I have many favorite paintings, but this one easily tops the list. It’s a beautiful and simple scene of domesticity: a humble mother and father, taking time from their daily work to amusingly watch and help their son take his first steps. You can see that dad has laid down his hoe and the mother has taken a break from hanging wash on their modest homestead to play. The boy is held up by the strength and assuring tenderness of mom. The father is bidding him onward and the son has his arms out toward father, eager to close the space between them. Each of their spirits is very much alive here.
This was painted the year Vincent’s deeply beloved brother Theo and his wife Johanna had their first child, who they named Vincent. Van Gogh created this work, as he did so many others, after a great creative influence in his life, Jean Millet’s own Les Premiers pas (“First Steps”).
As with most van Gogh’s, his brush work is provocative and his colors bold. There is a curious flowering plant positioned close to the mother and child, in the space between them and the father. It is the only thing in the whole painting presented with an array of distinct and bright colors. Could it have special meaning? Obviously, it was placed there by van Gogh with some intentionality as he would have to get those specific colors for his palate in order to do that plant alone, as they don’t appear anywhere else in the work. What does he want us to get from this curiosity? Is it unreasonable to consider that that little cluster of color represents the beauty and sweetness of life which is most deeply found in our interactions with others, particularly our intimacy and love with our children, our parents and our spouses?