Vincent van Gogh painted this Head of a Peasant Woman: Right Profile in the Dutch village of Nuenen between December 1884 and the end of March 1885. It is part of a series of pictures of the heads of peasants that Van Gogh instinctively painted in the colours of the earth off which his sitters lived. 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 (April 1885). Indeed, the sitter of Head of a Peasant Woman: Right Profile is Gordina/Dien, also known as Sien, De Groot, a member of the family who posed in their own home as The Potato Eaters (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum). Sien may well be the second figure from the left in the large composition (Fig. 1). Years later, Van Gogh mentioned her in a letter to his sister, in which he referred to The Potato Eaters as, 'the best thing I did' (Vincent van Gogh to Willemien van Gogh, Paris, late October 1887, in Vincent van Gogh, The Letters: The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition, ed. by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker, vol. 3, 1883-1887, London, 2009, p. 370).
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, 16 December 1884, in Ibid., pp. 196-8). In March 1885, Vincent wrote to Theo again, highlighting the advance of his contemporary head studies in relation to those done in previous years, as well as their foundational character in the development of the artist's subsequent depiction of the entire De Groot family:
'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' (Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, Nuenen, March 1885, in Ibid., pp. 210-13).
Although Van Gogh insists on the heads being in the nature of studies, Head of a Peasant Woman: Right Profile, being the image of an identified contemporary, can be considered to be the sketch of a generic social type, as part of the development of his early masterpiece The Potato Eaters, and as an individual portrait.
Following a course in anatomy and physiognomy at the Belgium's 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 1879-80 and by a fervent passion for the novels of the French Naturalists - to become a painter of peasant life.
Life and art in Nuenen proved more trying than expected for Van Gogh. Indirectly, this was due to Sien De Groot: the young, unmarried girl was the unwilling cause of a public scandal in which Van Gogh became involved in the summer of 1885, when the local reverend accused him of fathering the child to whom she gave birth that October. The scandal, in which the burgomaster was asked to intervene, added to other difficulties experienced by Van Gogh in Nuenen - the long-standing conflict with his father, who died in 1885, and the poor financial conditions which restricted the artist's access to painting material and models and made him rely increasingly on his brother's generosity. With the reverend forbidding his parishioners to model for Van Gogh, the artist eventually left Nuenen for Antwerp at the end of 1885.
In fact, it appears evident from a letter Vincent sent to Theo in September that the painter was not only unattached to Sien's pregnancy but also indifferent to the rumours. Recounting the story as a parenthesis to a discussion on painting, Van Gogh reveals that what mattered to him were the implications of the scandal for his work:
'A girl I'd often painted was having a child and they thought it was mine, although it wasn't me I do hope to keep the very same models, who are of the old Brabant stock through and through it's a bad business, though, and if it were to continue I'd probably move. You'll ask what's the point of being a disagreeable person - sometimes you have to be And when they hinder at me in my work, sometimes the only way I know is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The priest went so far as to promise the people money if they didn't allow themselves to be painted - however, the people replied very pertly that they 'd rather ear it from me than go cap in hand to him. But you see, they only do it for the sake of earning money and I don't get anything done for nothing around here' (Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, Nuenen, Wednesday 2 September 1885, in Ibid., p. 285).
The importance for Van Gogh of painting peasants heads like Head of a Woman is to be understood in terms of his efforts to confront the artists whom he most admired: Jules Breton, Lon Augustin Lhermitte and above all Jean-Franois 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' (Vincent van Gogh to Willemien van Gogh, op. cit., 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' (Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, Wednesday 2 September 1885, op. cit., p. 286).