By the age of 27 Vincent van Gogh could look back on a disastrous professional career: in about ten years time he had failed as an employee at an art dealer, as a teacher and had given up another job at a bookshop in order to study theology in Amsterdam. After a temporary position as an evangelist in the Belgian Borinage, which was not prolonged, he spent almost a year reflecting on his future. It was not until 1880 when he, persuaded by his brother Theo, decided to become an artist.
It was presumably during the preparation for his theology studies (which he would never start), in 1877, that Van Gogh painted Winter, in life as well. The watercolour belongs to a small group of early works Van Gogh made between 1872 and 1880. In these days Van Gogh was drawing without any pretension and without feeling the need to explore the possibilities of the different materials. Some of these drawings are somewhat unwieldy, while others have a striking resemblance to real life.
The present lot is one of only two remaining watercolours made before Van Gogh actually decided to pursue a career as an artist. In 1877 he was living with his uncle Jan in Amsterdam, where he decorated his room with prints by some of his favourite artists, Jozef Israëls being one of them. A small lithograph by Israëls, Winter, in life as well, was described by Van Gogh in a letter (114/95) as 'a poor man on a road in the snow in winter'. The lithograph is still in a scrap-book with prints that belonged to Van Gogh, now in the Van Goghmuseum (inv.no. t 1487). Van Gogh copied the lithograph at almost the same size in pencil, watercolour and brown ink.
(S. van Heugten, Vincent van Gogh Tekeningen, vroege jaren 1880-1883, Amsterdam 1996, p. 12-13)