Observing an earthy way of life

"To be perfumed," Van gogh wrote at the time he was painting "The Potato Eaters," that rough, dark climax of his "Dutch period," "is not what a peasant picture needs." A peasant picture should "smell of bacon, smoke, potato-steam." In the early 1880s he had returned to live with his parents at Nuenen, in north Brabant, not a great distance from where he was born, and it is intriguing to realize that if he had remained there and not afterwards moved to the sun-filled south of France via Antwerp and Paris, he might well have been solely known today as a painter of Dutch peasant life: of men and women like the weaver shown here, shaped by earthy toil, by planting, digging, scrubbing, carrying, basketmaking, spinning, sewing.

"It has not been in vain," he also wrote to his brother, "That I spend so many evenings with the miners, and peatdiggers, and weavers, and peasants, musing by the fire, unless I was too hard at work for musing.

"By witnessing peasant life continually, at all hours of the day, I have become so absorbed in it that I hardly ever think of anything else."

He was, himself, no more a peasant than Brueghel was, however, and although "absorbed" in their life and having deep sympathy for their hardships and poverty, he was nevertheless just enough of an observer to find them enchanting and picturesque, and to translate his warmth of heart toward them into drawings and paintings of them.

He was well aware of the painterly precedents available to his won developing vision of peasant life, of Millet in particular. He was also aware of the sober "Monday morning" depictions by English wood-engraving artist for illustrated magazines like The Graphic,m which were sometimes of poor working people in deprived conditions. He rated these "black and whites" very highly, in fact. He even talked once of making a series of lithographs -- "thirty pages of types of workmen, a sower, a digger, a woodcutter, a ploughman, a washwoman. . . ." A great reader, he had a special appreciation of Dickens, who combined a burning pity for ordinary labouring people with a somewhat picturesque affection for their "typical" characteristics.

There are as many as 10 known painted studies of weavers by Van Gogh from this period, and 18 drawings. He felt "much sympathy" for the weaver and clearly compared his own development as an artist with the workmanship of these men, who were almost part of their looms, almost themselves interwoven with the heavy ribs of these oakwood contraptions, weightily clattering and banging. Anyone who has used a loom -- or painted a picture -- would echo Van Gogh's observation: "A weaver who has to direct and to interweave a great many little threads has no time to philosophize about it, but rather he is so absorbed in his work that he doesn't think but acts, and he feelsm more how things must go than he can explain it."

A different artist might have been fascinated by the intricate precision of the weaving process, but Van Gogh is more aware of it as sturdy peasant labour: large hands unconscious of their neat skill. He complained about the difficulty of getting far enough back from the looms in the cramped houses in which the weavers worked, and this lack of space is expressively shown in our example. The viewer is made to feel as crowded as the painter and weaver. everything is closely, boldly, and vigorously painted. Largeness is emphasized. The style of painting reflects the roughness and robustness of the subject. Here is no effete, civilized pastime, and painting (he indicates by parallel demonstration) is likewise a matter of hard, possibly unrewarded, toil, a heavy matter involving strengthm rather than delicacy.

The house in which the weaver labours is like a dark cave, and it is no wonder that Van Gogh was reminded of Rembrandt's richly shadowed interiors when he watched weavers at work in the evening by lamplight. Quite consciously he wanted to make his paintings of them" harmonize in colour and tone with other Dutch pictures." He knew he was working in a tradition. Although there are accents of green and blue in this picture, the predominant colours of his Dutch paintings are earth-browns and old-plaster greys. Their atmosphere almost, indeed, has its own smell; it is dark and claustrophobic. People and objects are sunk in heavy shadows, picked out only by highlights. It is a world both simple and enclosed: perfect subject matter for an inward-looking artist intensely moved by a strange mixture of the brutal and serene, by an almost harsh honesty and a meditative compassion.

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