After encountering the artists of the Hague School in the Rijksmuseum, I walked across Museumplein to the Van Gogh Museum where I found further evidence of the connections between these painters. There is so much to absorb at the Van Gogh Museum, and elements of the story are so familiar, that I focussed on the early years of Vincent’s career during which he painted darker landscapes and studies of peasant life in the countryside that reflected his admiration of the Brabizon realists and the influence of members of the Hague School.
Later, in the rooms dedicated to his work in Provence, I felt as if I had emerged into sunlight and colour.In artistic terms, Van Gogh was a late developer. But once he found his true calling as an artist at the age of 27, he applied himself with such drive and
determination that only ten years separated his first student drawings from his death in July 1890, by which time he had completed a body of work that made him one of the greatest figures in Western art.
At the beginning of a tour of the Van Gogh Museum it’s impossible to miss Haymaking, an enormous painting by the French artist Léon Lhermitte that shows a family of peasants resting during haymaking. The Museum acquired this painting because of Van Gogh’s admiration for Lhermitte. Like the Brabizon realist Millet, Lhermitte had become famous for his paintings of peasant life and work on the land – themes that were also close to Van Gogh’s heart. Vincent knew Lhermitte’s work mainly from reproductions which he collected avidly.
In 1885, Van Gogh wrote to Anthon van Rappard (whose painting of an old woman from Drenthe, the remote and undeveloped area in the northeast of the Netherlands, also hangs in the Museum):
For me, that man is Millet II in the full sense of the word; I am as enraptured by his work as I am by that of Millet himself. I find his genius equal to that of Millet I.
For Van Gogh, Lhermitte’s secret was ‘that he knows the figure in general – namely the sturdy, severe workman’s figure – through and through, and takes his subjects from the heart of the people.’ He, too, hoped to establish himself as a painter of peasant life, and so Lhermitte’s work, like that of Millet and others of the Brabizon School, were an inspiration. These were artists who portrayed people whose traditional way of life was disappearing as industrialisation and urbanisation encroached.
In October 1880, Van Gogh moved to Brussels and began a rigorous artistic self-education, visiting galleries and working in Anthon van Rappard’s studio (the artist remained a close friend and source of advice throughout most of his Dutch period). In 1881 he moved again, this time to The Hague, where he received lessons in drawing, watercolour and oils from the Hague School painter Anton Mauve, his cousin by marriage. Practising relentlessly, Van Gogh received his first commission from his uncle Cornelius, an art dealer in Amsterdam: twelve drawings of city views in The Hague. The series gave him the opportunity to practise his perspective skills.
While in The Hague, Van Gogh lived in a room at the top of a house in a district that was then on the edge of the city. He furnished part of the room as a studio, and it was there that he made several watercolours of the view from the back window, looking out over the red-tiled rooftops, gardens and allotments to meadows in the distance. These are all in private collections, but I remember my enjoyment of this one when it was shown in the Real Van Gogh exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2010.
In the autumn of 1883, inspired by his friend Anthon van Rappard, Vincent left The Hague for the Dutch province of Drenthe, where he stayed for three months. Having heard about the province’s wild and remote beauty, he was attracted by the prospect of drawing and painting its heathland and moors. Though relatively brief and somewhat disappointing, his time there made a lasting impression on him.
In a letter to van Rappard letter on 13 August 1882, Vincent had written of what he would expect iif he visited Drenthe:
What you tell me about Drenthe is interesting – I don’t know Drenthe at all from having been there myself, only through what Mauve and Ter Meulen [members of the Hague School], for instance, have brought back. I imagine it as being like North Brabant when I was young, about 20 years ago. I remember as a boy seeing the heath and the small farmhouses, the looms and the spinning wheels exactly as I see them now in drawings by Mauve and Ter Meulen. The part of Brabant I know well has since changed enormously through land reclamation and industry. It isn’t without a certain nostalgia that I now see a new tavern with a red tiled roof at many places where I remember seeing a wattle-and-daub hut with a moss-covered, thatched roof. Since then have come sugar-beet factories, railways, heath reclamations, &c., which are much less picturesque. Well, what will remain in me is something of the austere poetry of the true heathland. And it seems that the true heath still exists in Drenthe just as it used to in Brabant.
