Van Gogh. I colori della vita

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

The Nuenen years.
With weavers and farmers

Fourth section

With the worsening weather and the onset of winter in the northern region of Drenthe, where Vincent had moved to from the Hague in mid-September 1883, it was no longer possible to paint outdoors. In early December 1883, he thus made a backward journey to his parents' home at Nuenen in Brabant. He left behind him the much-loved landscape of Drenthe, not yet ruined by modern industrial society. He had come to the conclusion that the peasant’s work was the purest and most authentic embodiment of the human condition. There was thus an eternal bond between peasants, himself and the land, seen as the absolute mother bearing those universal values that he had always sought.

In exploring the figure of the peasant, Van Gogh can be set in a context built up from similar situations. This was despite the fact that in the very years Vincent was focusing on peasant images, Zola remarked in some Salon reviews that the genre had reached its swan song. Van Gogh obviously felt nostalgic for his beloved Courbet, who had recently died, and Jules Breton could obviously not replace him, with his peasant women who looked more like dolled-up models than laborers in the fields.

Although Van Gogh was aware of all the reasons why art linked to the land and to the figure of the peasant was so fashionable, he chose to continue down this path, regardless of what was going on around him. The exhibition thus dwells at length on this theme, both with drawings and paintings, often considered prototypes as he was moving toward the climatic synthesis of The Potato Eaters. In addition to the peasants, as soon as he arrived in Nuenen, he also devoted himself intensely to the study of weavers.

In November 1884, Vincent then began work on a series of heads that can be seen as one single project, which is an important part of this section. The faces, framed in the foreground on small-format canvases, are in a style reminiscent of the seventeenth-century Dutch artists, and especially the fluid, dense brushstrokes of Hals. Van Gogh had long been an admirer of Hals, and in October 1885, he also had the opportunity to see his works first-hand at the Rijksmuseum during a three-day visit to Amsterdam.

Van Gogh particularly admired Hals’s idea of always capturing the truth of life as it unfolded by painting in rapid brushstrokes with no underdrawing, giving the impression that his works might be unfinished, whereas the experience had been of absolute completeness. What seemed to interest Van Gogh in Hals's bourgeois figures was obviously not the social rank, at a time when he was busy sketching the faces of Brabant peasant men and women, but rather the depth of truth that emerged, even in a historical period earlier than his own. Van Gogh grasped, however, just how much modernity there was in those figures and faces, and this strengthened his conviction about the importance of the individuality of each portrait over more generic considerations.

In a vast simultaneity of vision, which ended in July 1884 with the last versions of the weavers, Van Gogh also returned to the landscape, especially since the environs of Nuenen offered so much inspiration. That landscape often became the setting for peasants at work but was also sometimes presented completely bare, in apparently banal simplicity, as he progressively measured new degrees of light. The colors were also gradually renewed until October and November the following year, when he painted some last beautiful landscapes in Brabant. This was just before he left for a stay in Antwerp and encountered the art of the Impressionists in Paris.

exhibition curated by
Marco Goldin

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