a. Plaats 20, former location of Goupil.  

b. Goupil & Cie, facade c. 1901 and 1905, Haags Gemeentearchief, from

c. Geest, The Hague 


1.  Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Van Gogh, The Life, (London: Profile Books, 2012), p. 264.

2.Young Vincent’, Van Gogh Museum. 

3. Anyone know whether loo roll was a thing in the 1880s - and whether Van Gogh used it or any other kind of receptacle?

4. ‘Sien Hoornik II, The Hague, the Netherlands’,


Goupil to Geest

Back from hiatus, so back I go to my day in The Hague. Seeing as this project has lain dormant for a few months, I now confront the task of writing about a walk I took through The Hague last year, in September.

Right. I did take notes, and a fair few pictures, so these should ease the strain a little. I left my faithful reader at the Binnenhof, where the bookseller Jozef Blok had his market stall, where Van Gogh splurged on twenty-one volumes of The Graphic. I’ve been walking for a few hours by this point, saw the location of his former homes and studios, the Royal Academy. The sun’s been shining all the while, it is unseasonably warm, and I realise there are a lot of hip people in The Hague. They’re sashaying around in fancy suits that fit beautifully, soft stone greys over cognac-coloured shoes, or all in black with sunglasses to match, wide trousers that end just above the ankle, bright flaring tops, posh handbags, slim bodies.

Meanwhile, having set out when rain was coming down in buckets, I, wearing sensible jeans, a tee, a woollen sweater, a long coat that I’m struggling to get out of, am sweating like a pig, and look like I’ve walked straight off the potato field.

Well. It is thematic, at least.

During the last decade of his life, which he devoted to his art, Van Gogh lived in The Hague for two years. The city was filled with family, most of them very wealthy, yet because of Van Gogh’s propensity for rows with anyone and everyone, his existence here resembled that of an outcast.1 He moved here after a row with his family, mainly because the famous painter Anton Mauve had offered to give him lessons. This was a very rare opportunity, as Mauve was known to prefer to work alone. Yet I imagine that the city itself must have also carried a connotation of failure to Van Gogh.

He’d lived here before: when he was sixteen, Van Gogh became a trainee at the local branch of the international art dealer Goupil & Cie.2  Things went well in the beginning, a promising start to a new career, but after a few years and transfers to London and Paris, his superiors at Goupil dismissed him, and Van Gogh’s traineeship became the first in a long line of vocations that petered out before they could come to fruition. His failure to hold down a job and provide for himself is the prevalent theme of Van Gogh’s life before he became an artist. The hurt must have been exacerbated by the fact that it was his younger brother Theo who took up the job at Goupil and quickly rose through the ranks. And eventually it was the younger brother who financially supported the older brother, not the other way around.

It rankles, this part of Van Gogh’s life. Back when I first took an interest in Van Gogh, when I had finished my degrees and written two books and failed to find an agent, a way to make a living, I couldn’t bear to read these chapters of the Naifeh biography without taking several long pauses in between.

So while it might fall outside the remit of this project, I decide to take a look at the place where Goupil used to be located. As far as I can tell, the building at Plaats 20 is still more or less the same, although the ground floor now houses a clothes shop and the facade was replaced in 1905, so fifteen years after Van Gogh’s death. Like in some old photographs of the building, pillars still flank the entrance and the windows, yet the whole’s been jazzed up a little, “art-nouveau’ed”, and this ‘Boston Trader’ has turned the front into a monstrosity.

Ah, but look at those people sitting in the sun, together (groups of more than one!), enjoying drinks and dips, and waiters allowed to make a living!

Next up, a number of shops where Van Gogh bought art supplies. Here is where the writing gets tricky. I remember ambling through the centre of town in September and being quite underwhelmed with this part of the day’s proceedings. The buildings themselves are still there, mostly, though their facades have also been inexcusably ruined, but for the rest? They’re just shops, different shops these days. There’s the spot where Stam used to be, for instance, where Van Gogh bought his drawing paper. Today it houses a parfumier’s. There’s Leurs, another art shop, now a nondescript building with a single cigarette, a bottle of booze and a roll of tape in its shop window. It’s all bland, and proverbially beige, and though I made a lot of notes on these shops, I don’t find any of it particularly interesting.

One can only go so far with this following-the-footsteps thing. Let us not sink into inanity and see where Van Gogh bought his loo roll.3

On the other hand, I guess there’s something to be said for including not just the ‘great’ or ‘significant’ in any kind of life writing, but also the mundane. Mundanity is the bread and butter of a life. Why not include the body, the groceries, the bills?

The prostitutes, for that matter? Van Gogh was a regular customer, after all, yet the route I’m following today, which I found on, makes no mention of the Geest district, where these ladies were to be found during Van Gogh’s time. I’m not familiar with the city, but as I make my way to the next stop on my list I chance upon a street sign, take a detour. I walk down the Geest, but everything’s changed, the buildings are all reasonably new, neat, all the old stuff torn down.

It annoys me how, in all the histories and biographies I’ve read, the number of women who worked as prostitutes is listed, never the number of men who bought sex from them. By mistake I walk into a street with the name Slijkeinde, which in English would mean something like ‘sludge’s end’ and remember this is where Sien’s mother lived after  Sien and her new baby moved in to Van Gogh’s studio. Again, nothing’s left. ‘Urban renewal’, they call it.4 I’m sure it’s just as well.

Comments? Questions?
︎ eightytoninety

© Viola van de Sandt, 2021.