His actual experience of Drenthe was, however, bitterly disappointing. There was nowhere to buy artist’s materials, he had no studio, and the local people refused to pose for him. It was a lonely time in which he had no help from or contact with other artists:
Drenthe is superb, but staying there depends on many things – depends on whether one has the money for it, depends on whether one can endure the loneliness.
But the Drenthe landscape and its inhabitants made an indelible impression on him, which he captured in paintings, drawings and watercolours. He thought the landscape beautiful, especially in the evening light ‘when that vast, sun-scorched earth stands out dark against the delicate lilac tints of the evening sky, and the very last fine dark blue line on the horizon separates earth from sky’, as he wrote to his brother Theo. Landscape with a Stack of Peat was one of the watercolours that he made that autumn which can be seen in the Van Gogh Museum.
There’s a pertinent passage in a letter that Vincent wrote to Theo a few days after his arrival in Drenthe in which he writes of the colours he sees in this landscape: ‘a grey sky (slate-grey sometimes), a brown earth with yellow-greys’:
That’s to say, in order to see it like this one mustn’t look at the local colour in itself, but consider that local colour in relation to the tone of the sky. That sky is grey – however so luminous that even our pure white might perhaps not capture it in terms of light and brilliance. But if one starts by painting the sky grey, thus remaining far below the intensity of nature, then all the more, in order to remain consistent, will one have to set the browns and yellow-greys of the earth several tones lower. It seems to me that this is something which, once one analyses it like this, is so self-evident that one finds it hard to understand that one hasn’t always seen it thus.
On 7 October 1883, Vincent wrote to Theo; the letter contained the little sketch above – later developed as Women on the Peat Moor (below):
I’m writing to you again now that I’ve walked around this village for a couple of days. What I find beautiful is everywhere here. That’s to say, there is peace here. […] Here’s a little scratch from the peat fields. There are often curious oppositions of Black and White here. For example, a canal with white sandy banks through a sooty black plain. You can see it above, too, small black figures against a white sky, and again gradations of black and white in the sand in the foreground.
A passage in another letter to Theo written a few days later is suggestive of the sights which provided the inspiration for this painting:
A black earth, flat – infinite – a clear sky of delicate lilac white. That earth brings forth that young wheat — it’s as if that wheat is a growth of mould. That’s what the good, fertile fields of Drenthe are, au fond – everything in a vaporous atmosphere. […] The poor soil of Drenthe is […] black […] like soot – not a lilac black like the furrows, and melancholically overgrown with eternally rotting heather and peat. I see that everywhere — the chance effects on that infinite background: in the peat bogs the sod huts, in the fertile areas, really primitive hulks of farmhouses and sheepfolds with low, very low walls, and huge mossy roofs. Oaks around them. When one travels for hours and hours through the region, one feels as if there’s actually nothing but that infinite earth, that mould of wheat or heather, that infinite sky. Horses, people seem as small as fleas then. One feels nothing any more, however big it may be in itself, one only knows that there is land and sky. However, in one’s capacity as a tiny speck watching other tiny specks – leaving aside the infinite – one discovers that every tiny speck is a Millet.
After less than three months, in December 1883, the rain, cold and isolation drove Vincent away from Drenthe – to his parents’ new home in the Brabant village of Nuenen where his father was the pastor. From there he wrote to his brother Theo: ‘I desire nothing other than to live deep in the country and to paint peasant life.’ At first he worked in a small studio at the back of the vicarage, but after a few months, he rented a larger space elsewhere in the village. Nuenen was an ideal setting for the ‘peasant painter’ he intended to be. It was home to many farmers, rural labourers and weavers who Vincent sketched and painted at every opportunity.
Van Gogh idealised peasant life, which according to him was ‘so much better in many respects than the civilised world.’ For him, peasants and farm workers were close to nature, their life was linked to the cycle of sowing and harvesting, of life and death. He found his ideal subjects in the fields around Nuenen, making portraits of the peasants and their their humble homes.
In The Cottage, the old farmworkers’ cottage beneath the evening sky suggests a serene, idyllic picture of rural life. Van Gogh was fascinated by these tiny farmhouses, which he called ‘people’s nests’ because of the security he sensed in them. This building, with its two front doors and shared chimney, consists of two dwellings. Its occupants – farm labourers or weavers – were extremely poor. Van Gogh was not interested in depicting their poverty so much as in the symbolism of the old, run-down house, a type that was on the brink of disappearing at the time.
