In October 1880, Vincent van Gogh followed the advice of his brother Theo and visited Anthon van Rappard in Brussels. By March 1881, the two artists had developed a friendship and Van Gogh was invited to work in Van Rappard’s studio. Later on, Van Gogh would express profound admiration for Van Rappard in his letters to Theo. The correspondence between the two artists reveal that Van Gogh came to see Van Rappard as an artistic kindred spirit. In total, 55 letters have been preserved from the five years of their friendship. The Van Gogh Museum acquired these letters a few years ago.
Similarities and differences
Van Rappard’s aristocratic family appears to have encouraged him to become an artist from an early age, and his father supported his career choice from the outset. Van Gogh, on the other hand, came from a middle-class background and suffered from his father’s lack of support. Notwithstanding such disparate backgrounds, and in spite of their differences in temperament, the two artists’ views of art were remarkably similar: both had a predilection for simple subjects, especially for people at work. In addition, both collected English and French magazine illustrations, and sometimes exchanged them.
What Van Rappard valued most in Van Gogh was his total devotion to his art. ‘He belonged to the race from which great artists are born’, he wrote to Vincent’s mother after the artist’s death. This is noteworthy, since not one of the other Dutch artists with whom Van Gogh associated later heaped such praise on him. Van Rappard himself is generally described as more mild-mannered, but as a striking character nonetheless. His boyhood friend, the writer Johan de Meester, recalled in 1931: ‘Ever to say something he did not mean – it would have been impossible for him.’ Indeed, it was this characteristic that led to the estrangement between Van Rappard and Van Gogh.
The two painters not only corresponded at length, but also visited each other with some regularity. Van Rappard’s home base at the time was Utrecht, from which he visited Van Gogh in Etten, The Hague and Nuenen, the last such visit being in the autumn of 1884. In 1882 and 1883 Vincent paid several return visits to Van Rappard in Utrecht. When it comes to their cooperation, the year that interests us most is 1884, when Van Rappard stayed with Van Gogh in Nuenen on two occasions.
Where art was concerned, the two had different views regarding technique. Unlike Van Rappard, Van Gogh believed that the motif outweighed matters of technique. Although Van Rappard was far from ‘slick’ as a painter, he nonetheless attached greater importance than Van Gogh to academic training. His style of painting is softer, less arresting, than Van Gogh’s boldly applied brushstrokes. Van Gogh would complain that Van Rappard sometimes tried to paint too beautifully.
End of a budding friendship
In spite of their differences, Van Rappard continued to encourage Van Gogh to pursue his ambitions as an artist. Their relations cooled, however, after Van Rappard omitted to offer his personal condolences on the death of Van Gogh’s father, and particularly after Van Rappard’s blunt criticism of Vincent’s painting The potato eaters in May 1885.
The latter can probably be attributed to Van Rappard’s unflinching sincerity. Vincent was irate when Van Rappard wrote back, in reference to the lithograph of The potato eaters that he had received: ‘You’ll agree with me that such work isn’t intended seriously. You can do better than this — fortunately; but why, then, observe and treat everything so superficially? Why not study the movements? Now they’re posing. That coquettish little hand of that woman at the back, how untrue! And what connection is there between the coffeepot, the table and the hand lying on top of the handle? . . . And with such a manner of working you dare to invoke the names of Millet and Breton? Come on! Art is too important, it seems to me, to be treated so cavalierly.’ (letter from Van Rappard to Van Gogh, 24 May 1885).
Johan de Meester later wrote of Van Rappard’s warm feelings for Van Gogh, and said that it was precisely this affection that drove him to express his objections. But these objections were insuperable for Van Gogh, and he did not succeed in convincing Van Rappard of the value of his perhaps somewhat clumsy but sincere and expressive way of working. It was not perfect in terms of technique, but that was not what he was aiming to achieve.
Van Rappard died in 1892, two years after Van Gogh, at just thirty-three years of age. ‘He had no enemies anywhere, but endeared himself to many’, De Meester would later write. Van Gogh had not become an enemy after 1885, rather a disappointed friend. Van Rappard bravely raised the subject in his letter to Vincent’s mother: ‘In the future, when I think back to those days . . . Vincent’s characteristic figure will appear to me in a melancholy but clear light: the industrious and struggling, fanatically-sombre Vincent, who could so often ignite and become fierce, but who always commanded friendship and admiration through his noble, his highly artistic qualities.’