In July, 1882, van Gogh was involved in a significant emotional relationship, whose demands shaped his outlook on living and art. In March he wrote to his brother Theo that he had engaged members of a poor family to pose for him--Maria Hoornik, a woman that van Gogh noted was around forty-five, her daughter Clasina Maria Hoornik (called 'Sien'), who was around thirty, and her younger sister, ten or eleven years old, named Maria. Sien was a prostitute and the unwed mother of a five-year daughter, also named Maria. She was expecting another child in July. Van Gogh, who had already drawn her earlier, was attracted to her, partly out of his evangelical compassion for her background and her present needy condition. "I took that woman on as a model and have worked with her all winter. I couldn't pay her a model's full daily wages, but I paid her rent all the same and this far thank God I have been able to save her and her child from hunger and cold by sharing my bread with her" (Letter 192).
They began living together in van Gogh's small apartment at 138 Schenkweg (actually on a sidestreet at this address), on the outskirts of The Hague, some time before May. The artist then revealed their relationship to his brother. Theo admonished Vincent for this improper liaison, and had good reason to worry that Vincent might marry Sien out of charity. He nevertheless continued to send money that enabled the artist to pay the rent on his living quarters, and keep him supplied with drawing materials and watercolors. This unwavering support came during a critical crisis of confidence for the artist. Van Gogh had recently had a falling out with the painter Anton Mauve, with whom he had been studying, which had been his chief reason for coming to The Hague. Moreover, he was now responsible for supporting his adopted family, an obligation he had freely elected but for which he had no previous experience, with another mouth to feed soon to arrive.
His personal life was further complicated by his own health. In early June van Gogh had written to Theo that he was in the hospital, having suffered from sleeplessness, a low fever and difficulty in urinating. He was diagnosed with venereal disease, "what they call the 'clap,' but only a mild case" (Letter 206). He remained in the hospital for most of the remainder of June, unable to work, but he took advantage of this opportunity to get much-needed rest, and he began to read the naturalist novels of Emile Zola. Sien, meanwhile, had retired to Leiden to have her baby, which she delivered on 2 July. Just out of the hospital, van Gogh had found new living quarters in the building next door at 136 Schenkweg, a large attic apartment at low rent, which would allow ample room for Sien and her newborn son, as well as space for a studio. "For a painter the location is perfect. The view from the attic window is fascinating" (Letter 209).
In a letter to Theo, dated 26 July, no. 164, van Gogh described the location and subject of the present watercolor, "When you come, I know a few beautiful paths through the meadows where it is so quiet and restful that I am sure you will like itI saw a dead willow trunk there, just the thing for Barye, for instance. It was hanging over a pool that was covered with reeds, white alone and melancholy, and its bark was moss-covered and scaly, somewhat like the skin of a serpent-greenish, yellowish, but mostly a dull black, with bare white spots and knotted branches. I am going to attack it tomorrow morning" (Letter 220).
As the artist's mention of him indicates, van Gogh admired Antoine-Louis Barye (1796-1875), the renowned romantic realist animal sculptor. When the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam began collecting works by artists the brothers praised in their correspondence, they acquired a sculpture by Barye as well as works by Courbet and Meissonier.
In his next letter, dated 31 July 1882, van Gogh wrote, "I have attacked that old giant of a pollard willow, and I think it is the best of the watercolors. A gloomy landscape--that dead tree near a stagnant pool covered with reeds, in the distance a car shed of the Rhine Railway Company where the tracks cross each other; dingy black buildings, then green meadows, a cinder path, and a sky with scudding clouds, gray with a single bright white border, and a depth of blue where the clouds are momentarily rent apart. In short, I wanted to make it the way the signal man in his smock and with his little red flag must see and feel it when he thinks, 'It is gloomy weather today.'" (Letter 221)
Within the letter, van Gogh made a quick sketch of the present painting, and noted that although the colors were somewhat different in the sketch, it would give Theo a good idea of what he was working on (Hulsker 165; fig. 1). He noted, "I have worked with great pleasure these last days, though now and then I still feel the effects of my illness." (Letter 221). As he so frequently would, in Pollard Willow van Gogh found visual interest where others would not. At first the scene appears to have little to recommend it. But for van Gogh, the dead tree helps symbolize his own mental state, and project it onto the landscape.
Van Gogh's compassionate interest in the world around him was surely his means of offsetting a proclivity towards loneliness and isolation, feelings that were exacerbated by his idealism and lack of pragmatism. In this regard, his acceptance and embrace in his art of the world in its totality, be it factory or hayfield, mirrors his embrace of Sien, a woman in extremely compromised circumstances, with whom the artist found it increasingly difficult to live (van Gogh broke off their relationship when he left The Hague in September 1883). But it seems clear from this relationship, and the pictures that van Gogh painted during this period of 'setting out,' that he was filling himself with experience in whatever way he could grasp it, and in doing so, he sealed his commitment to art as his true life's work. The current painting was executed in the same month, and in the same region as Iron Mill in The Hague, 1882 (H., no. 166; see lot 26). That painting similarly demonstrates van Gogh's interest in the quotidian, even emotional life of the workers around him. He made his first oil paintings in mid-August, only a few weeks after painting the Pollard Willow, and Iron Mill in The Hague, and following Theo's visit. He wrote to his brother, "I must tell that painting does not seem so strange to me as you would perhaps suppose; on the contrary, I like it very much, as it is a very strong means of expression. And at the same time I can express tender things with it too. I am very glad I have the necessary materials, for already I had often suppressed the desire to paint. It opens a much broader horizon" (Letter 224).
The present painting was not the first nor last time the artist was drawn to the magisterial pollard willow. In Arles in 1889, towards the end of his life, he painted Pollard Willows (Hulsker no. 1690; fig. 3), a work with striking similarities to the current painting. In the Arles painting, van Gogh transforms the earlier composition, but the work clearly demonstrates how his early efforts at painting during this crucial Dutch period of his career prepared the way for all the work that lay ahead of him.
(fig. 1) Vincent van Gogh, Pollard Willow, August 1882. Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. BARCODE 25240108
(fig. 2) Vincent van Gogh, Iron Mill in The Hague. Late July, 1882. BARCODE RJ493_4
(fig. 3) Vincent van Gogh, Pollard Willows, Arles, April, 1889. Private Collection BARCODE 25240092