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 with 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 a feverish 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 he had found 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?” (Letters, 2009 ed., 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 ed., no. 308). Sometimes, 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. Usually though, as in the present drawing, he depicted him in the top hat and tailcoat or the double-breasted overcoat that pensioners were required to wear–apparel that we associate today with stylishness and wealth, but that would have marked Zuyderland unmistakably to contemporary observers as a recipient of charity, the frayed faux gentility of his costume at odds with the dire reality of his circumstances. “I worked with him until it got dark,” Van Gogh wrote to Theo in early October, “wearing a big old overcoat which gave him a curiously broad figure. I believe you might perhaps enjoy this collection of orphan men in their Sunday and working clothes” (Letters, 2009 ed., no. 270).
In some drawings, Van Gogh depicted Zuyderland standing proud and defiant; in others, the old man cradles his head in his hands in utter defeat, the alter ego of the despairing Sien in Sorrow. More often, however, Van Gogh captured his model in the midst of humble daily activities, poignant in their very predictability. He posed him drinking coffee, warming himself by the stove, praying, or doing chores, and he inserted him into “family portraits” alongside Sien and her children. Here, he eats soup from a large, shallow bowl, too hungry perhaps to sit first for his meal. “Over the long winter months, Vincent grew attached to his patient, compliant, stone-deaf model,” Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith have concluded. “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).