a. Signpost outside the Van Gogh church. 

b. The mulberry tree, locally known as the ‘moeierboom’ (awkward translation: ‘mother tree’). 

c. The bench built around the trunk, as yet abandoned.

d. The town hall, where Van Gogh first registered as an artist. Right next to it, on the left, the small chapel. 


1. At least, those that are still known today. Van Gogh made over 300 drawings in Etten, and only around 80 have been preserved. Some of the drawings that have been lost, Van Gogh himself destroyed. Others were used as packaging, or given away for free to patrons of a local pub when they ordered a beer. (J.A. Rozemeyer, Van Gogh in Etten, Stichting Vincent van Gogh Etten-Leur, 1990, p. 67)

2. Rebecca Nelemans and Ron Dirven, The Sower, Gateway to a career, Vincent van Gogh in Etten, Lewedorp: Uitgeverij Van Kemenade, 2020, p. 162

3. J.A. Rozemeyer, Van Gogh in Etten, Stichting Vincent van Gogh Etten-Leur, 1990, pp. 47, 84. 

4. Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten, Nienke Bakker (eds.) (2009), Vincent van Gogh - The Letters. Version: January 2020. Amsterdam & The Hague: Van Gogh Museum & Huygens ING. Letter 166. 

The mulberry tree

Outside the church, there’s a signpost, red on white. Zevenbergen, where a young Van Gogh went to boarding school, and Zundert, where he’d been born, in 1853. The signpost’s for cyclists. Van Gogh’s childhood, unlike his later life, happened on a small scale, in a relatively small area. 

Etten-Leur was a small town even when Van Gogh lived here. There were fewer buildings, I’m sure. Pictures and postcards of the time show a lot of empty space where today, as I walk through the centre of the town, there are mostly buildings. The drawings Van Gogh made in the area when he lived here in 1881, are of rural landscapes, local peasants.1

Some things survive, though, and not just buildings either. There’s a beautiful tree in the very centre of the Markt, a mulberry tree, which my map informs me was planted in 1675 (give or take a few). It was there when Van Gogh lived here, and it’s here now, strung through with fairy lights, branches growing along a horizontal iron frame, a circular bench built right around its trunk. It’s empty now, at noon, but when I leave here at the end of the day, after finally visiting the church, the bench is full of young people, eating ice creams from across the way.

There’s a drawing Van Gogh made of a tree that looks very, very similar. For a long time, it was thought that it represented the tree in Etten-Leur, but based on style, technique and the kind of paper that was used, it’s now generally considered that Van Gogh drew this picture in an apple orchard in Drenthe.2 A place to visit later on. 

It’s nebulous, I think, as I stand beneath the tree delighting in the shady shelter it provides, looking up at the sunlight dribbling, drizzling through the branches, the swaying leaves. It’s nebulous, all of it, this trip, this whole project, the premise of it. There’s a tree, yes, and it’s beautiful, and Van Gogh saw it too, and perhaps he drew it, but probably not, and what else is there to infer from this mulberry bit? It’s just a tree, it doesn’t speak, doesn’t share its memories. 

Again, I’m daunted. After the mire of the past years, the sodden, muzzy labour that was my last novel, writing a blog like this seemed a very concrete thing. Based in reality, on things I could see, places I could visit. Now that I’ve that started, this project is promising to be as opaque as writing the novel was, probably as any creative undertaking is. 

I check the map. The person who made this has been optimistic: out of the twenty-five locations listed, about half bear a direct connection to Van Gogh, and only half of those look anything like they might have done at the time. Across the road there’s the Raadhuis, of course, the former town hall where Van Gogh first registered as an artist. That one’s still there. There’s the tiny chapel right next to it, built, at the time the Van Gogh family lived there, to keep the town’s fire engine.   
Not much of the Etten of Van Gogh’s time is left. Similarly, most of the subjects of his drawings have disappeared, or their exact locations can no longer be determined.3 I’m beginning to suspect it might be the theme of this blog, or one of its early variations, searching for a past that’s just gone.

Regardlessly, I’ll take a walk through the rest of Etten-Leur, see what’s there, and what isn’t. After all, Van Gogh was in Etten to learn his trade, and I’m here learning how to start this project, so it’s fitting in a way. ‘I’m very glad indeed that it’s been arranged for me to work here quietly for a while,’ Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo in his first letter from Etten, ‘I hope to make as many studies as I possibly can, for that’s the seed from which later drawings will grow.’4

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© Viola van de Sandt, 2021.