Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)
Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)

Head of a Peasant Woman: Left Profile

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)
Head of a Peasant Woman: Left Profile
charcoal on paper
13 5/8 x 8¼ in. (34.6 x 21 cm.)
Drawn in Nuenen, February-March 1885
Vincent W. Van Gogh, Laren.
Mrs. Visser Omes, Amsterdam.
E.J. van Wisselingh & Co., Amsterdam.
Private collection, Texas (1958); sale, Christie's, New York, 12 November 1997, lot 337.
Private collection (acquired at the above sale); sale, Sotheby's, London, 6 February 2001, lot 110.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
W. Vanbeselaere, De Hollandsche periode (1880-1885) in het werk van Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam, 1937, pp. 265 and 411.
J.-B. de la Faille, The Works of Vincent van Gogh, His Paintings and Drawings, Amsterdam, 1970, p. 424, no. F1169 (illustrated; with incorrect dimensions).
J. Hulsker, The Complete Van Gogh, Paintings, Drawings, Sketches, New York, 1977, p. 140, no. 631 (illustrated, p. 141; with incorrect dimensions).
J.-B. de la Faille, Vincent Van Gogh, The Complete Works on Paper, Catalogue Raisonné, San Francisco, 1992, vol. I, p. 299, no. 1169 (illustrated, vol. II, pl. LXXXVIII; with incorrect dimensions).
Amsterdam, E.J. van Wisselingh & Co., Maîtres Français du XIXème et XXème Siècles, June-August 1958, no. 17.

Lot Essay

Van Gogh drew this Head of a Peasant Woman: Left Profile in the Dutch village of Nuenen in February or March of 1885. From the letters he wrote from Nuenen to his Paris-based art dealer brother Theo, we know that the series was begun in December 1884, continued through March 1885, and culminated in the masterpiece of Van Gogh's 'peasant period,' The Potato Eaters (De la Faille, no. 82).

Following a course in anatomy and physiognomy at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels and a period in The Hague, in 1883 the thirty-year-old Van Gogh decided to return home to his parents, who were then living in Nuenen. This decision, given the artist's age and difficult relationship with his father, can be explained by financial necessity and also by Van Gogh's deep-seated desire--induced by a visit to an artists' community in northern France in 1879-1880 and by a fervent passion for the novels of the French Naturalists--to become a painter of peasant life.

In letters to his brother dated mid-December 1884, Van Gogh reveals his decision to paint fifty heads of peasants inspired by illustrations of "The Legal World" by Paul Renouard (1845-1924) that had appeared that year in Paris Illustré (Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, Nuenen, 14 December 1884 in N. Bakker, L. Jansen and H. Luijten, Vincent van Gogh, The Letters: The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition, 1883-1887, London, 2009, vol. 3, pp. 196-198). In March 1885, Vincent wrote to Theo again, highlighting the advance of his contemporary head studies in relation to those done in previous years: "I'm making studies, and precisely because of this I can very well conceive of the possibility that a time will come when I, too, will be able to compose readily. And, after all, it is difficult to say where study stops and painting begins" (ibid., pp. 210-213).

The importance for Van Gogh of painting peasant heads like Head of a Peasant Woman: Left Profile, is to be understood in terms of his efforts to confront the artists whom he most admired: Jules Breton, Léon Augustin Lhermitte, and, above all Jean-François Millet. These French masters had created solemn depictions of peasant life, and Van Gogh wanted to add to this tradition. As an avid reader of Emile Zola and the Goncourt brothers, however, he was uncompromising about the necessity "to belong to one's own time" (ibid., p. 370). In relation to the peasant heads painted in Nuenen, he wrote to Theo: "When I think about Millet or Lhermitte, I find modern art as great as Michelangelo and Rembrandt--the old infinite, the new infinite too--the old genius, the new genius I'm convinced, that in this regard one can believe in the present. The fact that I have a definite view as regards art also means that I know what I want to get in my own work, and that I'll try to get it even if I go under in the attempt" (ibid. p. 286).

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