Friday, July 30, 2010

Van Gogh in London: Happiness and then the Long Decline

The young Vincent

Vincent van Gogh moved to London in May 1873 as the result of a posting for his job in the same firm (Goupil) as his brother Theo worked.

He lived intermittently in the city until 1876.

From August 1873 to August 1874, he had lodgings at 87 Hackford Road, in the then very fashionable London suburb of Brixton. His landlady was Ursula Loyer and her daughter Eugenie. They ran a small school at their home. Theo's wife later remarked that this was the happiest year of Vincent's life.

87 Hackford Road, Brixton

He walked daily to Goupil's office in Covent Garden in an astonishing 45 minutes.

He spent Christmas 1873 with the Loyer family. He became attached to Eugenie. In early August 1874 he declared his love to Eugenie but unfortunately he was rejected. She was already secretly engaged to a former lodger, He moved. However the romantic rejection by his landlady’s daughter shook Vincent’s trust in the world and helped to turn him towards religion as a form of consolation. (In fact it was at a church in Richmond that he delivered his first sermon)

To his credit he still maintained his connection with the Loyers family. On 25th November 1876, Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo that he visited Mrs Moyer for her 61st birthday:

"then to Clapham to visit Mrs Loyer again, her birthday was the day before. She is indeed a widow in whose heart the psalms of David and the chapters of Isaiah are not dead but sleeping. Her name is written in the book of life."

While in London he read a great deal of English literature. He read novels by Charles Dickens (1812–1870) and George Eliot (1819–1880) with increasing enthusiasm. Millais became an enthusiasm.

He also read the poetry of John Keats

Pictures and books were the young man`s meat and drink

In the following letter written by him to Willem and Caroline van Stockum-Haanebeek. on Thursday, 7 August 1873, Vincent shows his cultural enthusiasms:

"London, 7 August 1873

My dear friends,

It was a very pleasant surprise for me to receive Caroline’s letter. Thank you.

I sincerely hope that she’s now completely better; fortunately, it’s past. When you write again sometime I must hear more about that last piece you made. I was truly astounded by it; for 10 people, that’s surely the biggest you’ve done.

The last few days I’ve enjoyed reading the poems of John Keats; he’s a poet who isn’t very well known in Holland, I believe. He’s the favourite of the painters here, and that’s how I came to be reading him. Herewith something by him. His most famous piece is ‘St Agnes’ eve’, but it’s rather too long to copy out.

I haven’t yet been to the Crystal Palace and the Tower, nor to Tussauds; I’m not at all in a hurry to go and see everything. For the time being I have enough with the museums, parks, &c., which attract me more.

I had a nice day last Monday. The first Monday in Aug. is a holiday here. I went with one of the Germans to Dulwich, an hour and a half outside L., to see the museum there, and afterwards we walked to a village about an hour further on.

The countryside here is so beautiful; many people who have their business in L. live in some village or other outside L. and come to the city every day by train. Perhaps I’ll soon be doing that as well, if I can find a cheap room somewhere. But I find moving so terrible that I’ll stay here as long as possible, though things aren’t as nice here as they seemed at first. Perhaps this is my fault, so I’ll wait a little longer.

...Yours truly,
Cheer me up soon with a letter if you can find the time."

The Dulwich Picture Gallery is Britain’s oldest public gallery with a famous collection of seventeenth-century paintings. It houses one of the world's most important collections of European old master paintings of the 1600s and 1700s. On Monday, 4 August, 1873 Vincent wrote his signature ‘VWvanGogh the Hague’ in the visitor’s book. The Gallery  is one of London`s hidden treasures.

Camille Pissarro (10 July 1830 – 13 November 1903), the French Impressionist painter had to flee France after the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. He and his family found refuge in London and settled at 77a Westow Hill in Upper Norwood (today better known as Crystal Palace).

