Van Gogh in Drenthe (1883)
Note: This is part V of a series on Vincent van Gogh’s early adult life. You can read each story separately, but if you feel like you’re missing out, check out the other parts.
Idiosyncrasies and Candlelight Plots
From his apartment on the Schenkweg in The Hague, Vincent was looking at a map which evoked his wildest imagination. On it, was a large ‘undiscovered’ white area called ‘Drenthe’. This desolate stretch of land, close to the German border was (still referred to as “Siberia¹” on some maps) was filled with peat bogs, the mysterious “Black lake” and moorland.
Vincent’s artist friend Anthon van Rappard painted there, and he invoked in Vincent a longing for the sticks. Vincent imagined that Drenthe still resembled a poetic experience of his childhood in Brabant, which by now become a lot less picturesque due to the growing presence of railways, industry and heath reclamation. This Northern hinterland still offered an eternal way of life that Vincent longed for and admired, comparable to the romantic Barbizon community in France of Millet and Corrot.
The idea of abandoning the city for the country fitted perfectly with Vincent’s ideas of wealth and modern life aversion. In his travels from London to Paris and the Borniage, Vincent had become increasingly aware of his privileged position and the exorbitant amounts of money that went into the art trade, which he disapproved of. This feeling of disengagement from “civilised’ society had grown so strong, that he was making serious plans to move to Drenthe permanently, and he had even inquired to the cost of such an expedition. In the candlelight, with the map of this heathland in front of him, he wrote a letter to Theo to find out his thoughts on such a relocation- since he would likely have to finance this it.
In 1881, Vincent arrived in The Hague as a free man. It was as if a veil had lifted from his eyes and he was now liberated from the attachment to religion and his parents. He was making rapid artistic progress, and he relocated to The Hague in the hope of becoming an apprentice to his painter uncle Anton Mauve, who Vincent much admired (“That’s it, that’s rich, that’s poetry”)².
Initially this apprenticeship had been cordial, friendly even. In gratitude for his uncle’s guidance and without a penny to his name, Vincent gifted Anton Mauve his much beloved lithograph of Nicholas Maes “Adoration of the Shepherds”. In turn Mauve introduced Vincent to the Pulchri Artist Society, of which Mauve was a board member, and he provided financial support. But soon Mauve took an increasingly unfriendly attitude towards his nephew-apprentice. He questioned his nephews artistic qualities and became increasingly frustrated by his self-opinionated ways:
I consider myself fortunate to learn something from him, but I can’t shut myself up in a system or school any more than Mauve himself can, and in addition to Mauve and Mauve’s work, I also like others who are very different and work very differently.³”
Societies and clubs were not where Vincent felt at home, he rather moved and painted among the common folk in the backstreets of the “Court City”. He shared this view with George Breitner, who Vincent often joined for drawing trips. But this friendship also soured after a trip to a train station, where much to Breitner’s annoyance, Vincent set up his easel in the centre of the 3rd class waiting room, overly drawing attention to himself.
During his time in The Hague, Vincent seemed to be unable to keep his artist friends close. Rather tragically he was not unaware of the reason for social predicament:
“I’ll have to suffer greatly for various idiosyncrasies that I cannot change. First of all, my appearance and manner of speaking and clothing, and also because later, when I’m earning more, I’ll continue to live in a different sphere from most other painters, because my view of things, the subjects I want to depict, inevitably demand it.⁴”
On the one hand there was his unfiltered and unconventional behaviour, which he was unable to change, on the other hand were his opinions from which he was unwilling to compromise.
Drenthe wasn’t only a desirable destination for Vincent because of its utopian image, there was also a practical element to the plan - he was penniless in The Hague. He either needed money or change his lifestyle — Drenthe provided a potential solution.
Vincent may have been a social outcast, but he wasn’t without ties. With Vincent’s background of caring for the poorest of society in Borniage and his drive to help those in need, he entered a relationship with a prostitute called “Sien”. He had taken her, and her children in, and had even promised to marry her — much to the disgrace of his parents. The relationship was much strained by Sien’s profession, accompanied by Vincent’s jealousy and Sien’s troubled character. In a desperate attempt to salvage the relationship he intended to move her and the children to Drenthe, but he feared that she would not be able to settle down in the country, that she would “start nagging”. “Why did you bring me here? ⁵”. This posed a serious dilemma for him:
“In my view the proper course would have been to marry her and take her to Drenthe. But, I admit, neither she herself nor circumstances allow it. She isn’t kind, she isn’t good, but neither am I, and serious attachment existed throughout everything as we were.⁶”
Vincent had to come to terms with the reality of the situation, he was unable to change or rescue people. In September 1883 he broke off the relationship, leaving her and the children behind. He took the train from The Hague to Hoogeveen in Drenthe.
Drenthe’s mystery and appeal goes beyond the natural world. Even though the plethora of megalithic structures we now call “Hunebedden’ were only studied scientifically well into the 20th century, they invoked much speculation from the local community over the ages. Were these stone monuments devil pits? Beds for giants? Many of these Hunebedden had been destroyed since the middle ages, their giant stones used for buildings or dikes⁷. Scientific studies confirmed their age as at least 5000 years old, older than Stonehenge. These megalithic dolmens were built by the early agricultural “Funnel-Beaker Culture”, and scholars assigned their use as graves.
Without scientific studies, many more would have been sporadically destroyed. But when Vincent arrived in Drenthe in 1883, a far greater destruction was unfolding before his eyes. Drenthe’s unique ancient ecosystem with peat bogs and moorland was slowly disappearing. A plan was unfolding accros the land. The peat-or “Brown Gold” from the bogs was cut and dug up, and served as an important fuel-source to the Dutch economy.
