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Van Gogh and Breitner in The Hague

‘At the moment I quite often go to draw with Breitner, a young painter who’s acquainted with Rochussen as I am with Mauve. He draws very skilfully and very differently from me, and we often draw types together in the soup kitchen or the waiting room &c. He sometimes comes to my studio to look at woodcuts, and I go to see the ones he has as well,’ Van Gogh wrote on 13 February 1882.

In the city

Juffrouw Idastraat in The Hague; Breitner lived at number 16. Photograph taken c. 1925, Hague Municipal Archives

Like Van Gogh, the Dutch painter George Hendrik Breitner (1857-1923) wanted to become a ‘painter of the people’. While other artists generally concentrated on rural settings, Breitner and Van Gogh were drawn to people in the city. ‘Here in The Hague there isn’t a single person I’ve ever done that with in the city itself; most think the city ugly and pass by all of it,’ Van Gogh wrote. The two artists saw each other regularly in 1882 and 1883, wandering the poorest districts of The Hague in search of ‘popular types’. Van Gogh wrote that he and Breitner would observe such people in their own environment: ‘Yesterday evening I went out with him to look for figure types in the street in order to study them later in the studio with a model.’

Sketches

Sketchbook, G.H. Breitner, Print Room, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.

Still, the two artists had different approaches to sketching figures. Breitner later illustrated this with an anecdote about a soup kitchen in The Hague. He said that he had spent some time there drawing unobtrusively in a little sketchbook, but when Van Gogh later went to the same place with bulky, conspicuous artists’ equipment, he was unwelcome there and was eventually chased away. Among the many Breitner sketchbooks in the collection of the Rijksmuseum’s Print Room are some that contain drawings of working-class people and settings. We suspect that Breitner carried these sketchbooks around with him during the time when he was in contact with Van Gogh. I’ve spent many hours at the Print Room examining these sketchbooks, searching for details that could reveal more about the relationship between the two artists. Although there have been no sensational discoveries, the notes about pigments and paint shops and the circles of paint on the paper tell us something about Breitner’s working methods.

In the studio

The artists spent time together not only in the streets of The Hague but also in the studio. In his letters to his brother Theo, Van Gogh makes several remarks about visiting the place where Breitner worked and about the works of art he saw there. These comments are not always enthusiastic; for example, one letter compares Breitner’s paintings to ‘mouldering wallpaper’. Likewise, the better-trained Breitner must have been fairly unimpressed with Van Gogh’s technique at this early stage in his career. My next post will describe how Van Gogh responded to one particular painting after a visit to Breitner’s studio.

 

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Where did Anthon van Rappard live? Part 2

I wrote earlier about the confusion surrounding the home and work addresses of Anthon van Rappard in Brussels (1880-1881). He lived in Dwarsstraat, but was his house number 8, 64 or 67? Thanks in part to research by Robin de Salle, an archivist in Brussels, and the student and intern Marthe Takens, we now know more.


They discovered that in the population register of Sint-Joost-ten-Noode, a municipality that forms part of the Brussels region, Van Rappard was officially registered on 19 November 1880 as living at Dwarsstraat 64. This is also the address where Vincent (as he mentioned in a letter to Theo) first met Van Rappard in late October.

Brussels-Utrecht-Brussels
But on 9 November 1880, Van Rappard was back at his parents’ home in Utrecht and answered the door when the census-taker came to call. On 13 November, he was removed from the population register in Utrecht. Apparently, he travelled back and forth between the two cities several times during this period to move his personal effects.

The population register in Brussels also shows that on 25 January 1881 Van Rappard no longer lived in Dwarsstraat, but was registered in Tweekerkenstraat (with no mention of the house number). Finally, on 10 May, he returned to Utrecht and was removed from the Brussels records. Van Gogh, who probably had permission to use Van Rappard’s studio from February onward, had to leave Brussels slightly earlier to be with his parents in Brabant.

At the Academy
Van Rappard was studying painting at the Koninklijke Academie voor Schone Kunsten (Royal Academy of Fine Arts) in Brussels. According to the academy’s records, he signed up for the class ‘Peinture – nature’ (Painting from nature), which had begun on 8 November 1880 and went on until late April. The address he gave there was ‘St.J.t.noode, rue des deux églises, 68’. In bilingual Brussels, ‘rue des deux églises’ (street of the two churches) was the French name for Tweekerkenstraat, and we now have a house number: 68.

Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels

The fact that Rappard provided this address to the academy also tells us that he did not begin his studies there until January 1881. His registration number, 8519, is also later in sequence than Van Gogh’s, 8488, who probably signed up in mid-November 1880 for a drawing class that had started in September. Van Gogh’s time at the academy was extremely brief; he didn’t make it to the new year. This may be why it was convenient for him to use Van Rappard’s studio from about February onwards, while Van Rappard was spending more time at the academy. In short, it now appears (and this is precisely what we wanted to know) that Van Rappard’s studio was in Tweekerkenstraat and Van Gogh worked there.

Dwarsstraat
What about Dwarsstraat 8 and 67? According to other sources, Van Rappard must have lived at these addresses, but there is no clear proof of that. Let us return to the letter that Vincent wrote on 1 November 1880, after their first meeting: ‘Also went to see Mr Van Rappard, who now lives at rue Traversière [the French name for Dwarsstraat] 64, and have spoken to him [italics added].’ As explained above, the word ‘now’ indicates that Van Rappard had previously lived somewhere else in Brussels. But Van Gogh may have meant, more specifically, somewhere else in Dwarsstraat. This is another possible reading of the sentence. For instance, he may have started out at Dwarsstraat 8 and moved to 64.
I hope to return to this point in a future post, as well as to the stone commemorating Van Gogh that was placed in the façade of Dwarsstraat 8 in 1990. Because if Van Rappard really did live at this address, either it was for a very short time (until late October, and without ever being visited by Van Gogh there), or he only had his studio there (while living in Tweekerkenstraat). The latter situation is the only one in which Van Gogh actually worked at Dwarsstraat 8 and the commemorative stone is in the right building. So we still do not know for certain whether he did, and whether it is.

 

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Swiftly painted figures

In 1882, Van Gogh first met George Breitner. At the time, both young artists were in contact with members of the Hague School. Van Gogh was studying with Anton Mauve, while Breitner had worked in the studio of Willem Maris and contributed to Hendrik Willem Mesdag‘s Panorama (1880-81). After they met, Van Gogh and Breitner sometimes went out drawing together in and around The Hague. They shared a special interest in life in the poorer parts of town. In 1883, Breitner spent a short time painting in the province of Drenthe, where Van Gogh and Anthon van Rappard were then working. Van Gogh and Breitner later went their separate ways, the former to France and the latter to Amsterdam.

Detail of Neighbourhood in The Hague

Olieverf op papier, op paneel geplakt, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

G.H. Breitner, Neighbourhood in The Hague, c. 1883

One common feature in the early work of the two men is their rapid brushwork, their loose application of paint. This shows the influence of their Hague School teachers. But in fact, their loose brushstroke (or tache, a term from French art theory) had its origin in the groundbreaking work of the Barbizon painters. Dutch art collections included many paintings of the Barbizon School. This tache is also a prominent feature of Hague School paintings.
The Barbizon painters, who had been active in France from about 1830 to 1880, were well represented in Dutch collections. During the 1880s and 90s, Mauve managed to assemble a large set of Barbizon landscapes, including some by Daubigny and Rousseau. This body of work strongly reflected Mesdag’s own preference for rapidly composed, loosely painted landscapes, in which the tache always played a central role. Some of the Barbizon landscapes were incomplete, but Mesdag and his friends appreciated them none the less for their spontaneous, free-spirited quality, a quality then known in the Netherlands as ‘impressionism’.
For example, let us look at how Daubigny painted fishermen’s wives in Normandy around 1874-76. Close examination reveals that each figure is composed of just a small number of quick brushstrokes. The anonymous woodcutters in Rousseau’s Mort des Innocents (1847), who are pulling down a tree, are no more than a few loose dabs of white and dark brown.

