Van Gogh. I colori della vita

Padua, Centro San Gaetano
10 October 2020 - 11 April 2021

The formative yearsFrom the Marcasse mine to Etten
Second section

This section of the exhibition stages Van Gogh’s journey in time of less than two years, from the summer of 1880 to the end of 1881, especially through drawing, configured as the word of the beginning. Henceforth, he consciously made his first drawings outside his letter writing, until he left Etten to move to the Hague. His plain vocabulary came from an awareness formed through drawing.

In a letter written to Theo from the mining region of Cuesmes, Belgium, between Monday 11 and Thursday 14 August 1879, when he had reached the time to start his career as an artist, he noted something that neatly sums up his feelings: "When one lives with others and is bound by feelings of affection, then one realizes that one has a reason for living, that one may not be utterly worthless and expendable … Like everyone else, I need friendly or affectionate relationships or intimate companionship, and am not made of stone or iron like a pump or a lamppost, and like any man of culture or decency I cannot do without these things and not feel a void.”

Charles Bargue's Cours de Dessin, a drawing course lent to him by H. G. Tersteeg, director of the publisher Goupil’s Hague branch, was a source of joy because he could benefit from practicing drawing when nearing his last days working in the coal-mining district of Borinage, southwest of Mons. On September 24, 1880, when he was about to move to Brussels, he wrote Theo: "So you see that I am working away hard, though for the moment it is not yielding particularly gratifying results. But I have every hope that these thorns will bear white blossoms in due course and that these apparently fruitless struggles are nothing but labor pains. First the pain, then the joy.”

Van Gogh made many drawings in Borinage from December 1878 to autumn 1880, but nothing has survived from that time. In a letter to Eugene Boch from Arles in 1888, he mentions that he had started to work by communing with the landscape in Borinage, but "of course I destroyed everything a long time ago." Miners in the Snow and The Diggers (after Millet), placed at the beginning of the Dutch itinerary in the exhibition, are thus very rare surviving evidence of his work from September and October 1880, showing all of his uncertainties in figure drawing.

In this section dedicated to Van Gogh’s training, the itinerary continues with the eight months spent at Etten, his birthplace in the province of Brabant, having arrived from Brussels in late April 1881. He rejoined his family, who were living in the rectory next to the church. During the months at Etten we see an initial, considerable improvement in his drawing, which remained his way of depicting the world for the rest of that year. At Etten, he began a way of living and working that he basically didn’t change for a whole decade.

He set about reconnoitering the village and its surroundings to build up the knowledge that would enable him to start drawing and, eventually, to start painting. Together with his painter friend Anthon van Rappard, who stayed with him at Etten for a couple of weeks in June, he explored the countryside, among "the cottages on the moor," barns, mills, and a large pine grove.

At Etten, he also made an inventory of farm implements to be drawn: "the plow, the harrow, the wheelbarrow, the cart, etc." In his letters, he tells of how he went to visit workplaces in the village, "the carpenter's shop, the shoemaker's shop,” while his sister Wil posed for him. In that early period of his drawing, he wanted to tackle as wide and complete a range of subjects as possible. Not only to demonstrate his growing skill in drawing, but also to compile a sort of compendium that would give him, an artist of reality, the idea of proceeding in the right direction.

exhibition curated by
Marco Goldin

Padua, Centro San Gaetano
10 October 2020 – 11 April 2021