a. What I was hoping for...
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 175

b. c. d. ... versus what’s left. Stationsstraat, Etten-Leur. 

e. Location of Piet Kaufmann’s home, and the house that stands there today.

f. Bench by Irene Hemelaar.  

g. Community garden. 

h. Is a caption really necessary at this point? 

i. Van Gogh square, statue by Linda Scheepers at its centre. 


1. 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 159

2. In fact, Van Gogh did enrol as a student shortly after writing this letter, though he only stayed in Brussels for a few months before leaving for Etten. While considering his enrollment, he wrote to Theo: ‘I think I should in fact do something about getting admitted to that drawing academy, although I don’t particularly like the idea. Tuition is free here in Brussels (...) and one can work in an adequately heated and lighted room, which is worth thinking about, especially for the winter.’
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 160

3. Van Gogh also made copies of other pictures, famously Millet’s Sower, and kept doing drawing exercises from books. 

4. Not to worry: it’s an ‘arresting observation’, not a sponsorship.  

In search of something pollarded

When Van Gogh first decided to become an artist, back in Belgium in the summer of 1880, his original plan was to be an illustrator:

But my goal must, for the moment at least, remain to learn as quickly as possible to do presentable and saleable drawings, so that I’ll begin to earn an income directly through my work. Because such indeed is the necessity that is imposed upon me.1

The ‘but’ here refers to the suggestion made to him at the time of enrolling at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Brussels.Van Gogh seems to discern a dichotomy between a formal artistic education and the ability to make money... but let’s leave that whole discussion to the philosophers and the biographers and the people putting together the curriculum.

What I’m trying to write towards, in a very roundabout way, is the kind of thing Van Gogh drew in Etten to develop his skills. As I understand it, he mainly drew pictures of the locals - poor people working the land, sewing, knitting, the famous one of an old man sitting by the fireplace, head in his hands - and landscapes.3 In Etten he drew windmills, fields, swamps, and most famously, pollard willows. 

He made several drawings of the pollards. They’re beautiful, a kind of precursors to the cypresses he drew in France. Early icons. He drew most of them in the Leursestraat, now the Stationsstraat and the Baai, just off the Markt, which is naturally where I’m headed. It’s a one-minute walk, but when I turn the corner the first thing I see is a phone repair shop advertising prepaid SIM cards and Lycamobile’s imperative to ‘Call the world for less’.4

A little further down the street, passing houses on both sides, trees flanking the pavement but they’re the normal kind, fully formed, definitely not pollards, look left and you can see the catholic Lambertus church, much bigger than the protestant one where Van Gogh’s father worked. Etten was a predominantly catholic town at the time, so I guess the size is proportional.

Anyway, the pollards. I could offer a fine description of the street I walked along, the kind of houses, the cars, could do some research and find out precisely what kind of trees did line that pavement - but long story short, the pollards aren’t there any more. And the street is just a street. 

Another thing that isn’t there any more is Piet Kaufmann’s home. Kaufmann worked as a gardener for the Van Gogh household, and acted as a model for many of Vincent’s drawings, among them Boy cutting grass with a sickle. The farmhouse where Kaufmann was born is pictured on my map, but the house that stands on the site today bears no resemblance to it. And as I stand here, sweating like mad and the sun burning its imprint on my back, I think there hardly could have been a house less like the Kaufmann farm.e

Onwards, then, towards the school and the bench in front of it. Its’s a bench with a mosaic inspired by Van Gogh’s 1888 Memory of the garden at Etten, now part of the collection of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. It shows three women, presumably his mother, his sister Wil and a maid, in the garden of the vicarage. It’s a strange painting compared to the rest of Van Gogh’s oevre, in that it looks more like something Paul Gauguin would have painted. The latter for a short time lived and worked with Van Gogh in Arles, in the autumn of 1888. Indeed, Van Gogh made this picture after Gauguin insisted he shouldn’t just paint what he saw, but paint from memory. 

The bench makes clear to me why I’m so happy to be in Etten-Leur today. Although many of its landmarks have disappeared, or changed beyond recognition, the town honours its connection to Van Gogh. I walk on, past a community garden of some sort, sunflowers behind a wire fence, a sign over the entrance bearing the man’s name, and then on again, towards the Vincent van Gogh square which has, as far as I’m aware, nothing to do with Van Gogh except the name, and a sculpture at its centre. Two parking lots, a square of houses, a statue, two benches.

What’s left of Van Gogh’s life in Etten-Leur is sparse, yes, but his work, the brief time he spent here, is not forgotten. I sit down on the bench for a moment, enjoy the shade of the small tree behind me. Its branches have been pollarded, I think, twisting round to check, slugging water, and though I’m pretty sure it’s not a willow, it’s the closest I’ve come to one. 

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© Viola van de Sandt, 2021.