The thing struck me greatly; those two cottages, half decayed under one and the same thatched roof, reminded me of a couple of worn-out old folk who make up just one single being and whom one sees supporting each other.
For some time, Vincent struggled to draw human figures convincingly: they tended to look too flat. Realizing that he needed to build figures from large round forms rather than contours, he began work on a series of large drawings of agricultural labourers to practise. In Peasant Woman Lifting Potatoes (above), the burly peasant woman, who has just driven her spade into the soil, is an example of these figures constructed from round forms. Van Gogh deliberately heightens the expressiveness of the drawing by exaggerating the proportions of the figure.
In a letter to Theo, Vincent described his portraits of male and female peasants as ‘the start of a whole series about all kinds of work in the fields’. He hoped that scenes of this kind would ultimately establish him as a rural artist in the tradition of Millet.
In December 1884, Van Gogh started work on this project to make a series of heads ‘of the common people.’ He wanted to show the peasants as a specific type of people that had been plodding away on the land for centuries. During that winter he produced more than 40 studies of farmworkers’ heads as he trained himself to paint figures.
Several of these paintings are grouped together at the Van Gogh Museum, and they stopped me in my tracks. Their power and immediacy derive from the thick, energetic brush-strokes employed by Van Gogh, but also the deep humanity with which he has imbued the faces.
Van Gogh wanted to show country people as they really were and to convey the harsh reality of their day-to-day existence. Thick, powerful brush-strokes emphasize their angular build and tired eyes. ‘They remind one of the earth, sometimes appear to have been modelled out of it’, he wrote to Theo.
Van Gogh painted most of the heads in the evening, by lamplight, in the dimly-lit cottages of the sitters. This woman with a red cap and white scarf is Gordina de Groot, a member of the rural family who posed for The Potato Eaters.
Van Gogh had been preparing himself by painting these heads for more than a year when he finally decided to make a large composition with peasant figures: the work that became The Potato Eaters. Shortly after his father died in March 1885, he left the family home and moved into his studio, where he started work on ‘that thing with the peasants around a dish of potatoes in the evening’. For Vincent, a true peasant painting should ‘smell of bacon, smoke and steaming potatoes’, and in The Potato Eaters, as steam rises from the plate of potatoes being shared by the whole family, that does seems to be true.
On 28 April 1885, Vincent wrote to Theo:
Just wanted to tell you that I’m hard at work on the potato eaters.
I’ve started it again on a new canvas and painted new studies of the heads; changed the hands, in particular, a great deal. Above all, I’m doing my best to put life into it. […] But you know yourself how many times I’ve painted the heads!
And furthermore I keep going and looking every evening, to redraw sections on the spot. […] But the most difficult things, are the heads, hands and ensemble.
Two days later he updated Theo on his progress:
Although I’ll have painted the actual painting in a relatively short time, and largely from memory, it’s taken a whole winter of painting studies of heads and hands. And as for the few days in which I’ve painted it now — it’s consequently been a formidable fight, but one for which I have great enthusiasm. Although at times I feared that it wouldn’t come off.
Then, on 2 May he wrote:
It’s very dark, though. […] I’ll tell you why I do this. The subject here is a grey interior, lit by a small lamp. The drab linen tablecloth, the smoke-stained wall, the dusty caps in which the women have worked on the land – all these, when you look at them through your eyelashes, prove to be very dark grey in the light of the lamp. […]
I had finished all the heads and even finished them with great care – but I quickly repainted them without mercy, and the colour they’re painted now is something like the colour of a really dusty potato, unpeeled of course. While I was doing it I thought again about what has so rightly been said of Millet’s peasants – ‘His peasants seem to have been painted with the soil they sow’.
Pleased with the result, Van Gogh hoped his brother Theo would exhibit the painting in his Paris gallery – but Theo found it much too sombre. Discouraged by Theo’s response, by the cold weather, and by a desperate financial situation in which most of his money went on artist’s materials, Vincent decided to leave Nuenen.
He moved to Antwerp, where he was able to visit museums and study at the academy, leaving the Netherlands never to return. By February 1886 he was in Paris.
