a. Vincent van Gogh, Marsh with water lilies, June 1881, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond.  

b. Anthon van Rappard, The Passievaart near Seppe, June 1881, Centraal Museum, Utrecht.

c. One of the entrances to the Oude Leemput.

d. It’s a track. 

e. A hint of marsh? 

f. Road’s barred, now to turn back.


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 168.

2. Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Van Gogh, The Life, London: Profile Books, 2011-2012, pp. 234-235. 


No marsh, no water lilies 

Last stop on my map of Van Gogh’s Etten, before I head to the church later this afternoon, is nature reserve ‘De Oude Leemput’. Here, he drew Marsh with water lilies, which is in my opinion one of the finest landscapes he made during his time in Etten.

He made this drawing in the company of Anthon van Rappard, a young, bourgeouis, wealthy painter from Utrecht. Van Rappard stayed at the vicarage in Etten for about a fortnight, and together they went out into the countryside surrounding the town, as Van Gogh reported to Theo:

We went on a fair number of excursions together, several times to the heath at Seppe, among other places, and the so-called Passievaart, a huge marsh. There Rappard painted a large study (1 metre x 50 cm), much of which was good. Incidentally, he made around 10 small sepias, also in the Liesbos. While he was painting I made a pen drawing of another spot in the marsh where many water lilies grow. (Near Roosendaalseweg.)1

It’s a wonderfully illuminating thing to do, comparing the drawings Van Gogh and Van Rappard made of the same view. The latter places the horizon in the middle of the sheet, focusing mostly on the distant town. Van Gogh instead focuses on the plants, the reeds, the minutiae of water life. There’s a beautiful passage in the biography by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, who write: 

Vincent looked out across the same swampy vista and cast his eyes downward. Pushing the horizon almost to the top of his much larger sheet, he relegated the town to insignificance and fixed his gaze on the teeming water at his feet: a tangled world of reeds, flowers, lily pads, and leaves, each with its own slant or arc, its own shape and shade, its own cross-hatched reflection on the still surface of the sunlit bog. With a manic vehemence not taught in any exercise book, he filled the bottom of the sheet with clusters of dots, random dark spots, floating circles, and meandering lines in an effort to render the bottomless fecundity that he knew so well from the banks of the Grote Beek.2

This description, even when I first read it, brought me a little bit closer to understanding some small part of Van Gogh’s creativity, his way of seeing the world, the nature of his work. How he differed from someone like Van Rappard, who was a successful painter during his life, of whom barely anyone has heard today, or at least whose fame does not compare in any way to Van Gogh’s. 

So it would be brilliant to see where the two of them made these pictures. Perhaps something’s remained of it, some recognisable fragments. It’s too hot to walk, to be honest - I wasn’t made for weather like this, don’t particularly enjoy walking, and forgot to wear sunscreen - but it would be worth it. 

I lose my way. Lose my notes too, somewhere. Turn back, retrace my steps past plain houses, large villas, large front gardens, manicured to perfection, finally find a tiny sign beside a very narrow trail, prohibiting motorcycles, bikes and horses from entering. 

The park’s as narrow as the trail, it turns out. From the winding tracks squint either right or left and you can make out the shapes of houses looming, cars passing, people talking in their gardens, the smell of meat on barbeques, the fumes of traffic. Trees have fallen down across the path, trunks turning it into an obstacle course, and here and there a small pool of water, some reed at the edges, a fence thrown in on its side, half-submerged.

There’s no marsh to be found here. Besides, this park is far too small: no room for a view like that on the drawings. Finally, a large tangle of branches, trunks, raw wood both lying criss-cross across the path and dangling overhead, making a creak like an old door opening, closing, gusts of wind turning the sound into an ominous thing. It doesn’t feel quite sensible to stand here just below, and to my right, at the edge of the park, a man in sunglasses staring in my direction. I turn back. Brackish water, leaves rotting, the smell of a forest, and the niggling beginnings of frustration, a growing uncertainty. 

I thought it might be a bit more straightforward, writing this blog after writing that last novel, but the process begins to take a similar shape. The joy of a hopeful beginning, enthusiasm and the belief, despite the nervousness, in eventual success, and then, always sooner than I’d expected, the mire or, in this case, its lack.

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© Viola van de Sandt, 2021.