If you think the Van Gogh Museum’s collection is a closed, static set of objects, think again. Our collection is constantly in flux, and as an assistant curator, I experience its growth and development from close by. We recently purchased two works that enhance the collection, and I am pleased to present them to you here.
In the research project Van Gogh’s Studio Practice, we examine how Van Gogh’s working methods and techniques relate to those of his contemporaries. In our work as curators at the museum, we also try to place Van Gogh in context, by exhibiting his paintings and drawings alongside those of his artistic peers and predecessors. This introduces our visitors to the artists who inspired Van Gogh. For this purpose, we draw mainly on the museum’s core collection, which comes from the Van Gogh family and has been on permanent loan to the Vincent van Gogh Foundation since 1962. This collection has some ‘missing links’; in other words, when we try to tell the full story of Van Gogh’s artistic career, we sometimes notice gaps. We then try to purchase works that fill these gaps. Two such missing links are the painting The Haymaking, Éragny and the gouache Cowgirl in morning sun, both by Camille Pissarro (1830-1903). They round out the story of Van Gogh’s experiments in colour and technique. The two works are executed in a Pointillist style, with small dots of paint applied systematically in a variety of bright hues. The aim was to render light and colour more intensely.
Van Gogh and Pointillism
With a date of 1887, these works fall precisely within Van Gogh’s Paris period (1886-1888), when, inspired by modern French art, he boldly experimented with brighter colours and new painting techniques. Although Van Gogh regarded Pointillism as the most important development in art at that time, he did not become a strict follower of the movement. Compared to Georges Seurat and Paul Seurat, the developers of this painting technique, he adopted a less systematic and precise method. Van Gogh used a freer brushstroke and combined long and short strokes, as we can see in his painting Garden with courting couples: Square Saint-Pierre (1887). In this respect, he was following the example of the experienced painter Camille Pissarro, whom he had met in Paris. Over the years Pissarro became a kind of mentor to Van Gogh.
Camille Pissarro and the Van Gogh brothers
The bond between Van Gogh and Pissarro was all the stronger because Vincent’s brother Theo promoted Pissarro’s Pointillist works. Theo van Gogh was an art dealer, and The Haymaking, Éragny was one of the first paintings he purchased from Pissarro in the summer of 1887. The very day he bought the painting, he found a buyer for it. The painting depicts the activity of haymaking in the rural village of Éragny, where Pissarro lived from 1884 until his death in 1903. The haystacks and figures create a dynamic composition, reinforced by the energetic brushstrokes in the sky. Pissarro’s keen sense of colour contrasts is evident from his treatment of the bales of hay in the foreground. Van Gogh must have admired these effects, especially if he saw the painting at his brother’s gallery before it was sold. This is a very real possibility.