Digging deep, Belgian coalfield shows where Van Gogh emerged

Sun Mar 29, 2015 10:54am EDT
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By Alastair Macdonald

MONS, Belgium (Reuters) - It is fitting tribute to the role the Belgian coalfield around Mons played in Van Gogh's emergence as an artist that the city has made a rare show of his early works a focus of its year as European Capital of Culture.

From the clumsy sketches with which the 25-year-old Dutch lay preacher began to drawings flowing with the energy that marked his later painting, "Van Gogh in the Borinage: Birth of an Artist" at Beaux Arts Mons is a treat for the academic and casually curious alike. It ought, too, to inspire perseverance in any would-be creator -- even Van Gogh started out with dross.

"I can see it is not any good yet," Vincent wrote to his art dealer elder brother Theo Van Gogh in a letter accompanying two small pencil drawings showing the weary lives of the miners of the Borinage coalfield among whom he lived from 1878 to 1880.

"But," he added, "It is starting to come."

Alongside letters scratched out from the colliers' cottages where the well-born Van Gogh lodged, the show traces progression in technique, in pencil and paint. Largely early work, it does culminate in the sumptuous, sunlit Impressionism of "Street in Auvers-sur-Oise", painted in the weeks before his death aged 37.

Van Gogh drew the pitheads, the simple homes, the miners' potato patches, even, after an underground visit, the coalface itself. In the grip of the youthful religiosity that later gave way to suicidal despair, he wrote: "Those who work in the shadows, in the belly of the earth, like the miners deep in the black coalworkings, are very touched by the word of the Gospel."

Also on display are works by others who inspired him as well as versions he made of them, notably Jean-Francois Millet's paintings of peasant life such as "The Sower" and "The Angelus".

From hesitant copyist to inspired original, the Van Gogh at Mons labors as hard as those he saw around him in the Borinage.   Continued...

A security guard stands between pencil drawings by the artist Vincent Van Gogh, "On the road" and "Before the embers", during the exhibition "Van Gogh in the Borinage: Birth of an Artist" at Beaux Arts Museum in Mons March 29, 2015.   REUTERS/Francois Lenoir