Van Gogh’s Weavers (1884)

In 1884 the 31-year old Vincent Van Gogh started to sketch, paint and study the everyday life of the craftsmen and artisans who lived in his hometown, Nuenen. He felt such intense compassion for these manual laborers that his identitification with their hard life has often been suggested in passing but is little understood.1 Here you will see how the weavers' meditative and disciplined approach to their craft has been used by the painter as a visual metaphor for his own approach to painting. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Van Gogh, Weaver Seen From the Front (1884) Otterlo, Kröller-Müller Museum

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The most important poetic link that has probably never been noted before is Vincent's use of a large wooden frame to help improve the perspective in his works. He relied on it, specialists believe, for most of his career. Two years before painting the weavers, he wrote: "I spent more [money] on making an instrument for studying perspective and proportion, the description of which can be found in a book by Albrecht Dürer......I eventually succeeded [in making one] with the help of the carpenter and the smith."2

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Captions for image(s) above:

Van Gogh, Detail of a Letter, with his sketch of a perspective frame (c. 6th August, 1882)

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Inspired by the instrument's link to Dürer as well as by his profound feeling for his fellow artisans Vincent must have had this perspective instrument in mind when he set it up next to his easel in front of an even larger loom which then became a mirror-like reflection on a larger scale of his own wooden contraption.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Van Gogh, Weaver Seen from the Front (1884)

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Van Gogh also used balls of yarn. He combined the colors in different ways to help him choose an appropriate palette for each painting. The red suitcase he kept them in along with a few balls of wool survive. They can be seen today (left) in the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.3

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Captions for image(s) above:

Van Gogh's suitcase with his original balls of wool inside. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

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It is, then, even more likely that Vincent also identified with the women he drew winding yarn and selecting different color threads. He did so because he himself wound balls of yarn and chose colors from them in his own practice. Besides, a male artist's poetic mind often uses such links to a woman working at her craft to depict its own androgyny.4 

See conclusion below

Captions for image(s) above:

Van Gogh, Woman Winding Yarn (May-July 1885) Chalk on paper. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

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Reading Van Gogh's correspondence is an excellent way to uncover his visual metaphors. He used similar metaphors to describe his pictures in words, though he was careful not to use them about pictures of the same subject matter. Thus in describing The Potato Eaters which contains no weaving he was free to write about it: “When weavers weave that cloth which I think they call cheviot, or those curious multicolored Scottish tartan fabrics, then they try, as you know, to get strange broken colors and grays into the cheviot and to get the most vivid colors to balance each other in the multicolored chequered cloth so that instead of the fabric being a jumble, the … pattern looks harmonious from a distance.” He tellingly added: “I’ve held the threads of this fabric in my hands all winter long and searched for the definitive pattern and although it is now a fabric of rough and coarse appearance [The Potato Eaters], the threads have nonetheless been chosen with care and according to certain rules. And it might just turn out to be a genuine peasant painting. I know that it is.”4

Be aware, then, of an artist's techniques, the tools of the craft and his or her own method of making art because those are some of the themes which will reappear through a visual metaphor in the subject matter of the art itself. And try reading their letters too.

Notes:

1. H.R. Graetz,The Symbolic Language of Vincent van Gogh (London: Thames and Hudson) 1963, p. 36; More recent commentary has been less insightful. Carol Zemel's 1994 article on the Weavers series focusses almost entirely on the social and historical background to images of weavers in 1880's Brabant by Van Gogh and others while suggesting a psychological link to van Gogh only in passing. She does point out two important features that should not be missed. The first is the apparent animation of the loom compared to the spectral, impersonal presence of the weaver, in Weaver Seen From the Front (1884) for example but in others too. His greater focus on the machinery than the worker can be explained by his image's need to represent his own mind at work, a metaphoric depiction conveyed by the small, claustrophobic rooms with their low ceilings, large looms and lack of daylight. 

2. Sjraar van Huegten, Vincent van Gogh Drawings: The Early Years 1880-1883, v.1 (Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum), pp.22-5

3. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

4. See the theme Androgyny.

4. Cited in Potter P. “Sometimes the naked taste of potato reminds me of being poor.” Emerging Infectious Diseases [serial on the Internet]. 2009 Jun [23rd Nov. 2012]. Available at http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/15/6/ac-1506.htm

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