From the straight lines of roads and canals which Vincent saw on his map, the peat was transported to the rest of the country where it was burnt up like coal in stoves and factories. Unlike the Hunbedden which were casually demolished, the landscape was structurally transformed and devastated. Rich landowners bought up huge swathes of land from which peat could be cut.
Driving through the southeast of Drenthe in 2021, it’s hard to imagine that there ever were these “Veenkoloniën,” or “peat-colonies”. The conditions these peat cutters worked in were detrimental, and their living conditions abysmal, the colonies knew a distinct social hierarchy, from landowner on the top to peat cutter at the bottom. Many of the workers lived in sod huts called “plaggenhutten”, which after some years would decay and return to the earth. The process of peat cutting left the land extremely vulnerable. When the land was exhausted, farmers moved in who burnt down the remaining peat for agriculture.
In order to be able to travel to Drenthe and the Peat Colonies, Vincent needed an internal passport from the Dutch government. This may sound really odd from the prospect of a modern nation state, but these passport supposedly enabled the government to have closer supervision on vagabonds and unwelcome visitors from abroad.
After arriving in Drenthe, Vincent initially stayed in a guest house in Hoogeveen. The landscape around the town certainly met his expectations. “I’m very glad that I’m here because, old chap, it is rich here⁸. ” Vincent set out, sketched and painted the local area, like the cemetery in Hollandscheveld.
But Vincent’s expedition soon ran into trouble. He struggled to find models in the area, those who he did find often ridiculed or laughed at him, even if he paid them. There was also the other issue of paint, which he could no longer afford. Despite this, he kept his hopes up and with further support from Theo and his father, he kept on planning. He imagined that it would be even more beautiful deeper into the countryside. The landlord in Hoogeveen agreed to keep Vincent’s suitcase in the attic, while he departed to the most “untouched south east” of Drenthe.
Vincent took a barge on the Hoogeveensche-vaart, a journey of approximately 30 kilometres to Nieuw-Amsterdam. He found lodgings in a guesthouse overlooking the local canal bridge. In Nieuw-Amsterdam, he demonstrated his mastery of the arts. He beautifully captured the Northern melancholic light in “The Peasant burning weeds”. Even the self critical Vincent was rather pleased with the result.
“I’m still working on that weed burner, whom I’ve caught better than before in a painted study as far as the tone is concerned, so that it conveys more of the vastness of the plain and the gathering dusk, and the small fire with the wisp of smoke is the only point of light⁹.”
Vincent never managed to meet his friend Rappard in Drenthe, because he had long since departed for the island of Terschelling and Vincent lacked the funds to join him. But Vincent had also heard that another painter, Max Liebermann, spent a long time working in the nearby village of Zweeloo, so he decided to take a day trip to the village.
Vincent hoped to find other painters in the village, but found none. According to the locals there were no painters in the area that time of the year. Nevertheless, the trip left an impression on Vincent: “And then, when dusk fell — imagine the silence, the peace of that moment! Imagine, right then, an avenue of tall poplars with the autumn leaves, imagine a broad muddy road, all black mud with the endless heath on the right, the endless heath on the left, a few black, triangular silhouettes of sod huts, with the red glow of the fire shining through the tiny windows ¹⁰.”
He also made a drawing of the local 13th century church which stands today.
Theo van Gogh, Painter?
Drenthe inspired Vincent unlike any other place he had visited so far, but the wilderness and desolation also highlighted the fact that he was completely alone. The heath and moors, beautiful as they were, started to play tricks on his mind. Vincent imagined himself with Theo, the two brothers painting together on the heath. This mirage future suddenly became a radical possibility after disappointing figures at Goupil & Cie, resulting in Theo’s position becoming precarious. Vincent desperately tried to convince his brother they could work wonderfully together:
“Come on, old chap, come and paint with me on the heath, in the potato field, come and walk with me behind the plough and the shepherd — come and stare into the fire with me — just let the storm that blows across the heath blow through you. Break out…Change indeed, look for it on the heath¹¹.”
Theo responded coldly to Vincent’s letters, suggesting he had no idea what was going on at the firm from the outbacks of Drenthe, and that he would much rather sail on his “rigged ship” than become a painter. But Vincent didn’t leave it at that:
I cannot count the grains of corn in a sack of corn just by smelling it — I cannot see through the planks in the barn door — but I can sometimes see from the bulges whether it’s a sack of potatoes or corn; or again, even if the barn door is shut, I can tell from the squealing that the pig’s being slaughtered¹².
He even went as far as to suggest that if he didn’t follow his advice, he would refuse further financial support from him:
“If you definitely stay at G&Cie I’ll consider myself obliged to refuse your support, don’t think that I have high opinions of my present work.¹³” Theo reacted furiously, accusing Vincent of handing him an ultimatum, after which Vincent was forced to make amends:”I wouldn’t want to flourish if you had to wither in consequence; I wouldn’t want to develop the artistic in me if you had to suppress the artistic in you for my sake ¹⁴.”
When December came along and the days became shorter and colder, the bitterness of the land became clearer. The dream was shattered. Vincent, unable to bear his loneliness and the poverty he was living in, decided to return home to his parents. Drenthe would not become his Barbizon.“We’re now at a point where I say: at present I cannot go on¹⁵.” Stone broke, he walked to Hoogeveen though the freezing countryside. There he took the train to Helmond, leaving Drenthe behind.
For the letters, see: http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters.html
¹ Jansen S, Het Pauper Paradijs, Balans, 2008, p. 20
² See part 1 of this series
³ From letter: 199
⁴ From letter: 220
⁵ From letter: 379
⁶ From letter: 382
⁸ From letter: 382
⁹ From letter: 398
¹⁰ From letter: 402
¹¹ From letter: 396
¹² From letter: 401
¹³ From letter: 406
¹⁴ From letter: 408