediction was right. In May, 1890, van Gogh fled the hospital at Saint-Remy for Auver-sur-Oise where he committed suicide two months later.