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Van Gogh paints outdoors – an introduction

After Van Gogh began his first painted studies in the studio under the tutelage of Anton Mauve at the end of 1881, followed by a period of eight months of extensive practice in drawing, he began to look outdoors for motifs which he could paint. At the beginning of August 1882, his brother, Theo, paid him a short visit to The Hague and gave him a donation which allowed Van Gogh to purchase materials necessary to paint. On 5th August 1882, he wrote to his brother thanking him for enabling him to ‘go on painting with new vigour’ as he now has ‘all the essentials for proper painting.’ Letter 253

In the same letter gives a list of materials he has bought, amongst them, numerous oil and water colour paints, and a  ‘moist colour box’  he has bought as being a ‘valuable piece of equipment for paintings outdoors, in fact absolutely essential.’

He later writes that this box fits inside a painters box so he can complete watercolour and oil studies at the same time. Prior to that it seems that Van Gogh was using saucers to carry his paint, but he considered them ‘awkward to carry, especially if you have other items as well’.  He also mentions buying sheets of a coarse grain of paper, double Ingres under the name of Papier Torchon. At the same time as buying all these materials, it seems that he ordered a perspective frame ( Fig. 1) to be made to his specifications in order to withstand difficult surfaces outdoors such as on sand dunes or on the uneven terrain of a forest landscape.

Figure 1. Sketch B. 'Beach at Scheveningen with perspective frame' in letter 253 dated 5th August 1882, The Hague

It could be said with the growing popularity of artists working outside, companies that were manufacturing artists’ materials started to provide a wide range of equipment to facilitate artists in the pursuit of going outside to paint. Contemporary catalogues advertised a broad range of materials to enable the artist to work in a manner not unlike in their studio, offering them portable easels, diverse paint boxes (such as the boite de campagne, a complete outdoor painting kit) the lids of which could be used as easels or for pinning supports for painting. (Fig 2)

Figure 2. An example of an artist's paint box for outdoor use.

Other items included folding chairs, parasols, containers to hold diluents and media. One saw the development of paper supports for oil painting, the production of millboard or carton and small accessories such canvas spacers (taquets) to allow for a number of fresh studies to be carried back safely to the studio. (Fig. 3)

Figure 3. A spacer used to keep still wet canvas separated during transit.

The problematic nature of the elements did not go unnoticed to the manufacturer as a range of gadgets for securing an easel to the ground against strong winds were also developed. The practicalities of painting outdoors effected Van Gogh just as it did other artists, he writes about issues he had with the transportation of materials, how he overcame the adverse weather conditions in which he painted and the reactions he received from members of the public.

‘The politeness of the populace of The Hague towards painters is, however, demonstrated by the fact that a fellow behind me, or probably at a window, suddenly spat a wad of tobacco onto my paper — life can be very trying at times.’ Letter 262 .

He bought himself clothing, ‘a tough, warm pair of trousers…a pair of sturdy shoes’ stating that he was ‘now fully prepared to face the elements.’ Letter 254. It seems that from these letters the artist was indeed making preparations to equip himself with the correct tools to be able to paint en plein air.

It is thought that by the end of August, Van Gogh had made about fifteen painted studies, many of these are now lost. It is also believed that he painted most if not all of them en plein air. The ‘Dunes’ (Fig.3) is considered to be one of his first outdoor painted studies.

Figure 4. Vincent van Gogh.'The Dunes', oil on paper on panel (35,5 x 49,5cm) F2/JH 173. Private collection

In the following part of this series  Van Gogh Paints Outdoors, we shall focus on the results found from technical examination carried out on one of the artist’s early studies painted in oil and executed outdoors, ‘Girl in a Wood’ (Fig. 4) from the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo.

Figure 5. Vincent van Gogh 'Girl in a Wood' Oil on paper on canvas (37 x 58,8 cm) F8/JH182 Kröller-Müller Museum Otterlo. inv. no. KM107.592


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