Watching, not looking at

We watch films, but we look at paintings. Language itself reflects both the difference between something moving and still, and a fundamental problem with art appreciation.

Few people, having looked at a painting, are able to accurately describe what they saw in it five minutes later. What were you looking at, then?

And today, I really want you to look at this painting by Van Gogh in the way you’d watch a film. If you come to Paris, go to Musee Rodin, not only for an inspirational walk through its park , but for a few minutes in front of this “Arles view across a wheat field”.

This is a low-resolution version of the painting, but you can get a hi-res version here.

When I have an unsuspecting friend with me in front of this picture, I ask him or her to study it, then turn their back on it and ask them to show on an A4 sheet of paper where exactly the steam engine was located. People (almost) never get it right, and as you read on, you’d understand why.

Why is this a great painting, and what is in there that may cause the effects I described.

First, let’s look at how the painting is “organised”.

I used two horisontal lines to separate it into “zones”. We have the foreground of an empty field, the middle ground with two harvesters (I additionally split it into the harvested strip of wheat and the harvesters themselves) and the far ground with a train and the skyline of Arles.

We don’t see much in the yellow square of the foreground. That is, at first glance.

In the mid ground we have a yellow strip. Yellow colour is the brightest and the fastest to catch the eye. Thanks to this, our eye is first drawn there, to this yellow strip. The eye almost “runs” up there through the mown field taking our body with it.

The strip is shaped as a wedge, adding further direction to the eye. It makes us feel that the harvesters are moving to the right, in the direction opposite the train.

Then, the third part gives us a distant town. You’d think a very different palette was used for that part of the painting.

So, what do we have now?

A mown field with a big hay/wheat stack in the corner. A strip of wheat whose life expectancy is about 30 minutes because the farmers seem to be very intent on finishing their job today: trains, sunsets, romantic skyline views would not distract them. And a romantic skyline of a beatiful town, which is almost cut off from us by the train.

Oh, there are some factories on the left side. It is very good that you noticed them. Most romantic people never do.

Now that we know what was painted, let’s study the dynamics of the picture: what and where is moving, going, walking, or running and which directions Van Gogh wanted our eye to follow:

In mid and far ground the movement is horizontal. Wind goes left to right (as illustrated by the smoke). The farmers go left to right and almost collide with the train speeding to the left.

In the foreground the brushstrokes and the stacks help the eye to move upwards.

Well then. Why did Van Gogh added the foreground, if he wanted our eye to go immediately to the farmers? He could have used that part of the canvas for something else, and he had a dreadful shortage of materials. The painting would look like this:

We would still have the farmers, the industry, the train, the city. We would still have our conflict, contrapunto. The traditional and the new. The farmers and city life. Factories against agriculture. The train is cutting the natural and clean world of farmers from the artificial and dirty world of cities and factories. Almost bucolic and sweet if you don’t mind the factory pipes (and, in fact, many viewers don’t notice them).


Because Van Gogh did not want to illustrate the conflict which the viewer would watch effortlessly and without passion.  He wanted the viewer to take an active part in this conflict. He wished the viewer were on the side of the farmers in this conflict.

In fact, the foreground is not empty at all. Van Gogh loved changing flats into post-earthquake landmasses. We know today that many of the hills or uneven fields he painted never existed. In reality they are perfectly flat. Look at the curves Van Gogh created in this yellow square.

I highlighted just a few of them, for the maze he created is quite confusing. And it is this confusion that makes the eye travel back to the foreground (after it skidded all the way up). The brain wants to sort it out. And then resigns, confounded. That’s why people forget where the steam engine was. The viewer’s brain gets busy with sorting out other things.

But why did Van Gogh want us to come back to the foreground? Because he wanted us to walk, to feel the earth, the land. To feel the stubble under our soles. To linger there, be there, with the farmers. To be on their side, not the train’s or the factories’.

Is this a landscape then? Or a scene of the battle between nature and industry in which Van Gogh wants us to take part on the side of nature? I find it hard to classify this painting. Just as hard as to move away from it.

If you liked this post, you’d love a story about the conflict in Van Gogh portaits, What it is and where to find it!


  1. Definitely a battle scene. I hadn’t seen this painting before (sadly, I used to live a 5 min walk from Musee Rodin, and never went for no good reason), but before I got to your analysis, my first impression was ‘peasants slaving away to provide the resources for the city.’ To me, the town skyline – and the train and ESPECIALLY the pipes – are all watching over the laborers. The town is Foucault’s Panopticon and its power and control weighs down heavily on everything and everyone beneath it.

    1. These are the marxist roots that speak to you )

      Van Gogh didn’t view peasants as “slaves”, but rather as proud free labourers.This is why agricultural tools are often blown out of proportion in his paintings. Out of respect. He copied Millet’s paintings that would mostly have sad and tired peasants in it, but those were just compassionate copies made by a compassionate soul.

      But I totally like your feeling of the town weighting down from above on the peasants. It is indeed painted in colours that make it a heavy slab.

    1. Thank you! I believe I’ve spent so many hours on Google Art Project my family must be really jealous of it. No, this work is not there ) What I really want my readers to learn is to more than watch, but to see, understand, appreciate and, perhaps, apply all this to their own paintings or photographs.

  2. When i go to Paris I go to the Musee D’Orsay to see my favourite painting, one that stopped me in my tracks the first time I saw it – Le Berceau painted by Berthe Morisot. Do you know it? 🙂

    1. Of course I know it. I believe I know them all ) What I find interesting is that 130 years ago NO ONE wanted it. A reclining nude? yes, please, I’ll have two. A mother? Oh no. Simply because men were buying pictures, even if they sometimes would let a woman paint them )

      1. Sorry! I’m delighted that you know it as so few people seem to! I even went on a course of art history and the (female) lecturer didn’t mention Morisot when discussing the Impressionists.
        I shall look forward to following your blog. 🙂

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