a. Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait, 1886.

b. Vincent van Gogh, Sorrow, 1882, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation). Sien was the model for this drawing. 


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 194.
2. Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Van Gogh, The Life, London: Profile Books, 2011-2012, p. 252. 

3. Naifeh and Smith, p. 253.

4. Naifeh and Smith, p. 271.

5. Naifeh and Smith, p. 264.

6. Naifeh and Smith, p. 266.

7. Naifeh and Smith, p. 283.

8. 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 260.

9. Naifeh and Smith, p. 319.

10. Naifeh and Smith, p. 324.
11. Naifeh and Smith, p. 344.
i-002. THE HAGUE | THE NETHERLANDS | 9/11/20 

Interlude: a very brief biography 

It has recently occurred to me that to readers who are less familiar with the particulars of Van Gogh’s life story, the snippets of biographical info which I sprinkle over every post might appear disjointed. Before I begin to write a new series of posts about Van Gogh’s time in The Hague, here therefore a brief overview of what the man was up to. 

Short disclaimer: as my intention for this project is to explore Van Gogh’s creativity and very specifically not to write a biography, I will here basically offer a very condensed summary of the relevant chapters in Naifeh and Smith’s Van Gogh, The Life. I am not doing my own research for this post, nor am I going back to the source material.

Well then. Van Gogh arrived in The Hague on Christmas Day, 1881. The date is significant - Christmas was of course important to the Van Gogh family, and Vincent himself had some years ago lost a job when he left to be with his family over the holidays, and hadn’t asked for furlough. He was nostalgic and extremely sentimental about Christmas, and the family gathering it entailed. He wouldn’t have ever wanted to miss it.

But he did. He left after a terrible row with his father. It enveloped many things, as the worst - and best - rows do, but it started with the fact that Van Gogh had refused to go to church over the holidays. This was quite the change of heart: just four years before, he ardently professed his desire to study theology, filling letter after letter after letter with gospel and sermons. He recounted the row to Theo: 

Things actually came to a head because I didn’t go to church, and also said that if going to church was something forced and I had to go to church, I’d most certainly never go again, not even out of politeness, as I’ve been doing fairly regularly the whole time I’ve been in Etten.1

The fight escalated ‘until the entire landscape of the previous four years was engulfed in a firestorm of guilt and recrimination’. It ended when his father ordered his eldest son to leave the house and not to return. ‘As he left, he heard the door lock behind him.’2

Van Gogh went to Anton Mauve, who for a short time in November had taught him to work with watercolour. He turned up unannounced at the famous painter’s house, resumed his apprenticeship, borrowed money from him to rent a room nearby. 

Defying his father’s accusations of profligacy, he spent extravagantly on decorating it. In a brazen declaration of his intent to stay, he filled it with furniture he had purchased, not rented. He bought a raft of new prints to ornament the walls, and flowers for the table. Within a week of his arrival, his last penny was gone.3 

This was a pattern. Van Gogh is often thought of as a poor painter, but in many respects he wasn’t. Theo sent him one hundred francs every month. ‘The average workman earned about twenty francs a week and often supported a whole family on that,’ say Naifeh and Smith in their biography:

While Vincent had expenses no workman did, he also received shipments of his favorite (expensive) paper from Theo, and extra income from his “sales” to Uncle Cor and Tersteeg. No, when Vincent pleaded poverty or missed rent payments, it was because he had spent his last pennies on books, or “special” penholders, or a new easel, or more models, or improvements to his apartment, or additions to his growing collection of prints and illustrations. (Five months after arrriving in The Hague, he had more than a thousand of them).4

After barely a month, Van Gogh’s apprenticeship with Mauve ended. They had a row, too. Van Gogh rowed with everyone. Arguments materialised out of nothing.5 He insisted on figure drawing, hiring models, instead of doing the watercolour landscapes his brother insisted on because they were commercially viable.

Problem was, he wasn’t very good at drawing figures: ‘bodies stretched and bent in impossible ways; faces disappeared in a blur of uncertainty’. He was constantly drawing, practising, but the way his efforts turned out made him desperate. ‘I made an absolute mess of it,’ he wrote to Theo.6 He sped up even further, making more and more drawings to increase the odds that just one of them would be good. His refusal to paint landscapes frustrated everyone around him, left him isolated in a city filled with family. The only contact he had with people was when he paid them to model for him. 

He met a pregnant prostitute, Sien Hoornik, and  supported her and her children, her mother. They began a relationship. He wanted to marry her. 

Vincent reported that other people found Sien “repulsive” and “unbearable”. (...) Years of drinking and smoking, malnutrition, multiple pregnancies, at least one miscarriage, and the wear of her nightly work had reduced her body to a “miserable condition”, according to Vincent.7
It bothers me a little, quoting a description of a disadvantaged woman written by two men, plus Van Gogh himself. But at the moment I have no access to other sources. Please write to me if you know more about her.  


In any case, Sien had her baby, and Van Gogh himself was in the hospital with venereal disease. His family was, unsurprisingly, very much against his relationship with this woman. Theo, in return for his continued financial support, demanded that Van Gogh start painting, which he did, briefly. He painted the beach at Scheveningen. He was pleased with the results: ‘painting is in my very marrow,’ he wrote.8 And then he stopped. 

He was isolated. Mocked, not just by his family and fellow artists but by people on the streets, too. His confidence collapsed. He went back to drawing with charcoal and pencil. Instead of adding colour to his work, as everyone advised him to, he went on a search for the blackest black. ‘His letters to Theo zigzagged between lofty claims of artistic integrity and solemn rededications to commercial success.’9

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 humble 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.”10

His relationship with Sien deteriorated. His debts grew. When Theo wrote that he could give his brother little hope for the future, Van Gogh wrote back:

All my troubles crowd together to overwhelm me, and it becomes too much for me because I can no longer look clearly into the future. I can’t put it any other way, and I can’t understand why I shouldn’t succeed in my work. I have put all my heart into it, and, for the moment at least, that seems to me a mistake. . . . Sometimes it becomes too hard, and one feels miserable against one’s will. . . . I am only a burden to you.11
Van Gogh had felt this way a number of times in the past. Often, he abruptly left everything behind, and moved to a new place. This time, he determined to pack up and move to Drenthe, a remote province in the north of the Netherlands, in part to emulate other artists like Anthon van Rappard, who’d gone there on a sketching trip. When Theo sent enough money for the journey, he took the train the very next day, and left Sien and her family behind. 

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© Viola van de Sandt, 2021.