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Van Gogh paints himself, and captures 'the artist'

In August 1888, vincent van Gogh wrote from Arles, France, to his brother Theo in Paris that he was sending him a "roll" containing "35 studies." He said he was "desperately dissatisfied" with many of them, but "they will give you a vague idea of the very fine subjects there are in this country." The studies included "a rough sketch I made of myself laden with boxes, props, and canvas on the sunny road to Tarascon."

This painting, shown above, is not at all the tame record of picturesque countryside the Dutch artist's modest words suggest. Nor could it remotely be described as "vague." In a more confident mood, Vincent would surely not have played down the achievement of a work that has become an archetypal image, not just of Van Gogh the artist, but of "The Artist."

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Van Gogh made drawings, oil studies, and then -sometimes - finished paintings from them. But he also believed that some he had drawn or painted rapidly were among his best work. A spontaneous ecstasy and energy charged his vision.

At times, the artist said, it was only when he was working that he felt truly alive. It is as a worker - almost a peasant on his way to toiling in the beating heat - that he pictures himself. He has affinity with "The Sower," a subject preoccupying him at this time, a lone figure at one with the landscape, virtually driven by the sun's inescapable ferocity.

We reproduce this painting from a book published in the 1950s. The canvas itself was in the collection of the Kaiser Friedrich Museum, in Magdeburg, Germany, from 1912. It disappeared in the final chaos of World War II. Stored in a mine, it was either destroyed by fire or looted. Whatever its fate, it can today be known only in reproduction.

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