Van Gogh painted The Iron Mill in The Hague at a crucial juncture in his early development as an artist. Previously he had made numerous chalk and ink drawings, washed drawings, and largely monochromatic watercolors. He was still only comfortable in working within a limited range of tonal values, and had little understanding of how to use the expressive possibilities of color. He was indeed a late starter; he was almost thirty years old and had not yet tried his hand at oil painting, the real test of a young artist's progress and skills. Nevertheless, during the early months of 1882 that he spent in The Hague, he made tremendous strides in his draughtsmanship, and acquired a useful understanding of perspective. He put these means to use in a series of carefully composed and executed watercolors, including the present work, which were more opaquely rendered than previously and heightened with white body-color, that he painted in the late spring and early summer. In August, less than a month after he painted The Iron Mill, van Gogh made his first oil paintings.
It was a time of significant development in van Gogh's personal life as well. He had begun a liaison with a pregnant prostitute, Sien. He was also hospitalized after contracting a venereal disease. During the spring of 1882, prior to his hospital stay, van Gogh had been concentrating on landscapes with figures, in addition to figure drawings for which Sien and members of her family had served as models. The principal motivation for the landscapes was a commission from the artist's uncle, Cornelis Marinus van Gogh, an art dealer in The Hague. On 11 March, having seen some of van Gogh's recent city drawings (Hulsker, nos. 111 and 112), C.M. van Gogh ordered a dozen more, for which he offered to pay his nephew one rijksdaalder apiece. Before 24 March the artist completed the first group of the drawings he hoped his 'Uncle Cor' would buy (H., nos. 111-119, 121 and 125). He completed three more by the end of the month (H., nos. 122-124). One wonders at how 'Uncle Cor,' whom one might presume had very traditional tastes, responded to Gas Tanks (H., no. 118), the most modern of the subjects that van Gogh depicted in his The Hague townscapes. Lacking any picturesque qualities, it is nonetheless a strong and confidently executed drawing, rendered in convincing perspective with a varied touch, and combining many details within a broadly expansive view. These are the very same qualities that van Gogh would bring to his mature landscape drawings at the end of the decade. In any case, 'Uncle Cor' commissioned further drawings, which van Gogh continued to work on into May. He began to heighten these drawings with white body color. Among them were several backyard scenes, such as the well-known Carpenter's Yard and Laundry (H., no. 150; Rijkmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo), that show extraordinary attention to the most prosaic details of daily living in The Hague's working-class neighborhoods, even if, as van Gogh claimed in a letter to Theo, "I can see such drawings only as studies in perspective, and I therefore make them chiefly as a means of getting practice" (Letter 200).
In July, following his hospital stay and a move to the larger attic apartment, van Gogh traveled to Scheveningen, where in heightened watercolor he painted the bleaching grounds near the beach, and a fish-drying barn (H., nos. 158 and 160). Back at home on 21 July he painted the view from his attic window in Rooftops (H., no. 156). He was making remarkable progress, for he hoped to have ready a number of accomplished watercolors with which to impress Theo, who was planning to visit him in August. Van Gogh wrote his brother, "Those I have done now are simply to show you that my studying drawing, correct perspective and proportions, helps me make progress in watercolors. They are landscapes with complicated perspective, very difficult to draw, but for that very reason there is a real Dutch character and sentiment in them. The drawing is no less conscientious; but in addition these have color--the soft green of the meadow contrasting with the red tile roof, the light in the sky contrasting more strongly with the somber tones of the foreground." (Letter 219).
Van Gogh painted The Iron Mill about a week later, around 26 July. As De La Faille has noted (op. cit.), the scene shows the factory of Enthoven on the Zieke, a narrow canal on the outskirts of the city. In letter sent to Theo during this time, van Gogh wrote, "When you come, I know a few beautiful paths through the meadows where it is so quiet and restful that I am sure you will like it. There I discovered old and new laborer's cottages and other houses that are characteristic, with little gardens by the water's edge, very cozy. I will go and draw there early tomorrow morning. It is a road that runs through the meadows of the Schenkweg to Enthoven's factory on the Zieke" (Letter 220). It is telling that van Gogh passed up the 'cozy' scene for a view of the unquestionably drab Enthoven factory. By now it is clear that while the artist might enjoy conventionally picturesque elements in the landscape, he had little interest in painting them. Instead he preferred the liveliness and complexity of the man-made landscape, the canals along which his countryman conducted their commerce, and the buildings in which they produced their goods and made their livelihood. Van Gogh's inclination in this direction had been earlier influenced by the detailed realism of English illustrators, and, more recently, the paintings of urban street life by George Hendrik Breitner, a younger artist whom van Gogh had befriended in The Hague. Moreover, following his hospital stay, he immersed himself the naturalism of the novelist Emile Zola, who treated themes drawn from modern life, which he described in acutely observed detail.
Van Gogh had, during his lay evangelical ministry in 1878-1879, passionately sought to ameliorate the lives of the working poor who bore the brunt of the debilitating effects of the industrial revolution. Here he appears to accept industrialization as a fact of modern life. Even if the iron factory belches forth smoke, it seems a far cry from 'the dark satanic mills' decried by the English poet William Blake, and van Gogh indeed seems fascinated by the effect. These pictures pre-figure the work of the politically-motivated French Neo-Impressionists, who were likewise drawn to the novelty of industrial and urban subjects. The urbanized landscape was, for van Gogh, foremost a visual feast, filled with abundantly varied shapes to render, and innumerable details to set down on paper. While his scenes are filled with visual information, they are, in their matter-of-factness, strangely serene, and only rarely project a sense of disturbance or disharmony. On occasion, van Gogh might editorialize, as in his attention to the cross-like dead tree in Pollard Willow, painted on 27 July (H., no. 164). More typically, however, the artist loved the sense of space in the flat, featureless Dutch landscape, and he perhaps used these distances as a way of creating an expansive and harmonious view of the world, in which there was room for man and nature, town and meadow to exist side by side.