How to burn paintings by Vincent van Gogh

The Scheveningen beach is only five minutes walking from my home, provided that I am not overcome by the history of the place. The English King William (of William & Mary) must have ridden his horse here while he was planning his conquest of England of 1688. This is also one of the first places where Vincent van Gogh field-tested his window on the world in 1882, i.e. a perspective frame.

In his letter to Theo in August (no 253) Vincent actually draws himself using that perspective frame, and in the next letter he explains more about it. I thank Katherine Tyrrell for bringing this to our attention. He already mentioned the frame in letter 235 footnote 10 with a reference to a woodcut by Dürer.

Vincent van Gogh using his perspective frame 1882 (wikimedia commons)

In that period Vincent had mainly been drawing and made few or no paintings yet. He regularly visited his uncle Anton Mauve who was an established painter. Mauve also depicted Scheveningen beach scenes so that we can taste the differences. A picture with a ship is often interesting, a picture with horses is often interesting too, and here we see both. A lover of horses will pity these poor creatures though.

Anton Mauve, “Bomschuit op het strand” (1882) (wikimedia commons)

A few days earlier, on July 26 (letter no 251, footnote 3) Vincent wrote about Scheveningen too, but also referred to L.C. Enthoven. We proceed with the latter. The Enthoven family owned factories and L.C. behaved like a rentier. He supported artists and musicians and gave money to the needy, but refused recognition for this, refused to have his picture drawn, and later on his funeral his stone didn’t wear a name.

Enthoven recognised Vincent’s talent very early and acquired many of his early drawings. Vincent was allowed to stay overnight and work in the attic of the Enthoven home in Voorburg. When Vincent found another place, Enthoven likely convinced Vincent’s landlord that he should accept Vincent’s drawings as payment for the rent, so that the artist had a place to stay and could take Sien and her kids to live with him. In March 1883 Vincent writes Theo: “Two good people — man and woman united — wanting and intending the same, steeped in the same earnestness, what couldn’t they achieve! I’ve thought about that often. For by uniting, the force for good is not only doubled but doubled many times — as if raised to a higher power, to put it in mathematical terms.” (letter 331)

An account by dr. W.J.A. Visser in the Yearbook 1973 of the Historical Society of The Hague clarifies that Vincent likely would not have survived those days without the support by L.C. Enthoven. Alternatively, if L.C. hadn’t been there, Vincent might have found alternative venues, but who is to tell, and apparently Vincent felt long indebted to him.

This would be one of the first water-colours possibly made with that perspective frame, made from the window of his home (or that had windowpanels). He actually chose that home so that he would have a view on the meadows and could work like in an atelier (explains Dr. Visser).  The huge building on the right was a newly built railway station on the outskirts of the city, now included in The Hague Central.

Vincent van Gogh, “Meadows near Rijswijk and the Schenkweg” (1882) (wikimedia commons)

We indeed see Vincent trying colour in 1883 but his “Potato Eaters” (1885) will return to grim colours perhaps as if drawn.

Vincent van Gogh, “Bloembedden” (1883) (NGA. Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon)

The plot thickens. Vincent and L.C. became good friends, but somehow they clashed. Dr. Visser relates the incident that L.C. caught Vincent drawing his picture. L.C. got so upset that he threw his coffee over it and Vincent left the house slamming the door and yelling loudly. There may have been more incidences of artistic aspiration and temperament. If it hasn’t been done yet, the Visser story should be translated into English and published with the drawings from this period that he has so well described and included in this story.

Eventually, L.C. didn’t want to have anything to do with Vincent anymore. Vincent left for Paris and went on to the South of France. Remarkably, after a while Vincent on occasion still sent a letter and what would be a drawing or painting to L.C. But L.C. didn’t open the letters and didn’t look at the works. He threw them all unopened in a basket in the attic.

Vincent died in 1890 and L.C. passed away in 1920. In all those 30 years, the basket remained in the attic. When L.C. died, his children sat together in Voorburg in discussion what to do with the large estate. They divided the houses, sold of property and art, and parts would go into an auction. Let me translate what Dr. Visser then reconstructs:

“While the auctioneer arranged everything for the auction and made his rounds, Meint and Marijke [the house servants] suddenly asked the members of the family what should happen with ‘that wild basket’, there in the attic. The answer sounded unanimously and without delay: ‘Burn it.’  And thus was done. The fire in the garden went high when the letters and the rolls with paintings and drawings were surrendered to the flames. ‘Who had any business at all with what their father had done for Vincent ?’ What had happened between the two of them and why L.C. Enthoven had stopped to support Vincent was the ‘secret’ of their father, that the inheritors had to respect. They were convinced that they acted fully in accordance with their fathers wishes. The historian will respect the emotional argument by a family in grief, but on closer rational consideration he finds this loss of valuable historical data  irredeemable and a terrible pity.”  (The Hague Historical Yearbook 1973 p 18)

PM. The story should stop here, but stories never end. The art historians at the Van Gogh Museum wonder whether the above story is true: “However, there is no mention at all of this correspondence with Enthoven in Van Gogh’s letters, and there is no tangible evidence to support these assertions.” (here, note 79) I however have the impression that Dr. Visser made quite some study of the case and spoke to various people. Other things that he reported apparently aren’t contested. L.C. did have a big collection, later sold to Kröller-Müller. That Vincent doesn’t write more about L.C. would only corroborate the personal attachment rather than the “big client”. One might check on the paintings that Vincent discussed in France and that can no longer be traced. Thus here is another question for historians: Did that wild basket in the attic exist historically or didn’t it ?


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