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First Steps (after Millet)

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Oil on canvas
72.4 x 91.2 cm.
Saint-Rémy: January, 1890
F 668, JH 1883

New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art


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Without question one of the foremost influences on Vincent van Gogh would be the French painter Jean-François Millet (1814-1875). Van Gogh would write to his brother Theo as early as 1873 about his admiration for Millet's work.

After Van Gogh voluntarily admitted himself to the Saint Paul-de-Mausole asylum in Saint-Rémy, France in 1889 he would continue to work sporadically, depending on the state of his physical and mental well-being. In late 1889 Van Gogh focused his attention on copies of several of Millet's works, in part because of his lack of models during his confinement.

In October, 1889 Van Gogh wrote to his brother of his admiration for one specific Millet drawing:

Ah, now certainly you are yourself deep in nature, since you say that Jo already feels her child move--it is much more interesting even than landscapes, and I am very glad that things should have changed so for you.

How beautiful that Millet is, “A Child's First Steps"!

Letter 611
c. 25 October 1889

So while Van Gogh was envisioning a series of copies of Millet's works, it's arguable that First Steps had a special significance to Vincent at the time because of the upcoming birth of his nephew to his brother Theo and sister-in-law Johanna.

Millet's original First Steps

Just as Van Gogh was greatly influenced by Jean-François Millet, so too was Millet influenced by those before him. Scenes of children learning to walk were depicted by Rembrandt as well as his pupils. Millet may also have been influenced by 15th century artists who painted the infant Jesus taking his first steps toward Mary. Millet wrote to his biographer Alfred Sensier "I shall make drawings, that is briefly the present solution. I shall make them as good as I can and, as far as possible, place them in the intimacy of life." Millet was passionate that his artworks should focus on every day scenes, which is arguably why Millet's works spoke so profoundly to Vincent van Gogh.

Millet would produce three copies of First Steps:

    Click to view the Millet original

  • The first version was completed in 1858 for Millet's patron Alfred Feydeau. It measures 32 x 43 cm. and is now in the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art in Lauren, Mississippi. Theo sent a photograph of this version of First Steps to Vincent in October, 1889. Three months later Van Gogh would draw a squared grid on the photograph (now in the collection of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam) and commence his painted copy of the work.

  • The second version was commissioned by Alfred Sensier and is larger than the first (63 x 75 cm.). At Sensier's suggestion, Millet added some pastel to make the work more lively. This version is now in a private collection in Germany.

  • A third version was acquired by Émile Gavet around 1859 and Van Gogh would have seen it on display at the Gavet Sale in Paris in 1875. It is now in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. So even though Van Gogh didn't begin his copies after Millet until a few months before his death in 1890, he was writing to Theo about his admiration for Millet as early as 1873 and would have seen in person a version of Millet's First Steps fifteen years before undertaking his own interpretation of the work.

Van Gogh's First Steps

Van Gogh completed his version of Millet's work in January-February, 1890. He sent this and the other painted copies of Millet to Theo in Paris on 29 April 1890. Theo received these works with great enthusiasm:

The copies after Millet are perhaps the best things you have done yet, and induce me to believe that on the day you turn to painting compositions of figures, we may look forward to great surprises.

Letter T33
3 May 1890

First Steps remains one of Van Gogh's most admired works. The intimate family scene has a universal appeal and the harmonious colour scheme would be typical of Van Gogh's final paintings. The subject of Millet's original and Van Gogh's copy may have spoken to Vincent on several levels: a passionate admiration for the great master Jean-François Millet, delight at the prospect of the impending birth of his brother's son, and perhaps a sense of regret for a family life that Vincent had long hoped for, but never attained.

I should very much like to see Millet reproductions in the schools. I think there are children who would become painters if only they saw such good things.

Letter 607
19 September 1889


1. Ronald Pickvance, Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy and Auvers (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1986), pp. 172-73.

