The two years that Van Gogh spent in Paris, from March 1886 until February 1888, represent a pivotal period in his career, during which he assimilated a host of diverse artistic currents and forged a distinctive personal style. George Shackelford has written, "During this two-year residence in Paris, he was to transform himself and his art, emerging from the self-imposed gloom of his Netherlandish manner into the full sunlight of his modern French style and changing himself from an unsure and untutored painter of peasant life into a radical member of the avant-garde" (Van Gogh Face to Face: The Portraits, exh. cat., Detroit Institute of Arts, 2000, p. 87). Throughout this period, in addition to painting from life, Van Gogh worked from plaster casts of ancient and Renaissance sculptures. Eleven paintings and more than thirty drawings of casts have survived from Van Gogh's time in Paris, of which the present example is among the largest, latest, and most elaborately worked. On the basis of its distinctive striated brushwork, it has been dated to the latter half of 1887, around the same time as Still-Life with Plaster Statuette and Two Novels (De la Faille, no. 360; fig. 1). Although Van Gogh's earlier paintings of plaster casts may be understood in large part as a student's attempts to hone his skill at the modeling of volumes, these two canvases transform the theme into an image of ripe sexuality. Jan Hulsker has written about the present example, "The painting is compelling and impressive; it is in a certain sense an idealized female nude serving as a substitute for a live model" (op. cit., 1996, p. 298).
In the early years of his career, Van Gogh was fiercely opposed to the study of plaster casts. In a letter to his brother Theo dated April 1882, he recounted an argument with his mentor in The Hague, Anton Mauve, in which he flatly refused to draw from casts and became so angry that he smashed the plaster hands and feet to pieces: "And I thought, I will draw from casts only when these ones become whole and white again, and when there are no more hands and feet of living beings to draw from" (Letter to Theo 218/189). He changed his position radically, however, upon his move to Antwerp in late 1885. On 18 January 1886, he enrolled in the Antwerp academy, where working from casts was an important part of the curriculum; by January 20th, he could write to Theo, "I, who haven't seen a good cast of a classical piece for years... and who have always had live models in front of me in those years, I'm astounded by the ancients' immense knowledge and aptness of sentiment now that I really see it again" (Letter to Theo 553/445). He resolved to spend a year doing nothing but drawing from plaster casts and from the nude, explaining, "Didn't Delacroix and Corot and Millet, later in their careers too, keep thinking of the ancients and continue studying them? People who just study them in a hurry are of course missing the point entirely" (Letter to Theo 559/448). Since students at the Antwerp academy were expected to spend three or four days on a single drawing, it is likely that Van Gogh executed about a dozen sheets during the six weeks that he was enrolled there. The only such study that has survived from his Antwerp period, however, is a drawing of Myron's Discus Thrower from the fifth century BC (De la Faille, no. 1364e; Rijksmuseum Vincent Van Gogh, Amsterdam).
Following his move to Paris in March 1886, Van Gogh continued his study of plaster casts, first in the studio of Fernand Cormon and then at his apartment on the rue Lepic, using casts that he had acquired for his own collection. During his two years in Paris, Van Gogh made a total of thirty-two drawings and eleven paintings that depict plaster casts. The curators of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, where the drawings are all housed, have assigned twenty-one of them to the three months that the artist spent in Cormon's studio before it closed in the summer of 1886 (see M. Vellekoop and S. van Heugten, op. cit., pp. 138-176 and 187-207). These depict seven different casts, most of which also appear either in photographs of Cormon's studio or in the drawings of Toulouse-Lautrec, who studied there at the same time. Five of the casts were made from ancient sculptures: the Venus de Milo, a statue of Venus fastening her sandal, a torso of Venus, the Borghese Gladiator, and a standing male youth in Polykleitan style. In addition, Van Gogh copied at least two casts of post-antique sculptures from Cormon's collection: Bust of a Young Warrior by Antonio del Pollaiuolo (1470) and L'Ecorché (Flayed Man) by Jean-Antoine Houdon (1767). Emile Bernard, who met Van Gogh at Cormon's studio, recalled the intensity that the Dutch artist brought to his drawing of these casts: "At the noon hour when all the pupils were out and the studio had become a sort of study cell. He is sitting there in front of an antique plaster cast copying the beautiful contours with angelic patience. He wants to master those contours, those masses, those reliefs. He corrects himself, begins passionately anew, rubs out and finally makes a hole in his sheet by his vigorous use of the eraser" (quoted in ibid., pp. 230-232).