Through the paintings Pissarro completed at this time, he records Sydenham and the Norwoods and the surrounding areas at a time when they were just recently connected by railways, but prior to the expansion of suburbia. Some of the areas painted by Pissarro are the areas which Vincent explored in his walks. See below

Camille Pissarro, (1830–1903)
Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich 1871
Oil on canvas
Height: 44.5 cm (canvas); width: 72.5 cm (canvas); height: 67.5 cm (frame); width: 96.5 cm (frame); depth: 10.3 cm (frame)
The Courtauld Gallery, London

Camille Pissarro, (1830–1903)
Near Sydenham Hill 1871
Oil on canvas
17 x 21 in. (43.5 x 53.5 cm)
Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
The vantage point is just north of Sydenham Hill Station, looking toward West Norwood Cemetery

Camille Pissarro, (1830–1903)
The Avenue, Sydenham (Crystal Palace)1871
Gouache on pencil
15 x 24.6 cm
Musée du Louvre département des Arts graphiques, Paris

Camille Pissarro, (1830–1903)
The Avenue, Sydenham 1871
Oil on canvas
48 x 73 cm
The National Gallery, London

Camille Pissarro, (1830–1903)
Fox Hill, Upper Norwood 1870
Oil on canvas
35.3 x 45.7 cm
The National Gallery, London

With the letter to Willem and Caroline van Stockum-Haanebeek Vincent had copied out in his own hand two poems by Keats including :

"John Keats (1818)

The imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream; ‘he awoke and found it truth’.


Season of mist, and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend to the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’erbrimm’d their clammy cells.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft.
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden croft,
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies."

In his transcription, Vincent omitted the middle stanza of the original (11 lines of verse, a personification of Autumn).

English painters – especially the Pre-Raphaelites – regularly depicted themes from the works of Keats

The following painting brings to mind Keats` depiction of Autumn. Perhaps the stanzas of Keats flitted through Vincent`s mind as he painted

Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890)
Wheat Field with Reaper at Sunrise
September 1889
Oil on canvas
74 × 92 cm
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

But on further examination, it appears that sadly Keats` optimistic and tranquil celebration of Autumn has become distorted through the prism of a tragic illness. Of this painting Vincent wrote to his brother Theo:

‘A reaper, the study is all yellow, terribly thickly impasted, but the subject was beautiful and simple. I then saw in this reaper … the image of death … in this sense that humanity would be the wheat being reaped. … But in this death nothing sad, it takes place in broad daylight with a sun that floods everything with a light of fine gold.’
Vincent to Theo, 5–6 September 1889

In 1875, his family spoke of him as being ‘different’ and were worried about his religious fanaticism, which would continue for a few years yet.

In the period when he still wanted to become a clergyman, his father did not know what to make of the endless epistles riddled with quotations from the Bible. They used the word ‘worry’ a great deal when speaking of their eldest son.

In 1876, he was dismissed from his employment.

His father wrote in a letter to Theo:

‘In London he paid a visit to a minister whose services he used to attend, thereby attempting to secure a situation in the church (albeit not as a preacher). There was talk of missionary work in London amongst the poor, but that fell through because he doesn’t meet the minimum age requirement. There was also talk of missionary work in South America. I cannot perceive from his letter any true desire for it on his part. When this is not paramount, I should call it great folly. And in the end a very costly undertaking, which would surely come to nothing for want of proper training, and mean returning home at great expense’

The sense of drift, hopelessness, false sentiment based on literary romanticism is evident from Vincent`s letters at the time. At the same time one is aware of a great and acute intelligence, paralysed and unable to convert his thought and faith into true and proper action. Was this someone who needed proper spiritual direction ? Or was it someone bobbing amongst a myriad of separate and unconnected Protestant churches and societies believing he had a religious vocation and without any insight that he was in the grip of a severe mental affliction ? The latter is the more likely.

The depression is palpable. His family must have been distressed at seeing how such a great and talented man appeared to be torturing himself.

