Van Gogh created this expressive portrait of a young mother and her son in early spring 1885, toward the end of a concerted, eight-month campaign of work in which he took as his exclusive subject the local Brabant peasantry near his parents’ home at Nuenen, painting and drawing them with single-minded, obsessive intensity. “Just being here,” he wrote to his brother Theo, “I see an inexhaustible resource for subjects from peasant life and the question is just—to seize it—to work” (Letters, 2009, no. 493). After devoting himself from October 1884 onward to close-up studies of heads, he broadened his explorations in the new year to include full-length renderings of peasants in their cottages, typically absorbed in various domestic chores. In March, he began sketches for The Potato Eaters, the culmination of his efforts in Nuenen and the painting that he believed to be his best yet, which he dispatched to Theo in Paris on 6 May 1885.
In the present painting, the sole image of maternity from this extended series, Van Gogh focused on the familial bond between the two models. Both gaze out of the picture to the left, their heads overlapping slightly and their profiles echoing one another; the mother wraps her arm around her son, holding him close in the single, hard-backed chair that they share. Their brightly lit faces and hands stand out against the shadowy surroundings, their intimacy a bulwark against the encroaching darkness. “Vincent had always seen his relentless figure studies as only a means to an end,” Steven Naifeh and Gregory Smith have written. “Even as his studio filled up with images of lonely figures, depictions of people connecting—through labor, through leisure, through love—continued to haunt his art and preoccupy his ambitions” (Van Gogh: The Life, New York, 2011, p. 424).
Van Gogh had been inspired to undertake these intensive explorations during a visit from the painter Anthon van Rappard, an old friend, in late October 1884. “Rappard will be staying for another week,” Vincent wrote to Theo, “since the work is going extraordinarily well. He’s making women spinning and various studies of heads, has already made ten studies or so, all of which I consider fine” (Letters, no. 467). In fact, Van Rappard’s quickly rendered portraits so impressed Van Gogh that he decided to begin his own ambitious series of heads, with the goal of honing his skills as a figure painter before moving to Antwerp. “To make progress, because I’m just getting into my stride, I have to paint 50 heads,” he declared. “As soon as possible and one after the other.” He asked Theo for a hundred francs to cover the cost of materials: “I must strike the iron now, it’s hot, but—my dear brother and friend—stoke up the fire” (no. 468).
It was easy for Van Gogh to find willing models among the local peasantry now that the harvest was in and winter was nigh. By early December, his studio was already filling up with the new subjects; in February, he reported to Theo that he had completed at least thirty heads in oil and an equal number of drawings (Letters, no. 483). “Painting image after image, he learned an extraordinary economy of brushstrokes—a perfect match to his furious pace,” Naifeh and Smith have written. “This was Vincent’s grand new plan for commercial success, for winning over [the painter] Mauve and [the dealer] Tersteeg, for ending his dependence on Theo, and for reclaiming his place beside Rappard” (op. cit., 2011, pp. 411-412).
Van Gogh saw his peasant subjects not so much as individuals but as examples of a primitive and ageless rural type, with characteristics that reflected their close ties to the cycles of nature and the harsh conditions under which they lived. He sought out models with the distinctive physiognomy of the Brabant region, preferring “coarse, flat faces with low foreheads and thick lips, not that sharp look, but full and Millet-like” (Letters, no. 451). In his letters, he identified only one of his sitters from this period—Gordina de Groot, also known as Sien—whose broad facial planes and full features constituted something of the ideal type that he sought. She is the female figure at the left in The Potato Eaters, which Van Gogh painted in her family’s cottage.
The identity of the forcefully characterized woman in the present painting, by contrast, is unknown today; she is not Gordina, who was unmarried and childless at the time. Van Gogh posed her in profile, drawing attention to her prominent forehead, deep-set eyes, and crooked nose. Per local custom, she wears a simple white bonnet with her hair parted centrally beneath; to go outdoors, she would have added a gauze covering on top. Van Gogh found in this headdress the opportunity to establish a dramatic contrast with the dark tonality of the sitter’s costume and indoor setting. “The heads of these women here with the white caps—it’s difficult—but it’s so eternally beautiful,” he wrote. “It’s precisely the chiaroscuro—the white and the part of the face in shadow, that has such a fine tone” (Letters, no. 478).
Jan Hulsker, in his catalogue of Van Gogh’s work, dates the present painting most likely to March 1885. The artist continued in that month to paint heads and also embarked upon several “larger, more worked-up things,” including full figures silhouetted against a window—“a difficult effect,” he declared—or artificially illuminated (Letters, no. 485). “At present I’m painting not just as long as there’s light,” he wrote to Theo on 2 March, “but even in the evening by lamplight in the cottages, in order to capture if possible something of the singular effects of lighting at night” (no. 484). “The study of a woman with a tot on her lap seems to have been made at about this time,” Hulsker has noted, “because of the bold brushstroke and the accents of light on a very dark background” (op. cit., 1996, p. 152).
The month of March ended in tragedy—Van Gogh’s father Dorus, with whom the artist had long had a volatile relationship, died of a stroke on the 26th. In the aftermath, the family talked of leaving Nuenen, but Vincent would have none of it: “I desire nothing other than to live deep in the country and to paint peasant life. I’ll quietly keep my hand to my plough and cut my furrow” (Letters, no. 490). Within days, he began the preliminary oil version of The Potato Eaters; by 6 May he completed the definitive canvas, which represented the triumphant synthesis of the preceding months’ ceaseless efforts. “I’ve had the threads of this fabric in my hands the whole winter long,” he wrote, “and searched for the definitive pattern—and if it’s now a fabric that has a rough and coarse look, nevertheless the threads were chosen with care” (no. 497).