In the last days of 1881, after a violent row with his parents over his unrequited passion for his cousin Kee Vos, the twenty-eight-year-old Van Gogh stormed out of his family’s home in Etten and fled to The Hague, determined to have his revenge by succeeding at last as an artist. “Art was not just a calling, it was a call to arms” (S. Naifeh and G.W. Smith, Van Gogh: The Life, New York, 2011, p. 254). Full of fiery optimism, he rented a flat on the outskirts of town and renewed his apprenticeship to Anton Mauve, one of the leading artists of the Hague School. Within weeks, however, he was beset by difficulties. Ever quick-tempered, he had fallen out with both Mauve and the art dealer H.G. Tersteeg, another former mentor; he was beholden to his brother Theo for money, which he spent with defiant profligacy; and he had taken up with a prostitute named Sien, who was pregnant with her second child.
Still, Van Gogh worked with fever-pitch intensity. Obsessed with drawing figures, he recruited models wherever he could, accosting strangers at train stations, soup kitchens, orphanages, and almshouses. Few were willing to make the long trek to his studio, and even fewer returned for a second session. In early fall, however, Van Gogh’s luck changed. At the Dutch Reformed Old People’s Home, he met a deaf, seventy-two-year-old pensioner named Adrianus Jacobus Zuyderland, who would become the most frequent model not just of the Hague years but of Van Gogh’s entire career – finally, a model commensurate to his boundless capacity for drawing. Zuyderland had small, heavy-lidded eyes, a hooked nose, and a bald pate; tufts of unruly white hair stuck out above his large, protruding ears, and dense mutton-chop whiskers covered his cheeks. “I am very busy with drawings of an orphan man (weesman), as the almsmen are usually called here,” Van Gogh wrote to Anthon Van Rappard on 23 September. “Don’t you think that the expressions orphan man and orphan woman (weesvrouw) are just right?” (L. Jansen, H. Luijten, and N. Bakker, eds., Vincent van Gogh: The Letters, The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition, London, 2009, no. 268).
Throughout the fall and winter, Zuyderland came to Van Gogh’s studio as often as he could. The artist never tired of drawing the old man’s worn visage, irrevocably marked by adversity and sorrow. “There are ruins, absolute ruins, of physiognomies, which nonetheless are full of expression,” Van Gogh explained (Letters, 2009, no. 308). Often, he depicted Zuyderland in the top hat and tailcoat or the double-breasted overcoat that pensioners were required to wear. Other times, he outfitted him from his own stash of costumes, transforming him into a fisherman with a sou’wester or a peasant with a cap and peat basket. He posed him eating, reading, praying, or doing chores, and he inserted him into “family portraits” alongside Sien and her children. In the present drawing, Zuyderland wears a billowing, artist-style blouse, suggesting a certain identification between painter and model. “Over the long winter months, Vincent grew attached to his patient, compliant, stone-deaf model,” Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith have written. “Homeless, wifeless, childless, friendless, and penniless, Zuyderland, too, was a Robinson Crusoe in the world, marooned in the passionless present” (op. cit., 2011, p. 316).
The present Orphan Man belonged to the writer Peter Matthiessen, a three-time National Book Award winner and founder of the Paris Review. He acquired the work around 1952, as a young man of twenty-five, with $1,500 that his grandmother had given him as a wedding gift. She encouraged him to buy something significant with the money and not to fritter it away on “practical” purchases; he thought her advice sound and selected this Van Gogh drawing from a gallery in Paris, where he was living at the time.