From Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid:
With its generous panoramic shape of one metre and a half, this painting is by far the largest of a group of works representing watermills that Van Gogh made in 1884. Its unusual shape may have been inspired by a decorative series representing the "Four Seasons" that was meant for Antoon Hermans new residence at Eindhoven. All these watermills were in walking distance from his parental home in Nuenen, near Eindhoven. This water-mill with its two wheels can be identified with the water-mill at Gennep in the river Dommel. The wooden structures are the mill proper; behind it a farmhouse can be seen that also contained the home of the millner. Marc Edo Tralbaut identified the mill and reproduced several photographs made in situ.
Van Gogh´s authorship can be conferred from several primary and secondary sources. In a letter to be dated in the third week of November, Van Gogh wrote: "These days I am still working outdoors, although it is freezing considerably here. I am working on a rather large study (more than one metre) of an old water mill at Gennep [letter to his brother Theo, November 1884], on the other side of Eindhoven. I want to finish this work completely outdoors-but it will surely be the last work that I have done outside this year." The letter, and therefore this painting, can be dated to the third week of November, since the temperature began to drop below zero in this week. When Van Gogh carried the large study home, it attracted someone's curiosity: "Yesterday I just brought home that study of the water mill at Gennep, which I painted with pleasure. It has brought me a new friend in Eindhoven. He wanted to learn to paint at all costs, so I visited him and we started immediately." This pupil was Anton Kerssemakers, who later remembered to have seen Vincent at work on this painting.
Kerssemakers told that Van Gogh used copaiva balsam, a substance used in oil painting to inhibit the drying process of the paint, permitting a longer working process. According to Kerssemakers, he used it too generously: "the sky in the painting melted down, so he had to scratch it off with a palet knife and repaint it." This would still be visible when on careful inspection. Indeed, if one looks at the water on the right, there is a blueish reflection of the sky and near the wheel, a little blue is still visible. Probably, the grey clouds were an afterthought.
Kerssemaker's observations are the more remarkable since it is the relationship between the bright but overcast sky and the darker mass of the river and the houses that is exploited by Van Gogh with great aesthetic success.
To Theo van Gogh. Isleworth, Monday, 3 or Tuesday, 4 July 1876.
My dear Theo,
There may well come a time when I look back with a certain nostalgia on the ‘excesses of Egypt’ connected with other situations, namely earning more money and being in many respects of more consequence in the world – this I foresee. There is however ‘bread enough and to spare’ in the houses I’ll be visiting as I continue down the road I’ve taken, but not money to spare.
And yet I so clearly see light in the distance, and if that light disappears now and then it’s mostly my own fault.
It’s very questionable whether I’ll go far in this profession, whether those 6 years spent in the firm of Messrs Goupil & Co., during which I should have been training for this situation, won’t always be a thorn in my flesh, as it were.
I believe, however, that on no account can I turn back now, even if part of me should wish to (later, this isn’t the case now). These days it seems to me that there are no situations in the world other than those ranging from schoolmaster to clergyman and everything in between: missionary, ‘London missionary’ &c. &c. Being a London missionary is rather special, I believe; one has to go around among the workers and the poor spreading God’s word and, if one has some experience, speak to them, track down and seek to help foreigners looking for work, or other people who are in some sort of difficulty, etc. etc. Last week I was in London a couple of times to find out if there’s a possibility of my becoming one. Because I speak various languages and have tended to associate, especially in Paris and London, with people from the poorer classes and foreigners, and being a foreigner myself, I may well be suited to this, and could become so more and more.
To do this, however, one has to be at least 24 years old, and so in any case I still have a year to wait.
Mr Stokes says he definitely cannot give me a salary, for he can get plenty of people who’ll work for board and lodging alone, which is certainly true. But can that be kept up for long? I’m afraid not; it will be decided soon enough.
But, old boy, no matter what the case, I think I can tell you this again, that these couple of months have bound me so closely to the sphere ranging from schoolmaster to clergyman, both through satisfactions associated with those situations and through thorns that have pricked me, that I can no longer turn back.
Onward, then! But I can assure you that very distinct difficulties will present themselves very soon, and others are visible on the horizon, and as if one is in a different world from the firm of Messrs Goupil & Co.
Will I be getting the small engravings (like those Pa and Ma have) of Christus Consolator and Remunerator that you promised me? Write soon if you can find a moment, but send your letter to Pa and Ma, because my address may change soon and Pa and Ma will be the first to know.
Last week I was at Hampton Court to see the splendid gardens and long avenues of chestnut and lime trees where masses of crows and rooks have their nests, and also to see the palace and the paintings. There are, among other things, many portraits by Holbein which are very beautiful, and two beautiful Rembrandts (the portrait of his wife and one of a rabbi), and also beautiful Italian portraits by Bellini, Titian, a painting by Leonardo da Vinci, cartoons by Mantegna, a beautiful painting by S. Ruysdael, fruit by Cuyp and so on and so forth.
I rather wished that you could have been there too; it was a pleasure to see paintings again.
And I couldn’t help thinking vividly of the people who have lived at Hampton Court, of Charles i and his wife (she was the one who said ‘I thank Thee, God, for having made me Queen, though an unhappy Queen’, and at whose graveside Bossuet spoke from the abundance of his heart. Do you have ‘Bossuet, Oraisons funèbres’, you’ll find that eulogy there, there’s a very cheap edition, 50 centimes, I think), and also of Lord and Lady Russell, who would certainly have gone there often. (Guizot described their life in L’amour dans le mariage. Read that sometime if you can get hold of it.) Herewith a feather from one of the rooks there.
Do write soon if you can, I’m longing to hear from you, and believe me, after a handshake in thought
Your loving brother
Despite my feeling that I am inadequate and that in many respects I lack the qualifications necessary for the situation I have and for the related situation I have my eye on, I nevertheless have at the same time such a feeling of thankfulness, of hope and of something like deliverance! and freedom! despite all kinds of bonds, and the thought of God – despite new shortcomings that occur to me – stays with me more strongly and longer.