Olieverf op doek, Museum H.W. Mesdag Den Haag

C.F. Daubigny, detail of Sunset near Villerville, 1874

Olieverf op doek, Museum H.W. Mesdag Den Haag

C.F. Daubigny, detail of Sunset near Villerville, c. 1876

Olieverf op doek, Museum H.W. Mesdag Den Haag

T. Rousseau, detail of Mort des Innocents, 1847

Olieverf op doek, Museum H.W. Mesdag Den Haag

H.W. Mesdag, detail of The Construction of the New Port of Enkhuizen, 1886

In Mesdag’s painting The Construction of the New Port of Enkhuizen (1886), the figures have clearly been rendered with the same type of quick brushstroke. Further examination of the figures in paintings from Breitner’s Hague period shows a similarly rapid style of brushwork. In Breitner’s small, nearly abstract painting of an alley in The Hague (c. 1883), his depiction of two women has many features introduced earlier by the Barbizon and Hague Schools: a rapid painterly style, the wet-on-wet technique, and a similar approach to figures.

 

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‘Taking samples and initial scientific forays’

In the coming months, we shall be posting four short films dealing with the techniques that are used in technical research on paintings. Each one builds on the one before. The film already posted, De gang van het monster / The path of a sample, shows what happens to a paint sample: from the moment of sampling up to and including electron microscopy. In the forthcoming short films we shall look in detail at the different ways in which paint samples can be studied.

This film shows Muriel Geldof of the ICN at work.  She is cutting a microscopically tiny paint sample taken from a painting at a place chosen carefully beforehand. She prepares the sample so that she can study it more closely using an optical microscope. Then she decides which parts of this sample can be studied in the electron microscope. This will be shown in the next film to be posted to the blog.

 

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Van Gogh’s finale: Arles, St Rémy, Auvers

The working group that studies the work dating from the final years of Van Gogh’s career calls itself AStRA. This is an abbreviation of Arles, St Rémy and Auvers and has nothing to do with his famous Starry night (which is in any case not in the Van Gogh Museum but in the MoMA in New York). The team consists of conservators, curators and researchers, who meet on a regular basis, like the other working groups.

In between meetings they are to be found at their microscopes or poring over books, or in some cases they are away on trips to other collections, subjecting the works there to closer examination.

Van Gogh’s years in Holland can be seen as his apprenticeship; it was while living in Paris that he became a really modern artist. In the south of France (Arles and Saint-Rémy) and Auvers-sur-Oise (near Paris) he produced his crowning achievements and found his own style. He lived in relative isolation from Paris there, and was thrown back almost entirely on his own resources. He did correspond with friends such as Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard, and of course with his brother Theo, who was an art dealer in Paris. So these letters are a very important source of information when we are trying to establish the materials he used, the problems he encountered, the conditions under which he worked, and so on.

Our research focuses on the following main subjects:

  • the triangular artistic relationship between Van Gogh, Gauguin and Bernard;
  • how Van Gogh went to work when he painted outside, en plein air;
  • the relationships between drawings and paintings with the same images (in some cases it was the drawing he made first, in others it was the painting);
  • repetitions of his own paintings (e.g. of The bedroom, of which there are three separate versions);
  • the works he made as ‘translations in colour’ of small black and white prints after works by his idol Jean-François Millet and by a few other artists;
  • a group of landscapes with a strikingly wide format that may be called ‘double squares’; he painted a preliminary study of one of them on a tea towel.

In each of these topics, we also look into the question of whether other artists were working on similar things, and whether Van Gogh was aware of this.

The AStRA group consists of the following members:
Ella Hendriks, the museum’s head of conservation, researches the repetitions (most notably of The bedroom), the double squares, and Van Gogh’s cooperation with Gauguin.

Kathrin Pilz was appointed as research conservator especially for this project as; she concerns herself with the ‘translations in colour’ and Van Gogh’s work en plein air.

Devi Ormond also belongs to the other two working groups and is therefore known as ‘Miss Studio Practice’. In the AStRA group, she focuses on Van Gogh’s contemporaries, who in this period are most notably Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard.

Muriel Geldof is the permanent staff member from the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage (ICN) who examines the paint samples taken from the paintings for the Studio Practice Project.

The art historian and exhibition curator Nienke Bakker is an expert on Van Gogh’s letters from this period. She focuses on Van Gogh’s repetitions of his own work and the ‘translations in colour’.

Teio Meedendorp, also known as ‘The Brain’ and like Devi a constant presence in all working groups, examines the relationship between drawings and paintings.

Leo Jansen is curator of paintings and the leader of this working group. Since the group operates virtually autonomously, he is able to focus on the plein air works, the triangular artistic relationships, and the ‘double squares’.

 

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