Van Gogh strove to be a painter of rural life and nature, and during his first summer in Arles he used his new palette to paint landscapes and traditional rural life. His belief that a power existed behind the natural led him to try to capture a sense of that power, or the essence of nature in his art, sometimes through the use of symbols. His renditions of the sower, at first copied from Jean-François Millet, reflect Van Gogh's religious beliefs: the sower as Christ sowing life beneath the hot sun. These were themes and motifs he returned to often to rework and develop. His paintings of flowers are filled with symbolism, but rather than use traditional Christian iconography he made up his own, where life is lived under the sun and work is an allegory of life. In Arles, having gained confidence after painting spring blossoms and learning to capture bright sunlight, he was ready to paint The Sower.
Van Gogh learned about Fernand Cormon's atelier from Theo. He worked at the studio in April and May 1886, where he frequented the circle of the Australian artist John Peter Russell, who painted his portrait in 1886. Van Gogh also met fellow students Émile Bernard, Louis Anquetin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec – who painted a portrait of him in pastel. They met at Julien "Père" Tanguy's paint shop, (which was, at that time, the only place where Paul Cézanne's paintings were displayed). In 1886, two large exhibitions were staged there, showing Pointillism and Neo-impressionism for the first time, and bringing attention to Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. Theo kept a stock of Impressionist paintings in his gallery on boulevard Montmartre, but Van Gogh was slow to acknowledge the new developments in art.
In these series, Van Gogh was not preoccupied by his usual interest in filling his paintings with subjectivity and emotion; rather the two series are intended to display his technical skill and working methods to Gauguin, who was about to visit. The 1888 paintings were created during a rare period of optimism for the artist. Vincent wrote to Theo in August 1888, "I'm painting with the gusto of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse, which won't surprise you when it's a question of painting large sunflowers ... If I carry out this plan there'll be a dozen or so panels. The whole thing will therefore be a symphony in blue and yellow. I work on it all these mornings, from sunrise. Because the flowers wilt quickly and it's a matter of doing the whole thing in one go."
What particularly struck me when I saw the old Dutch paintings again is that they were usually painted quickly. That these great masters like Hals, Rembrandt, Ruisdael – so many others – as far as possible just put it straight down – and didn't come back to it so very much. And – this, too, please – that if it worked, they left it alone. Above all I admired hands by Rembrandt and Hals – hands that lived, but were not finished in the sense that people want to enforce nowadays ... In the winter I'm going to explore various things regarding manner that I noticed in the old paintings. I saw a great deal that I needed. But this above all things – what they call – dashing off – you see that's what the old Dutch painters did famously. That – dashing off – with a few brushstrokes, they won't hear of it now – but how true the results are.
By this time van Gogh was ready for such lessons, and the changes that his painting underwent in Paris between the spring of 1886 and February 1888 led to the creation of his personal idiom and style of brushwork. His palette at last became colourful, his vision less traditional, and his tonalities lighter, as may be seen in his first paintings of Montmartre. By the summer of 1887 he was painting in pure colours and using broken brushwork that is at times pointillistic. Finally, by the beginning of 1888, van Gogh’s Post-Impressionist style had crystallized, resulting in such masterpieces as Portrait of Père Tanguy and Self-Portrait in Front of the Easel, as well as in some landscapes of the Parisian suburbs.