Vincent van Gogh - Portrait of the Artist's Mother 1888

Portrait of the Artist's Mother 1888
Portrait of the Artist's Mother
Oil on canvas 40.5 x 32.5 cm. Arles: October, 1888
Pasadena, California: The Norton Simon Museum of Art

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From The Norton Simon Museum of Art:
By the autumn of 1888, Vincent van Gogh had settled into his Yellow House in Arles, and at the end of October he would welcome Paul Gauguin in what he hoped would become an artist’s collective a “Studio of the South.” Portraits were on the Dutchman’s mind, as not only had he exchanged self-portraits with Gauguin, Émile Bernard and Charles Laval that same month, but he had also set out to complete a series of family portraits. According to van Gogh’s letters to his brother, Theo, this portrait of their mother was based upon a black-and-white photograph. Of the portrait, the artist wrote, “I am doing a portrait of Mother for myself. I cannot stand the colorless photograph, and I am trying to do one in a harmony of color, as I see her in my memory.” Despite his intent to liven up her visage with his palette, van Gogh created a nearly monochromatic version in a pallid, unnatural green. Nevertheless, this preeminent figure in the artist’s life sits attentive and proud a model of middle-class respectability.

The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh. Arles, Tuesday, 1 May 1888.
My dear Theo,
Thank you very much for your letter and the 50-franc note it contained. It’s not in black that I see the future, but I see it bristling with many difficulties, and at times I wonder if these won’t be stronger than I am. This is especially so at times of physical weakness, and last week I suffered from a toothache that was so agonizing that it made me waste time quite in spite of myself. Nevertheless, I’ve just sent you a roll of small pen drawings, a dozen I think. That way you’ll see that even though I’d stopped painting I haven’t stopped working. Among them you’ll find a hasty croquis on yellow paper, a lawn in the public garden at the entrance to the town. And in the background a house more or less like this one.
Ah, well — today I rented the right-hand wing of this building, which contains 4 rooms, or more precisely, two, with two little rooms. It’s painted yellow outside, whitewashed inside — in the full sunshine. I’ve rented it for 15 francs a month.
Now what I’d like to do would be to furnish a room, the one on the first floor, to be able to sleep there. The studio, the store, will remain here for the whole of the campaign here in the south, and that way I have my independence from petty squabbles over guest-houses, which are ruinous and depress me. In fact, Bernard writes me that he too has a whole house, but he has it for nothing. What luck. I’ll certainly make another drawing of it for you, better than the first croquis. And at this point I dare tell you that I intend to invite Bernard and some other people to send me canvases to show them here if the opportunity arises, and it will certainly arise in Marseille. I hope I’ve been lucky this time — you understand, yellow outside, white inside, right out in the sun, at last I’ll see my canvases in a really bright interior. The floor’s made of red bricks. And outside, the public garden, of which you’ll find two more drawings.
The drawings, I dare assure you, will become even better.
I’ve had a letter from Russell, who has bought a Guillaumin and 2 or 3 Bernards.
I’m extremely pleased about that, he also writes that he’ll exchange studies with me. I wouldn’t be afraid of anything unless it was this bloody health. And yet I’m better than in Paris, and if my stomach has become terribly weak that’s a problem I picked up there, probably due mainly to the bad wine, of which I drank too much. Here the wine is just as bad, but I only drink very little of it. And so the fact is that as I hardly eat and hardly drink I’m very weak, but my blood is improving instead of being ruined. So once again, it’s patience I need in the circumstances, and perseverance.
Having received the absorbent canvas, I’m starting these days a new no. 30 canvas that I hope will be better than the others. Do you remember in La recherche du bonheur the chap who bought as much land as he could run round in a single day? Well, with my orchard decoration I’ve been that man, more or less, half a dozen out of a dozen I have anyway, but the other 6 aren’t as good, and I’m sorry I didn’t rather do 2 of them instead of the last 6. Anyway, I’ll send you ten or so in the next few days anyway.
I bought 2 pairs of shoes, which cost me 26 francs, and 3 shirts that cost me 27 francs, which meant that despite the 100 note I wasn’t enormously rich. But in view of the fact that I plan to do business in Marseille, I definitely want to be well turned out, and I don’t intend to buy anything but good quality. And the same for work, it will be better to do one painting fewer than to do it less well.
Should it come about that you had to leave those gentlemen, don’t think that I have doubts about the possibility of doing business all the same, but we mustn’t be caught unawares, that’s all, and if it drags on a bit longer that’s actually for the better.