Here is one letter by Vincent to his brother, Theo dated 4 July 1876 and written when Vincent was in Isleworth:

"My dear Theo,

There may well come a time when I look back with a certain nostalgia on the ‘excesses of Egypt’` connected with other situations, namely earning more money and being in many respects of more consequence in the world – this I foresee. There is however ‘bread enough and to spare’` in the houses I’ll be visiting as I continue down the road I’ve taken, but not money to spare.

And yet I so clearly see light in the distance, and if that light disappears now and then it’s mostly my own fault.

It’s very questionable whether I’ll go far in this profession, whether those 6 years spent in the firm of Messrs Goupil & Co., during which I should have been training for this situation, won’t always be a thorn in my flesh, as it were.

I believe, however, that on no account can I turn back now, even if part of me should wish to (later, this isn’t the case now). These days it seems to me that there are no situations in the world other than those ranging from schoolmaster to clergyman and everything in between: missionary, ‘London missionary’ and so on

Being a London missionary is rather special, I believe; one has to go around among the workers and the poor spreading God’s word and, if one has some experience, speak to them, track down and seek to help foreigners looking for work, or other people who are in some sort of difficulty, etc. etc. Last week I was in London a couple of times to find out if there’s a possibility of my becoming one. Because I speak various languages and have tended to associate, especially in Paris and London, with people from the poorer classes and foreigners, and being a foreigner myself, I may well be suited to this, and could become so more and more.

To do this, however, one has to be at least 24 years old, and so in any case I still have a year to wait.

Mr Stokes says he definitely cannot give me a salary, for he can get plenty of people who’ll work for board and lodging alone, which is certainly true. But can that be kept up for long? I’m afraid not; it will be decided soon enough.

But, old boy, no matter what the case, I think I can tell you this again, that these couple of months have bound me so closely to the sphere ranging from schoolmaster to clergyman, both through satisfactions associated with those situations and through thorns that have pricked me, that I can no longer turn back.

Onward, then! But I can assure you that very distinct difficulties will present themselves very soon, and others are visible on the horizon, and as if one is in a different world from the firm of Messrs Goupil & Co.

Will I be getting the small engravings (like those Pa and Ma have) of Christus Consolator and Remunerator that you promised me? Write soon if you can find a moment, but send your letter to Pa and Ma, because my address may change soon and Pa and Ma will be the first to know.

Last week I was at Hampton Court to see the splendid gardens and long avenues of chestnut and lime trees where masses of crows and rooks have their nests, and also to see the palace and the paintings. There are, among other things, many portraits by Holbein which are very beautiful, and two beautiful Rembrandts (the portrait of his wife and one of a rabbi), and also beautiful Italian portraits by Bellini, Titian, a painting by Leonardo da Vinci, cartoons by Mantegna, a beautiful painting by S. Ruysdael, fruit by Cuyp and so on and so forth.

I rather wished that you could have been there too; it was a pleasure to see paintings again.

And I couldn’t help thinking vividly of the people who have lived at Hampton Court, of Charles I and his wife (she was the one who said ‘I thank Thee, God, for having made me Queen, though an unhappy Queen’, and at whose graveside Bossuet spoke from the abundance of his heart. Do you have ‘Bossuet, Oraisons funèbres’, you’ll find that eulogy there, there’s a very cheap edition, 50 centimes, I think), and also of Lord and Lady Russell, who would certainly have gone there often. (Guizot described their life in L’amour dans le mariage. Read that sometime if you can get hold of it.) Herewith a feather from one of the rooks there.

Do write soon if you can, I’m longing to hear from you, and believe me, after a handshake in thought

Your loving brother

Despite my feeling that I am inadequate and that in many respects I lack the qualifications necessary for the situation I have and for the related situation I have my eye on, I nevertheless have at the same time such a feeling of thankfulness, of hope and of something like deliverance! and freedom! despite all kinds of bonds, and the thought of God – despite new shortcomings that occur to me – stays with me more strongly and longer."