2. Wulf Herzogenrath and Dorothee Hansen (eds.), Van Gogh: Fields (Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2002), pp. 106-07.

3. Louis van Tilborgh (ed.), Van Gogh and Millet (Waanders, 1989), pp. 111-14.


Owner City Country Date acquired Comments
Theo van Gogh Paris France 1890  
Johanna van Gogh-Bonger Amsterdam Netherlands 1891
Karl Ernst Osthaus Hagen Germany 1905 On loan of the Folkwang Museum, Essen, 1910.
Alfred Flechtheim Art Gallery Düsseldorf Germany

W. Russ-Young Serrières France
Paul Vallotton Art Gallery Lausanne Switzerland 31 December 1924  
Julius Oppenheimer New York United States 31 July 1926
Frank Oppenheimer San Francisco United States By 1945
Dalzell Hatfield Gallery Los Angeles United States  
Mr. and Mrs. George N. Richard New York United States 1955  
Metropolitan Museum of Art New York United States 1964 Gift of Mr. George N. Richard and Helen M. Richard.


Year City Country Venue Exhibition Name Start Date End Date No.
1896 Rotterdam Netherlands Kunstzalen Oldenzeel Vincent van Gogh: fransche periode  
1901 Berlin (2) Germany Paul Cassirer

1905 Hagen Germany Folkwang Museum Vincent van Gogh. Gemälde  
1905 Amsterdam Netherlands Stedelijk Museum Tentoonstelling Vincent van Gogh 15 July 1905 1 August 1905 173
1912 Hagen Germany Folkwang Museum Moderne Kunst  
1924 Zurich Switzerland Kunsthaus Zurich Vincent van Gogh 3 July 1924 10 August 1924 63
1929 New York United States Museum of Modern Art First Loan Exhibition Cézanne-Gauguin-Seurat-Van Gogh 8 November 1929 7 December 1929 88
1933 Chicago United States Art Institute of Chicago A Century of Progress, Paintings and Sculpture 1 June 1933 1 November 1933 378
1940 San Francisco (1) United States Museum of Art Contemporary Art 18 January 1940 5 February 1940 9
1949-50 New York United States Metropolitan Museum of Art Vincent van Gogh Paintings and Drawings. A Special Loan Exhibition 21 October 1949 15 January 1950 127
1950 Chicago United States Art Institute of Chicago Vincent van Gogh Paintings and Drawings. A Special Loan Exhibition 1 February 1950 16 April 1950 127
1985 Tokyo Japan National Museum of Western Art Vincent van Gogh 12 October 1985 8 December 1985 85
1985-86 Nagoya Japan Nagoya City Museum Vincent van Gogh 21 December 1985 2 February 1986 85
1986-87 New York United States Metropolitan Museum of Art Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy and Auvers 12 November 1986 22 March 1987 46
1989 Yokohama Japan Yokohama Museum of Art Treasures from the Metropolitan Museum of Art: French Art from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century 25 March 1989 4 June 1989 99
1990 Essen Germany Museum Folkwang Vincent van Gogh en de moderne kunst 1890-1914 11 August 1990 4 November 1990 51
1990-91 Amsterdam Netherlands Van Gogh Museum Vincent van Gogh en de moderne kunst 1890-1914 16 November 1990 18 February 1990 51
1993-94 Melbourne Australia National Gallery of Victoria Van Gogh. His Sources, Genius and Influence 19 November 1993 16 January 1994 49
1994 Brisbane Australia Queensland Art Gallery Van Gogh. His Sources, Genius and Influence 22 January 1994 13 March 1994 49
2002-03 Bremen Germany Kunsthalle The Poppy Field and the Artist's Debate 19 October 2002 26 January 2003 31
2003 Toledo United States Toledo Museum of Art Van Gogh: Fields 23 February 2003 18 May 2003 16
2008 Vienna Austria Albertina Vincent van Gogh: "Drawn" Pictures 5 September 2008 7 December 2008 103

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