'I've attacked that old giant of a pollard willow, and I believe it has turned out the best of the watercolours. A sombre landscape - that dead tree beside a stagnant pond covered in duckweed, in the distance a Rijnspoor depot where railway lines cross, smoke-blackened buildings - also green meadows, a cinder road and a sky in which clouds are racing, grey with an occasional gleaming white edge, and a depth of blue where the clouds tear apart for a moment' (Van Gogh, letter 252 to Theo, 31 July 1882, L. Jansen, H. Luijten & N. Bakker, eds., op. cit., vol. II, London, 2009, p. 122).
Vincent van Gogh's Pollard Willow was created on 27 July 1882, at a crucial moment during his formative stay in The Hague that year. This forceful image, with the blasted and withered expressive form of the tree in the foreground and the meticulously-detailed landscape behind it, reveals Van Gogh's incredible enthusiasm for the area surrounding his home there as well as his profound love of nature. It also introduces the concept of the landscape as a vehicle for feelings and sentiments, a factor that he would continue to develop for the rest of his career, arguably culminating in the landscapes he would create over half a decade later in the South of France. It is telling that some of those later landscapes would continue to explore the theme of pollard trees. With its gnarled form, the tree in Pollard Willow dominates the landscape like a human figure; it takes on an anthropomorphic role that continues in those later images, allowing Van Gogh to project his own emotions through this pollard proxy.
Van Gogh had already shown an interest in pollard willows in a letter that he had written to his friend, the younger artist Anthon van Rappard, from his own parents' home in Etten the previous year, mentioning that he had made several studies of them (see Van Gogh, letter 174 to Van Rappard, 12 October 1881, L. Jansen, H. Luijten & N. Bakker, eds., op. cit., vol. I, London, 2009, p. 293). By the time he made Pollard Willow, he was living in the outskirts of The Hague, where he had moved in part to have contact with more artists. The previous year, he had spent some months as an art student in Brussels, subscribing to lessons (which he may well not have attended) to learn to draw, supplementing his own prior development as an autodidact. In The Hague, he was soon in contact with the established artist Anton Mauve among others, and gained some acclaim for his unique perspective on both the human condition and in landscapes. Indeed, his art dealer uncle Cor van Gogh felt confident enough in his work that he commissioned twelve landscape views of The Hague.
By the time he made Pollard Willow, Van Gogh was living near to the scene shown in the picture in an apartment in a large building that provided space for himself and his growing surrogate family. For it was during this time that he was living with Clasina Maria Hoornik, better known as 'Sien.' A supposed seamstress and occasional prostitute, Sien had been taken under the wing of Van Gogh in part because she was pregnant and near destitute. Van Gogh had attempted to be a preacher earlier, and this career had not worked out. Instead he had become an artist, largely teaching himself until he had gone the previous year to Brussels in order to study to become a draughtsman. However, the charitable spirit that had initially pulled him into the church had now developed into a love of humanity and of nature that had resulted in his looking after Sien.
Pollard Willow dates from shortly after both Sien and Van Gogh had been released from hospitals. Sien had been confined for the birth of her son; Van Gogh had been hospitalised because he had contracted a venereal disease. This had meant that he had been unable to work for some weeks; however, he appears to have revelled in seeing the cross-section of society that filled the hospital during his stay there, adding fuel to the ardent humanism that underpins so much of his work. As can be seen from the quality of Pollard Willow, it forms a part of Van Gogh's eager and passionate return to making pictures. Although he explained that one of the main reasons that he was creating landscape images rather than showing figures during this period was because Sien was still recovering and therefore unable to model, this picture nevertheless shows a profound humanity. As Van Gogh himself explained in his letter to his brother, the picture appears to have been focussed on the distant figure to the left in the background: 'I wanted to make it like how I imagine the signalman with his smock and red flag must see and feel it when he thinks: how gloomy it is today. I get a lot of pleasure out of work these days, though now and again I still clearly feel the after-effects of my illness' (Van Gogh, letter 252 to Theo, 31 July 1882, ibid., p. 122).
Van Gogh wrote to his brother the day before he made Pollard Willow giving a vivid description of the landscape near his abode, and revealing that he had already marked out this tree in particular:
'When you come I know of a few lovely paths through the meadows where it's so quiet and peaceful that you'll be delighted. I've discovered old and new labourers' cottages there, and other houses that are distinctive, with small gardens lining the banks of the ditch - really charming. I'm going to draw there early tomorrow morning. It's a pat through the meadows from Schenkweg to Enthoven's factory or Het Zieke. I saw a dead pollard willow there, just the thing for Barye, for example. It hung over a pond with reeds, all alone and melancholy, and its bark was scaled and mossy, as it were, and marbled in various tones - something like the skin of a snake, greenish, yellowish, mostly dull black. With white flaking spots and stumpy branches. I'm going to attack it tomorrow morning' (Van Gogh, letter 251 to Theo, 26 July 1882, L. Jansen, H. Luijten & N. Bakker, eds., op. cit., vol. II, London, 2009, p. 118).
Van Gogh's enthusiasm for the tree, whose sculptural character he evokes by referring to Barye, is augmented by his attention to the variegated colours of the prospect. Looking at Pollard Willow, it becomes clear that Van Gogh revelled in exploring the nuances of tone and colour in the picture. Tiny, effervescent dabs of white perfectly convey the tops of the foliage to the right, while darting strokes give the impression of the blades of grass and reeds. The figure on the path trudges along a sodden path in which mirror-like pools of rainwater have accumulated; his own spectral reflection is faintly and eloquently projected. Van Gogh was clearly pleased with this picture, as he included one of his 'letter sketches' when writing to his brother, showing a simplified version of it and discussing it at some length, including in a passage now missing. Some of the smaller version is shown very dark, and Van Gogh brings Theo's attention to this in particular, saying, 'Where the black is darkest in this little sketch is where the greatest strengths are in the watercolour - dark green, brown, dark grey' (Van Gogh, letter 252 to Theo, 31 July 1882, ibid., p. 124). This picture shows the enthusiasm that Van Gogh conveyed in that letter as he contemplated the landscape genre as a whole, expanding on the subject in words that can clearly be seen to relate to this poetic image and its projection of both ambience and emotion: 'Just working faithfully from nature and with persistence seems to me a sure way, and one that can't end up with nothing. The feeling for and love of nature always strike a chord sooner or later with people who take an interest in art. The duty of the painter is to study nature in depth and to use all his intelligence, to put his feelings into his work so that it becomes comprehensible to others' (Van Gogh, letter 252 to Theo, 31 July 1882, ibid., p. 122).