Paris was a revelation. There he came into contact with the work of the Impressionists. During the two years he spent in Paris, Vincent experimented with the Impressionist brush-stroke, gradually developing his individual style. He painted many still-lifes, particularly of flowers, which he described as ‘gymnastics in colour’:
Oppositions of blues with orange, red and green, yellow and violet, seeking the broken and neutral tones to harmonise brutal extremes. Trying to render intense colour and not a grey harmony.
While in Paris, Vincent lived with his brother in Montmartre, which was still semi-rural in Van Gogh’s time, with allotments and farms. The windmills there were a popular attraction for day-trippers. They were located near Theo’s house in Rue Lepic, and Vincent eventually drew and painted them some twenty times. In Montmartre Windmills and Allotments, painted in April 1887, the mill on the right, Le Blute-Fin, had a pavement café with a magnificent view of Paris, while the smaller windmill was nicknamed the Moulin à Poivre (‘pepper mill’). Van Gogh alludes to the expansion of the city with the large apartment building that rises above the fields on the left.
Seeking to bring ‘sunlight’ into his landscape, Vincent used highly diluted paint to create a translucent effect, with fresh, pure colours – white in the fields and bright blue in the outhouses. He used dots to execute the buildings and allotments, while painting the sky in a looser, more spontaneous way.
Earlier in the day, while in the Rijksmuseum, I had seen Van Gogh’s 1887 painting Undergrowth (above). Now, in the Van Gogh Museum I found myself in front of a similar painting from that same year. Both were made in the summer of 1887 when Vincent left Paris behind to work with Paul Signac and Camille Pissarro in Asnieres along the Seine, north-west of Paris. Signac and Pissarro painted in the Pointillist style, and Van Gogh used it for his rendering of undergrowth, as sunlight filters through the foliage and falls on the dark ground.
The time Van Gogh had spent in Paris greatly stimulated his development as a artist. However, by February 1888 he had grown tired of the city. Feeling the need for quiet and the mental space to find his own direction, he left Paris for the south of France, ‘the land of blue tones and gay colours’. Settled in Arles, Vincent was immediately struck by the bright light and shimmering colours.
During the 18 months he spent in Arles, Van Gogh reached the peak of his powers, developing his distinctive style with its energetic brushwork and powerful colour contrasts. The works he produced in Arles reflect how deeply Vincent felt the essence of life: its beauty and its sorrow.
It was still winter when he arrived in Arles, but in a few weeks spring came and he embarked on a series of studies of flowering fruit trees. When he saw the works together, the idea of combining them in decorative triptychs was born. He was familiar with the idea of combining three works to form a harmonious whole from his love of Japanese woodblock prints which he had begun collecting back in Antwerp.
Japanese prints were a catalyst for Van Gogh’s art: he fused their abstract and decorative qualities with his own vision, grounded in realism and observation. In Paris the previous autumn he had painted Flowering Plum Orchard: After Hiroshige, his beautiful homage to the last great master of the woodblock tradition, Utagawa Hiroshige. In Arles a year later he wrote to Theo:
We wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming much happier and more cheerful, and it makes us return to nature, despite our education and our work in a world of convention.
In March 1887, Vincent wrote to his sister Willemien:
You understand that the countryside of the south can’t exactly be painted with the palette of Mauve, say, who belongs in the north and is and always will be the master of grey. But today’s palette is definitely colourful — sky blue, pink, orange, vermilion, brilliant yellow, bright green, bright wine red, violet. But by intensifying all the colours one again achieves calm and harmony.
By the time he painted this still life of delicate almond blossom against a clear blue sky for his new-born nephew Vincent Willem, Van Gogh had been admitted to the Saint Paul de Mausole asylum in Saint Remy. Theo had written to Vincent announcing the new arrival: ‘As we told you, we’ll name him after you, and I’m making the wish that he may be as determined and as courageous as you.’
As a symbol of this new life, Van Gogh chose the branches of an almond tree – a variety that blossoms as early as February in the south of France, where it announces the coming spring. The subject, the bold outlines and the positioning of the tree in the picture plane are clearly borrowed from the Japanese print tradition.
Van Gogh meant the painting to hang over Theo and his wife Jo’s bed. The couple preferred, however, to display it over the piano in their living room. This was the work that remained closest to the hearts of the Van Gogh family, and it was Vincent Willem who went on to found the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
- Turbulent Indigo: Van Gogh’s letters
- The real Van Gogh: the artist and his letters
- Out and about with the Hague School