Van Gogh also acquired a group of plaster casts that he kept in his studio at home, and he continued to work from these after Cormon's studio had closed. It would not have been difficult for the artist to find casts to purchase; they were produced both by private casting workshops and by large state institutions such as the Louvre, and they were sold for very little in shops and by street hawkers. Van Gogh made eleven drawings and eleven paintings--including the present example--from eight casts in his own collection: three female torsos (e.g., fig. 2) and a male torso from antiquity, Michelangelo's Dying Slave (1513) and Young Slave (1516-1530), a kneeling flayed figure variously attributed to Michelangelo and to Bartolommeo Bandinelli, and a horse. The present painting depicts one of the female torsos, shown seated on a rocky outcrop. The ancient prototype for this composition, most likely a depiction of Venus bathing, has not been identified. It is probably a Roman-period pastiche that was not widely replicated in antiquity, which combines elements of two well-known Hellenistic compositions: the Crouching Aphrodite (Venus) (fig. 3) and the Belvedere Torso (fig. 4). The actual plaster cast that Van Gogh depicted in the present canvas is preserved today in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, along with three other casts from the artist's collection.
A noteworthy feature of Van Gogh's paintings and drawings from casts is the prevalence of examples depicting nude female torsos. Van Gogh worked from two different casts of this type at Cormon's studio and another three back home on the rue Lepic. The present painting is the only known rendering of the seated torso on the rocky base; each of the other torsos, in contrast, appears in at least five and as many as ten drawings and paintings, seen from a variety of angles (see Hulsker, nos. 1044-1074, with the works clearly divided by prototype). Four of the five torsos, including the one in the present painting, depict a figure that hunches forward with twisted shoulders, accentuating the folds and fleshiness of the belly (see also fig. 2). This was clearly a feature that appealed to Van Gogh, lending the inanimate stone an element of carnal sensuality. In the present painting, it is underscored by the figure's seated posture, which results in a massively protruding lower part. Although he depicted the plaster model fairly accurately here, there are other instances in which he substantially expanded the hips and thighs to amplify the sexual connotations, and one drawing in which he even added nipples and pubic hair to his copy of the cast (De la Faille, no. 1716 verso). A fellow student at the Antwerp academy recalled that Van Gogh was once chided by the drawing master there for exaggerating the lower torso of the Venus de Milo, to which he countered, "A woman must have hips and buttocks and a pelvis in which she can hold a child" (quoted in J. Sund, True to Temperament: Van Gogh and French Naturalist Literature, Cambridge, 1992, p. 151).
In January 1886, the same month that Van Gogh began working from casts at the Antwerp academy, the Naturalist writer Guy de Maupassant published reverent remarks in the periodical Gil blas about a headless statue of Venus that he had recently seen. Van Gogh's letters from Antwerp indicate that he read Gil blas during this period, and it is quite possible that he saw Maupassant's essay. Maupassant's views appear to have been closely in line with Van Gogh's: "This is not at all woman poeticized, woman idealized, woman as divine or majestic like the Venus de Milo; it is woman as she is, the way you love her, the way you desire her, the way you want to embrace her. She's fat, with a full bosom, powerful hips, and somewhat heavy legs; this is a carnal Venus... The Syracuse Venus is a woman, and it is at the same time the symbol of flesh. She has no head! What does it matter? The symbol becomes more complete that way. It's a woman body, nothing but a woman's body" (quoted in ibid., p. 150). In Maupassant's view (and possibly Van Gogh's as well), the missing head does not detract from the statue's power but actually enhances it, transforming the work into an emblematic and readily fetishized female form. In Still-Life with Plaster Cast and Books (fig. 1), Van Gogh included a copy of Maupassant's novel Bel Ami alongside a statuette of a headless Venus. Perhaps he simply saw the cast as a fitting accompaniment to Maupassant's tale of seduction, or perhaps the pairing was intended as an acknowledgement of artist and writer's shared views on the female form and the fragmentary remains of antiquity.
(fig. 1) Vincent Van Gogh, Still-Life with Plaster Cast and Books, 1887. Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo.
Barcode: 2800 1591
(fig. 2) Vincent Van Gogh, Plaster Statuette, 1886-1887. Rijksmuseum Vincent Van Gogh, Amsterdam.
Barcode: 2800 1607
(fig. 3) Crouching Aphrodite (Venus), Roman-period copy after a 3rd-2nd century BC Greek original. Museo Nazionale delle Terme, Rome.
Barcode: 2800 1614
(fig. 4) Belvedere Torso (possibly Marsyas), Roman-period copy after a 3rd-2nd century BC Greek original. Vatican Museums, Rome.
Barcode: 2800 1621