In December 1883 van Gogh returned to his parents' home in Nuenen and early the following year he painted and drew his important series of weavers. He spent increased time out-of-doors painting landscapes during the spring and summer. In the autumn he turned his attention to still-life painting, and as winter returned he began to concentrate on portrait heads.
Writing to his brother Theo in mid-December, van Gogh began by stating "Enclosed you will find a few scratches of heads I am working on; I scratched them in a hurry and from memory" (Letter 477/389). The term "scratches" is translated from the Dutch krabbel, which may be used to denote a small sketch. Van Gogh refered to further studies twice again that month, announcing in a letter to Theo at the end of December: "In two or three days you will receive 12 little pen and ink drawings after studies of heads" (Letter 479/391). He mentioned his "scratches" once again in Letter 482/392, written to Theo in January 1885.
Fifteen of the small heads to which the artist refers have been identified. Eleven of these are in the collection of the Rijksmuseum van Gogh, Amsterdam (Hulsker nos. 549, 560, 546, 570, 571, 572, 575, 589, 609, 647 and one not in the La Faille or Hulsker catalogues). The four remaining in other hands are Hulsker nos. 552, 566, 567 and the present drawing, no. 562. Hulsker has pinpointed eight of these that are directly related to paintings, "after studies of heads," as van Gogh described. It was the artist's practice to avail himself of daylight to paint portrait heads of local peasants and neighbors, and then in the evening translate the paintings into drawings.
The present drawing is based on the painting Peasant Woman (Hulsker no. 561; private collection, Montral). This drawing is one of a small group that is larger than the rest, reflecting the significance it held for the artist. It is executed in iron-gall ink over a preliminary sketch in pencil. When first drawn, the ink would have been somewhat darker, and the paper a lighter tone; the artist also used pencil to hatch in half-tones in order to soften the contrast between the ink lines and the paper tone. He also employs brush and ink wash to darken the background, emphasizing the volume of the figure and the contours of her hat.
The model for this portrait is very likely Mother de Groot, who appears as the older woman seated at the table in the Potato Eaters, 1885 (Hulsker, no. 764, coll. Rijksmuseum van Gogh, Amsterdam), the great masterpiece of van Gogh's Nuenen period. She is portrayed frontally in another small sketch, Peasant Woman, Head (Hulsker no. 566; private collection, The Netherlands), which was also based on an oil painting (Hulsker no. 565), and in other studies of this period. She is normally depicted in a gauze cap common to the region that was worn outdoors or on genteel occasions, as opposed to plainer day caps that women normally wore to cover their hair while working.
This series of heads, both the oil paintings and the accompanying sketches, represented a significant advance for the artist:
"It is clear that Vincent, who had drawn many heads during his time in The Hague but had still lacked experience in painting portraits, had now made rapid progress. In most of the portrait studies mentioned here the characterization of the heads is very well done, but what is most noteworthy is that he had done things entirely his own way; he is not seeking a romantic idealization of the subjects, but rather a forceful and realistic rendering of them, a striving that in a few months would find its culmination in his famous The Potato Eaters." (J. Hulsker, op. cit, p. 136)