a. Hofje van Nieuwkoop, where the Pulchri studio was located.   

b. Entrance to the almshouses. 

c. Former location of the hospital where Van Gogh was treated.

d. e. The poorhouses opposite the hospital, which Van Gogh was keen to draw. 


1.  ‘Pulchri Studio, The Hague, the Netherlands’,

2. Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Van Gogh, The Life, (London: Profile Books, 2012), p. 303.

3. Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Van Gogh, The Life, (London: Profile Books, 2012), p. 307.

4. Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Van Gogh, The Life, (London: Profile Books, 2012), p. 323.

5. Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Van Gogh, The Life, (London: Profile Books, 2012), p. 324.
015. THE HAGUE | THE NETHERLANDS | 17/09/21 

Goodbye to The Hague

At last, the last leg of my trip to The Hague. Van Gogh lived in the city for two years, I was only here for the day. How much can such a short trip convey?  

City’s changed since Van Gogh was here, naturally, and my memory of this day, now a year(!) ago, has faded. The hours I spent in the city now seem like minutes, foreshortened by a second lockdown, and then a third, fear of disease and loss of control and belated vaccinations, scares of having infected other people and just too, too many series on Netflix.

In October 1881, Van Gogh became a member of the Pulchri Studio, an artists’ society giving its members the opportunity to practise life drawing.1 At the time, the studio was located in a room at the Hofje van Nieuwkoop, a ten-minute walk from the Geest. Pictures I saw online show an idyllic garden courtyard surrounded by almshouses, but when I got there all the doors were closed and the only thing I could see from the outside was an endless brick wall with small windows in it.

It’s hard to get a feel for Van Gogh’s presence in places such as this. Besides, there was the hospital, on the opposite side of the street, white canvas tents erected outside its entrance, ‘CORONA’ spelled out in big fat letters, black arrows, a constant coming and going of cars. A strange atmosphere, tense but also kind of weary, hospital staff eating their lunch outside on the kerb.

Becoming a Pulchri member enabled Van Gogh to meet other artists, but the studio’s focus on life drawing must also have contributed to his increasing alienation from Theo, who had been urging his brother for some time to turn to the more commercially viable practice of landscape painting.2 Van Gogh kept insisting on drawing, figures mostly, all in black and white.

Family relationships deteriorated, a red thread running through his years in The Hague. Another source of discord was Van Gogh’s stated intention to marry Sien, the pregnant prostitute with whom he had been living. Such a plan was, as might have been expected, unacceptable to Van Gogh’s brother and their parents, and his repeated refusals to turn her away increased his isolation until not only his family but also his fellow artists and acquaintances refused to visit him.

‘One would like to go and see some friend or would like a friend to come to the house,’ he wrote. ‘One has an empty feeling when one can go nowhere and nobody comes.’3

The words resonate. I sat down near a statue of a nurse tending to ailing men, nibbled on the sandwiches I made that morning. Two metres of space between me and the next person, bubbles of loneliness.

Meanwhile, as Van Gogh confronted his increasing isolation, he also still had not managed to sell any of his work. Life took on ‘the colour of dishwater’.4 As his biographers diagnose:

The disgrace of repeated failures haunted him. ‘One gets a feeling of guilt, of shortcoming, of not keeping one’s promises,’ he wrote. (…) When his defenses slipped, he saw in the mirror a ‘leper’ of incompetence and misfortune. (…) As the year ended, he surveyed the wreckage of his artistic project and offered Theo a humbling apology: ‘I am sorry that I have not succeeded in making a saleable drawing this year. I really do not know where the fault lies.’5

Every time I read this passage, I get drawn down into remembering when my first agent unexpectedly changed jobs and sent me an email to say our contract was terminated. I’d been trying to get represented for years, had caught other people’s expressions that said I was pretentious, spoiled, deluded even, and now it seemed like they were right. I remember it all: the shame Van Gogh speaks of, the feeling that any attempt to somehow take control of his life and improve his position was just beyond him…

I made my way towards the last stop on my list of places to visit in The Hague. Van Gogh spent a few weeks in a local hospital, suffering from gonorrhoea, and while the hospital itself has long since been torn down, the poorhouses opposite still exist. Van Gogh wanted to draw these rows of tiny houses with narrow gardens in between.  Like the almshouses where Pulchri was once located, these homes have been refurbished, and because of their character, a Dutch ideal of picturesque perfection, I suspect they sell for extraordinary amounts. But originally they were for the very poorest people, and I dutifully took pictures.

I looked across the water, where the hospital once must have been, tried to imagine what it was like - but that’s what it remained: imagining.

Familial and financial pressure finally made Van Gogh decide to go to Drenthe, a rural province where life and models would be cheaper, where affluent artists went on sketching trips. He left Sien and her children behind.

I turned away. Walked back towards the station, my parked car, passed people with masks, people without.

Comments? Questions?
︎ eightytoninety

© Viola van de Sandt, 2021.