By November 1881 van Gogh's relationship with his parents, with whom he had been staying in Etten since April, had greatly deteriorated because of the artist's unwelcome romantic advances toward his cousin Kee Vos. Van Gogh moved to The Hague in January 1882, where he had previously studied with the painter Anton Mauve, and took a room on the outskirts of town only ten minutes from his teacher.
Although van Gogh was happy at finally having his own place in which to paint, in his reduced circumstances he found it difficult to find models who would pose for him. On 22 January he wrote to his brother Théo, "I have already had various models, but they are either too expensive, or they find it too far to come, or they complain about it and cannot come back on a regular basis" (Letter 172). However, in March he wrote again, "This one is a new model, although I have made superficial drawings of her before. Or rather, there is more than one model, as I have already had three people from the same house, a
woman about forty-five, who looks just like a figure by Edouard Frère, and also her daughter, thirty or thereabouts, and a younger child of ten or eleven. They are poor people, and I must say their willingness is boundless" (Letter 178). The older woman was Maria Hoornik, the younger was her daughter Clasina Maria Hoornik, called "Sien", and the child was Sien's younger sister, also named Maria.
Later in the same letter van Gogh noted that Sien "is not handsome but her figure is very graceful and has some charm for me." He was attracted to her, feelings which were no doubt partly motivated by his evangelical compassion for her condition: Sien was a prostitute and the unwed mother of a five-year old daughter (also named Maria, who often stayed with her grandmother), and was expecting another child, whose father had deserted her. "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 own bread with her" (Letter 192). They began living together and moved to a larger apartment some time before May 1882, when the artist revealed their relationship to his brother. Théo 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. This unwavering support came a crucial time: van Gogh had recently fallen out with Mauve, he now had another mouth to feed, and he seemed beset with difficulties on all sides.
However, with the regular availability of a model his work at drawing figures progressed. Sien was subject to fits of melancholy and bad temper, and was occasionally difficult, but this was not dissimilar from van Gogh's own temperamental behavior, and they understood each other. "If I sometimes get angry because something is not going well and I fly into a rage" he wrote the painter Anthon van Rappard, "she does not take it as an insult as most people do, but gets me to calm down and start all over again. And as regards the tedious search for this or that position or pose, she has a patience for that. And so I think she is a darling" (Letter R 8).
Sien gave birth to her son Willem Hoornik on 2 July 1882 in a hospital in Leiden. While she was away, van Gogh moved to better quarters on the attic floor of the house next door, which consisted of a living room adjoining a sizable studio space with a large window. He now had a regular family to look after. He relished the domesticity of this new situation; it was to prove to be one of the happiest times in his life. In September the "little man", as van Gogh affectionately called Willem, made his first appearance in the artist's work, in a series of drawings and watercolors that show Sien seated in the apartment's wicker armchair while nursing him (Hulsker, nos. 216-221). The present work is the only one in this group in which the artist defines the interior setting by using the corner of the window at upper left, and it is the only one that he signed. While in The Hague, van Gogh worked in oils for only brief periods, but he still felt hampered by his awkwardness at painting the figure, and found that he made more rapid progress using watercolor and drawing media.
Van Gogh lived with Sien and her children through the spring and summer of the following year, but their relationship was deteriorating. Her bad moods increased, and behind them van Gogh saw that her family was trying to get her to move out because he did not earn enough. He suspected that Sien's brother, "a notoriously bad character" (Letter 288), was trying to persuade her to return to prostitution as a better means of making a living. But as his financial situation worsened further still, van Gogh realized that he would have to leave The Hague, and in September moved to the countryside in Drenthe. He left Sien, little Willem and Sien's daughter Maria behind. "Vincent left the city where over the past twenty months he had become a highly proficient artist and where, along with heavy cares, he had known moments of domestic bliss that were not to fall to his lot again. He was facing a future in which everything was uncertain--not only the place where he would settle but also the question whether he would remain alone or be united with the woman and children" (J. Hulsker, op. cit., p. 92).