After visiting the Hague studio of the artist George Hendrik Breitner, Van Gogh made critical remarks about Breitner’s work in letters written in early July 1883. Both Van Gogh and Breitner believed that the latter was ‘making a terrible mess on a very big scale’ because of his poor physical condition: he had been struggling with an illness but was recovering.
On 22 July, Van Gogh wrote that at Breitner’s studio he had seen ‘some watercolours in the making and a painting of a farrier’s that were done with a calmer and more correct hand and head’. Although there are several known paintings with this subject by Breitner, it is probable that the one on his easel at the time was The farrier, reproduced below, given that Breitner completed this painting in late 1883.
As a novice painter, Van Gogh looked closely at the work of his fellow artists. To find out whether he learned anything from them, we can examine the works of art that he describes in his letters.
Breitner had found his inspiration for the painting The farrier in August-September 1881, during military exercises in Brabant. Why did Breitner take so long – until 1883 – to complete the painting he had begun in 1881? His letters tell us the answer. ‘I did more work on the painting . . . afterwards, after my return from Rotterdam, so that it would be more finished’, Breitner wrote, and he added, ‘But in any case I had by then, even before going to Rotterdam, made a drawing of it, which . . . was later given to Museum Boijmans.’
The ‘drawing’ is still in that museum’s collection; it is the watercolour A farrier’s shop, shown above. This X-ray shows how the painting may have looked before Breitner repainted it. Unsatisfied with the composition, he changed some details of the arrangement.
To check whether we were right to suspect a different composition beneath the tableau we see today, we took an X-ray image of the painting. And sure enough, it became clear that Breitner had made numerous alterations to the painting. The image shows a different composition, related to that of the watercolour.
Even with the naked eye, we can discern brushstrokes in the paint surface that do not match the rest of the final painting. Quick strokes of paint around the head of the middle horse reveal that its head once faced a different direction. The brushstrokes that make up the wall suggest that there were once doors in it, as we see in the watercolour. Examination of the X-ray image also led to the conclusion that the painting once included a fourth horse, as well as houses in the background on the right. But the most striking discovery was that, just like the watercolour, the painting originally included a dog at the lower right. By the time of Van Gogh’s visit to Breitner’s studio, this dog may already have been concealed under a fresh paint layer.