"Now, if you can forgive someone for immersing himself in pictures..."
"So please don't think I am renouncing anything, I am reasonably faithful in my unfaithfulness and although I have changed, I am still the same, and what preys on my mind is simply this one question: what am I good for, could I not be of service in some way, how can I become more knowledgeable and study some subject or other in depth?"
- excerpts from a letter by Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo, July, 1880.
"Well, even in these depths of misery I felt my energy revive & said to myself, I shall get over it somehow, I shall get to work again with my pencil, which i had cast aside in my deep dejection, & I shall draw again, & ever since I have had the feeling that everything has changed for me, & now i am in my stride & my pencil has become slightly more willing & seems to be getting more so by the day. My over-long & over- intense misery had discouraged me so much hat i was unable to do anything."
"...I cannot tell you how happy I am that I have taken up drawing again. I had been thinking about it for a long time, but always considered it impossible & beyond my abilities. But now, though I continue to be conscious of my failings & of my depressing dependence on a great many things, now I have recovered my peace of mind & my energy increases by the day."
"At the same time I must tell you that I cannot remain very much longer in the little room where I live now. It is very small indeed, and then there are the two beds as well, the children's & my own. And now that I am working on Bargue's fairly large sheets I cannot tell you how difficult it is. I don't want to upset these people's domestic arrangements."
- excerpts from a letter by Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo, Cuesmes, September 24, 1880., translated from the Dutch by Arnold Pomerans in The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, New York, Penguin Books: 1996.
Cuesmes is a small village in the Walloon region of southern Belgium. Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) arrived from Amsterdam in 1878, to be a worker-priest among the coal miners of the Borinage. Emile Zola's novel Germinal (1885) is a portrait of that difficult world. In July, 1879, Van Gogh lost that job, yet another rejection for one who yearned to give of himself to other people. After great anguish, he found a spiritual vocation in art. "I must continue to follow the path I take now. If I do nothing, if I study nothing, if I cease searching, then, woe is me, I am lost. That is how I look at it — keep going, keep going come what may."
Today the old brick house gives none of that history away.
1. The Magrot House At Cuesmes - photograph by Jean-Paul Grandmont, 2006.
2. Vincent Van Gogh - Miners - September 1880, Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterloo, Netherlands.
Belgian artists responded to Impressionism by doing something rather different than their French neighbors, their brushwork more subdued, their effects more akin perhaps to photography. It has been called Luminism, and it has its counterpart in America that goes by the same name. One characteristic they share is the strength of their work compared to the blandness of their compatriots who tried to copy the French.
It is the quality of the light that attracts me to these paintings by the Belgian Emile Claus (1849-1934). In the 1880s, Claus bought a cottage in Astene, near Ghent, where he lived for the rest of his life. He called it 'Villa Sunshine' in recognition the inspiration he took from the quality of light there.
The artist found something remarkable in the old tree, painting it repeatedly, even breaking the rule that he probably taught his own students: never put your subject directly at the center of the image. Yet Claus persuades us as he makes light gather around the tree in The Artist's House at Astene, reflecting off the house, or as the tree in The Tree In Autumn appears to draw the fading light of autumn into itself with its intense need.
1. Emile Claus - The Tree In The Sun, 1900, Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent.
2. Emile Claus - The Artist's House At Astene, 1906, Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent.
3. Emile Clause - Rayon de Soleil, April 1899, Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent.