My role in the AStRA working group includes examining the copies that Vincent van Gogh made during his stay in the Saint-Rémy hospital in 1889/90. As mentioned previously, Van Gogh had copied the work of other artists, such as Jean-François Millet, as far back as the early 1880s. Then, however, he had been at the very start of his artistic career and his goal had been to teach himself to draw.
It was largely a coincidence that Van Gogh returned to copying in the last year of his career. In a letter he wrote to Theo in September 1889, Vincent described an accident that had occurred during his illness: ‘that lithograph of Delacroix, the Pietà, with other sheets had fallen into some oil and paint and got spoiled. I was sad about it – then in the meantime I occupied myself painting it’.
He went on to ask Theo to send more reproductions of paintings. From that time until the end of his stay in Saint-Rémy in May 1890, Van Gogh copied the work of artists he admired, such as Rembrandt, Breton, Daumier and, above all, Millet – about 30 works in total. Eleven of these copies are in the collection of the Van Gogh Museum. As part of the studio practice project, we are examining them all and comparing them to a few copies at other museums.
One of the main questions we posed was how Vincent went about copying these pictures. Given the long nineteenth-century tradition of copying paintings, we wondered whether Van Gogh had used some standard copying procedure. We know, for instance, that he used a perspective frame as an aid to outdoor, or plein air, painting, but what about transferring a small picture on paper to a much larger canvas?
In addition to examining Van Gogh’s copies, another important step was looking at the actual prints that he used as models. Fortunately, the reproductions used by Van Gogh remained in the family after his death and ended up in the collection of the Van Gogh Museum.
Examining Van Gogh’s models
A little while ago, I paid a visit to the museum’s storage facility with my colleagues Marije Vellekoop and Birgit Reissland, equipped with magnifying glasses, cameras, tape measures and pencils (pens are not permitted in the vault containing works on paper, because they could damage the art). We examined the three kinds of reproductions: wood engravings, drypoints and photographs.
Sure enough, on some prints there were grids that Van Gogh had probably drawn over the pictures. Along the edges of the print reproduced below (The plough, A. Delauney after J.F. Millet) you can see the dots made by Van Gogh as a first step, to mark the distances between the grid lines. He then drew lines connecting the dots to create a regular grid pattern.
What does this grid tell us, exactly, about Vincent’s working methods? How was it used in the copying process? And how did the end result, Vincent’s copy, actually look? Find out in the next post in this series, coming soon!