Two women in a wood oil on paper laid down on panel 12 1/4 x 9 7/16in. (31 x 24cm) Painted in August 1882
PROVENANCE Dr H.P. Bremmer, The Hague. P. Salavin, Paris (acquired from the above). Ivo Bouwman, The Hague. Frances Aronson Gallery, Atlanta. Acquired from the above in December 1983, and thence by descent to the present owner.
EXHIBITED Paris, Musée Jacquemart-André, Vincent van Gogh: 1853-1890, February - March 1960, p. 29, no. 3. Atlanta, The High Museum of Art, May - November 1984.
LITERATURE M.E. Tralbaut, Van Gogh, Le Mal Aimé, Lausanne, 1969, p. 103 (illustrated in color). J.B. de la Faille, The Works of Vincent van Gogh: His Paintings and Drawings, Amsterdam, 1970 (revised edition), p. 570, no. SP 1665 (illustrated). J. Hulsker, The New Complete Van Gogh: Paintings, Drawings, Sketches: Revised and Enlarged Edition of the Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam and Philadelphia, 1996, p. 47, no. 181 (illustrated). L. Jansen, H. Luijten and N. Bakker (eds.), Vincent van Gogh: the letters: the complete illustrated and annotated edition, II, London, 1996, p. 135, note 3, and p. 145, note 4.
The summer of 1882 marked an exciting progression in van Gogh's psychological and artistic journey. Following the failure of his attempts at evangelical preaching in the Borinage, the economically depressed mining region of Belgium, in 1878-80, and through the encouragement of his brother Theo he had had working increasingly hard at his growth as an artist. Both his religious and artistic endeavours were guided by the same fundamental concerns, based on a deep engagement with the plight of the working poor bolstered by reading authors such as Emil Zola and the de Goncourt brothers. He spent 1881 in Brabant in the south of the Netherlands where his father was a priest in a poor rural parish, before moving to The Hague at the end of the year. There he worked briefly with his cousin Anton Mauve, the leading Hague School painter, before becoming disillusioned with the formality of his studio practice. Instead he fell under the spell of Sien Hornik, an abandoned mother, heavily pregnant, who supported her family as a laundress and sometime prostitute. This combination of deprivation and the warm, if unconventional, family support, provided van Gogh with the structure he needed.
By the summer of 1882 he had been drawing steadily, and intensely, for two years. In early August Theo sent him a little extra money and encouraged him to start working in paint. The present work is one of the group of seven studies produced that August on prepared paper (primed canvas was still too expensive). His characteristic sensitivity emerged immediately. As so often, van Gogh's excitement at this new departure shines through from his letters to his brother:
'I'm enjoying it so much, Theo, that I'll have to restrain rather than push myself because of the costs. These studies are of medium size, though slightly larger than the lid of an ordinary painting box, because I don't work in the lid, but instead pin the painting paper for the study to a frame with canvas stretched across it, which is easy to carry. ... But, old chap, it's wonderful for me that I've once again been given so many good tools thanks again for everything. I'll do my best to ensure that you need have no regrets, but rather the satisfaction of seeing the progress made.' (letter to Theo van Gogh, The Hague, Thursday, 10 and Friday, 11 August 1882, http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let255/letter.html, accessed 21 September 2013)
Two days later he wrote to his friend the painter Anthon van Rappard about his new discovery: 'I find painting so appealing that I'll have to make a great effort not to paint all the time. It's rather more manly than watercolour, and has more poetry to it.' (letter to Anthon van Rappard, The Hague, Sunday, 13 August 1882, http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let256/letter.html, accessed 21 September 2013).
The following day he wrote again to Theo, still bubbling with excitement about the paintings in oil on paper he had made, almost certainly including the present work and A girl in a wood (Hulsker 180): 'To tell you the truth, it surprises me a little. I thought that the first things would look like nothing at all, although they would improve later, I thought, though I say so myself, that they do look like something, and that rather amazes me. I believe that this is because, before I began painting, I spent so long drawing and studying perspective so that I could put together a thing I saw. Well, since I bought my paint and materials, I have toiled and laboured, so that at the moment I'm dead tired, having done 7 painted studies. I literally couldn't hold myself back - I couldn't leave it alone or take a break from it.' (letter to Theo van Gogh, The Hague, Monday, 14 August 1882, http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let257/letter.html, accessed 21 September 2013).
Although social commentary and his desire to be a 'painter of peasants' was still his guiding concern, these paintings are notable for their sensitive engagement with landscape. He found great inspiration in the fields and woods around The Hague, and the neighboring coastal village of Scheveningen. In addition to the influence of naturalist authors such as Zola and the de Goncourt brothers, these compositions also reflect the weighted atmosphere of the prints from the illustrated papers that van Gogh collected at this time. Two examples which he retained and which were recovered from his estate give an indication of the melodrama of this social commentary, Alfred Emslie's The rising of the waters (published 1881, mentioned in a letter of September 1882) and Edwin Edwards' Road in the woods ( L. Jansen, H. Luijten and N. Bakker (eds.), op. cit., p. 186, fig. 10, and p. 174, fig. 10).
However, the possibilities of engaging with the beauty of the landscape itself and the effects of weather and particularly of rain were also enormously appealing, an inherent sense of atmosphere apparent in the present work. He wrote to Theo later in August after being caught in a storm: 'When it had finally passed and the crows took to the air again, I wasn't sorry I had waited, because of the wonderfully deep tone the ground of the wood had taken on after the rain. ... How beautiful it is outdoors when everything is wet with rain - before - during - after the rain. I really ought not to miss a single shower. This morning I hung all the painted studies in the studio. I wish I could talk to you about them. ... One of the things I like about painting is that for the same effort as for a drawing one takes home something that conveys the impression much better and is much more pleasing to look at. And at the same time more accurate. ... I'm looking forward to the autumn. By then I must make sure I stock up on paint and various things again. I'm particularly fond of the effects of yellow leaves against which the green beech trunks stand out so beautifully, and the figures no less.' (letter to Theo van Gogh. The Hague, Sunday, 20 August 1882, http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let258/letter.html, accessed 21 September 2013).
Van Gogh's extraordinary emergence as a painter in oils in August 1882, if not fully formed then certainly with much that became characteristic clearly apparent in paintings such as the present work, was built on his own self-taught experiments in the medium. He describes this with great insight in a key passage in a letter to Theo at the beginning of September which may describe the creation of the present work or A girl in a wood in the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo:
'While making it I said to myself: let me not leave before there's something of an autumn evening in it, something mysterious, something with seriousness in it. However, because this effect doesn't last, I had to paint quickly. The figures were done with a few vigorous strokes with a firm brush - in one go. I was struck by how firmly the slender trunks stood in the ground - I began them using a brush, but because of the ground, which was already impasted, one brushstroke simply disappeared. Then I squeezed roots and trunks into it from the tube, and modelled them a little with the brush. Yes, now they stand in it - shoot up out of it - stand firmly rooted in it. In a sense I'm glad that I've never learned how to paint. Probably then I would have LEARNED to ignore effects like this. Now I say, no, that's exactly what I want - if it's not possible then it's not possible - I want to try it even though I don't know how it's supposed to be done. I don't know myself how I paint. I sit with a white board before the spot that strikes me - I look at what's before my eyes - I say to myself, this white board must become something - I come back, dissatisfied - I put it aside, and after I've rested a little, feeling a kind of fear, I take a look at it - then I'm still dissatisfied - because I have that marvellous nature too much in mind for me to be satisfied - but still, I see in my work an echo of what struck me, I see that nature has told me something, has spoken to me and that I've written it down in shorthand. In my shorthand there may be words that are indecipherable - errors or gaps - yet something remains of what the wood or the beach or the figure said - and it isn't a tame or conventional language which doesn't stem from nature itself but from a studied manner or a system.' (letter to Theo van Gogh, The Hague, Sunday, 3 September 1882, http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let260/letter.html, accessed 21 September 2013).
The first recorded owner of this picture was Dr Henk Bremmer (1871-1956), critic, painter, art dealer and collector, and one of the most important figures in the Dutch art world in the first half of the twentieth century. He was teacher and art advisor to Helene Kröller-Müller as she built one of the greatest collections of works by van Gogh, and one of the first authorities to appreciate the artist's significance.