"I don't think I shall be able to do justice to the countryside because words fail me(.)... Level planes or strips, varied in color, that grow narrower & narrower as they approach the horizon. Accentuated here or there by a turf hut or small farmhouse or a few stunted beeches, poplars, oaks - peat stacked up everywhere and barges constantly passing by with peat or bulrushes from the marshes. Here and there, skinny cows, subtle in color, quite often sheep and pigs.
- from a letter of Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo, circa 3 October 1883
A man bends to the humble task of burning weeds in a field against an unlovely landscape. We see none of his features, we do not know his age although his stance suggests he is equal to his task. If he looks isolated that may be because the artist provides no context for him - no people, no animals, no buildings are in sight. Just the flatness of the Dutch countryside that van Gogh had known had grown up with.
Van Gogh was proud of this painting, feeling that he had achieved the tone he had been trying for with his subject, conveying with a smoky palette the vastness of the plain as dusk gathers, with a small fire providing the only point of light. The time was the autumn of 1883 when van Gogh spent three months in the northeastern Dutch province of Drenthe. Historically, Drenthe has been a poor province; it even looks poor with few rivers and mile upon mile of flat heath-lands. During this period of loneliness Vincent tried, not for the first time, to persuade his brother Theo to give up the art trade, which he regarded as corrupt, and join with him in painting. Vincent was thirty years old but just finding his vocation as an artist; illness and depression had led him to take up painting just two years previously. There are not many paintings from this period, making Peasant Burning Weeds all the more remarkable.
Van Gogh thought of himself as a painter of modern life. As a counter example, he used the Goncourt Brothers, catty chroniclers of appearances, whose fabled diaries were much talked about in Paris though not yet published.
He wanted to be the painter of modern portraits. "In general the figures that now & then put in an appearance on the flats are full of character, and sometimes they have an enormous charm." - from a letter of Vincent to Theo, circa 3 October 1883
Van Gogh's letters are full of interest not just to art historians but also for their revelation of the man's humanity, his hunger for friendship, a hunger that made him reach out - to the peasants he lived among in Drenthe, to other artists in Paris and London, and to his brother Theo, witness to his creative struggles. Van Gogh's inner life was rich, giving him the inspiration that he could see the eternal in the everyday. "(I)t is difficult to know oneself - but it isn't easy to paint oneself either."
Peasant Burning Weeds (1883) has long been in private hands and is just now coming into public view at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
Quotations are taken from The Letters of Vincent van Gogh, London, Allen Lane, Penguin Press: 1996.
Vincent van Gogh - Peasant Burning Weeds, October 1883, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam & Drents Museum, Assen.