As for me, if a few months from now I’m ready for an expedition to Marseille, I’ll be able to do things with more self-assurance than if I arrived there having run out of breath. I’ve seen MacKnight again, but still nothing of his work. I still have colours, I have brushes, I still have plenty of things in stock. But we mustn’t waste our powder.
I think if you were to leave those gentlemen, for my part I’d have to manage to live without spending more than, for example, 150 francs a month. I couldn’t do it now, but you’ll see that in 2 months I’ll be set up like that. If then we earn more, so much the better, but I want to ensure that.
So, if I had some very strong broth, that would get me going right away, it’s dreadful, I’ve never been able to get even any of the very simple things I’ve asked those people for. And it’s the same everywhere in these little restaurants. Yet it’s not hard to boil potatoes. Impossible.
And no rice or macaroni either, or else it’s ruined with fat or they don’t do it, and make the excuse: it’s for tomorrow, there’s no room on the stove, &c.
It’s silly but true all the same that that’s why my health is poor.
All the same, it cost me a lot of agonizing to bring myself to make a decision, because I said to myself that in The Hague and in Nuenen I’d tried to take a studio and I said to myself that it had turned out badly. But many things have changed since then, and as I feel I’m on firmer ground — let’s go ahead. Only we’ve already spent so much money on this bloody painting we mustn’t forget that it has to come back in paintings. If we dare believe, and I’m sure of it, that Impressionist paintings will go up in value, we’ve got to do lots of them and keep the prices up.
All the more reason why we should calmly take care of the quality of the thing and not waste time. And after a few years, I can see the possibility that the capital laid out will come back into our hands, if not in cash, then in value.
And now if you agree, I’ll rent or buy furniture for the bedroom. I’ll go and have a look today or tomorrow morning.
I’m still convinced that nature here is just what’s needed to do colour. And so it’s more than likely that I won’t move far from here.
Raffaëlli has done a portrait of Edmond de Goncourt, hasn’t he? That must be beautiful. I’ve seen Le Salon published by L’Illustration. Is the Jules Breton beautiful?
You’ll soon receive a painting I did for you for the first of May.
If necessary, I could live at the new studio with someone else, and I’d very much like to. Perhaps Gauguin will come to the south. Perhaps I’ll come to an arrangement with MacKnight. Then we could cook at home.
In any case, the studio is too open to view for me to think it could tempt any woman, and it would be hard for a petticoat episode18 to lead to a cohabitation. Anyway, moral standards seem to me less inhuman and contrary to nature than in Paris. But with my temperament, to lead a wild life and to work are no longer compatible at all, and in the given circumstances I’ll have to content myself with making paintings. That’s not happiness and not real life, but what can you say, even this artistic life, which we know isn’t the real one, seems so alive to me, and it would be ungrateful not to be content with it.
I have one big worry fewer now that I’ve found the little white studio. I looked at a whole lot of apartments without success. It will seem funny to you that the water closet is at the neighbour’s, in quite a large house that belongs to the same owner. In a southern town I think you’d be wrong to complain about it, because these facilities are few and far between, and dirty, and you can’t help thinking of them as nests of germs.
On the other hand, I have water here.
I’ll put some Japanese prints on the wall.
If there happened to be some canvases in your apartment that were in the way, this could always be used as a storeroom, that might become necessary, because you ought not to have mediocre things at your place.
Bernard has written to me and sent croquis.
I’m very pleased that you found our mother and sister well.
Is Reid going to Marseille? At the bottom of it, perhaps, is that he loves this woman who didn’t trust us, feeling that we might perhaps not want to encourage the cohabitation. I’m inclined to believe she’s the psychological reason for his coming back. You’ll say that in that case we’ll have to consider everything he’s going to do in the future, and maintain great composure for the moment. Will you go back to Holland for the holidays? If you could do both, going to see Tersteeg and Marseille on business regarding the Impressionists, and resting at Breda between those two chores.
Have you seen Seurat again?
I shake your hand firmly, wishing you a year as full of sunshine as the weather here today. Warm regards to Koning.
Ever yours,
If you could send me 100 francs next time, I could sleep at the studio as early as this week. I’ll also write you what arrangement the furniture dealer wants to make.