Painted in 1887, Femme dans un champ de blé exemplifies Van Gogh’s stylistic experimentation following his exposure to the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.
On the advice of his brother Theo, Van Gogh moved to Paris in the Spring of 1886, to the popular area of Montmartre. Van Gogh made the most of the wealth of subjects that this new environment offered, as Belinda Thomson writes: "The Butte was a convenient location, as its popular windmills offered viewing platforms from which to enjoy panoramic views over the whole city. Socially too, Montmartre marked the raw junction between urban and rural life. The quarter was fast being colonized by artists’ studios and the entertainment world, dance halls, cheap brasseries, circuses. Yet, if one turned one’s back on the city, one confronted vineyards and market gardens, which provided a welcome reminder for Van Gogh of the scenes he had enjoyed painting at home" (B. Tomson, Van Gogh Paintings. The Masterpieces, London, 2007, pp. 47-48).
He was exposed to the Parisian avant-garde from the outset – not least through his brother’s increasing involvement with the gallery Goupil & Cie – and though his earliest paintings of Montmartre show the same darker palette and more formal style that had defined his earlier works he soon began to absorb the influences of the artists working around him. His choice of subjects broadened to include both the typically Impressionist motif of the busy suburban world of the banks of the Seine, and consciously urban views of city, and his paintings reflect a new appreciation of color and light. Aware of this gradual change he wrote to his friend the English painter Horace M. Livens, "In Antwerp I did not even know what the impressionists were, now I have seen them and though not being one of the club yet I have much admired certain impressionists’ pictures – Degas nude figure – Claude Monet landscape. And now for what regards what I myself have been doing, I have lacked money for paying models else I had entirely given myself to figure painting. But I have made a series of color studies in painting… seeking oppositions of blue with orange, red and green, yellow and violet seeking les tons rompus et neutres to harmonize brutal extremes. Trying to render intense color and grey harmony… So as we said at the time: in color seeking life the true drawing is modelling with color" (in The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, London, 1958, p. 513).
Van Gogh’s arrival in Paris coincided with the development of Pointillism and he met Signac at Asnières in the Spring of 1887. Although this influence was significant, Van Gogh did not merely imitate his friend’s approach, as Belinda Tompson explains: "Neo-Impressionism’s method of analyzing light through the juxtaposition of complementary colors was based on color theory and quasi-scientific principles. Although the method makes an appearance in Van Gogh’s 1887 Paris work, he did not attempt to apply it systematically. For Van Gogh the dotting method has the secondary – and highly desirable – effect of unifying the painted surface… [and] short hatched parallel strokes became a hallmark of Van Gogh’s mature painting style, as did swift execution and heightened colour" (B. Tomson, op. cit., p. 62).
Femme dans un champ de blé is painted with the vibrant and colorful brush strokes that Van Gogh developed at this time but the narrower viewpoint and relative simplicity of the composition allow him to fully explore the unifying effects of the Pointillist technique. Van Gogh experimented with a number of similar compositions at this time including Wheatfield with a Lark and Femme dans un jardin. In each of these the low or non-existent horizon and the abundance of vegetation allow Van Gogh to fill the canvas with a patchwork of deft, individual brushstrokes creating a wonderfully homogeneous plane of color. In Femme dans un champ de blé Van Gogh employs a mix of horizontal and vertical brushstrokes in bright blues, yellows and greens to create this effect, resulting in a painting that vividly captures the warmth and light of a spring day.