Van Gogh’s famous vase of sunflowers used to contain fat

There used to be water and fire shops, shops where you could buy boiling water and different types of fires; glowing coals to fill a stove or stove. Vincent van Gogh writes about it in a letter from 1882: „Sien and I camped for days in a row from morning to evening like true bohemians in the dunes, we took bread and a bag of coffee and then got hot water. a water and fire woman on Schevening.”

The letter is quoted in the new book Closer to Vincent. Everyday objects in the work of Vincent van Gogh. There are more forgotten customs and objects in this book, written by Alexandra van Dongen, curator of historical design at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Who knows the match holder, a ribbed porcelain jar? You could ignite a match by running the cup along the unglazed ridges on the outside. Van Gogh painted one on canvas in Paris in 1887 Agostina Segatori in Le Tambourin. The paint strokes that represent the jar are not just paint strokes, they double here as the ridges of the match holder.

Van Dongen discovered examples in more paintings in which a free painting technique serves a realistic representation, for example on his Vase with Chinese asters and garden gladiolusfrom 1886. This vase turns out to be a liqueur jug, decorated with ‘bark glaze’, which explains the thick paint curl in the painting.

Van Gogh often used things like vases that weren’t really vases. For example, the famous sunflowers that Van Gogh painted in Arles in 1889 are not in a vase but in a grease pot. These grease pots, with a glazed inside and a half-glazed outside, were used, among other things, for storing shortening and the larger ones for canning duck, the confit de canard. Van Dongen tells us in which factories they were made in the nineteenth century, in Provence and in Castelnaudary, still the world capital of the cassoulet, a bean dish that always contains pickled duck. It is now mainly sold in cans. The pots were made with yellow and with green glaze; it is not surprising that Van Gogh eventually chose yellow for the sunflowers. He used a green one with ears again, when he was in the asylum in Saint Remy en Provence in 1890, for a still life with white roses.

Van Gogh also used a Norman milk jug as a vase for a still life with fritillaria from 1887. It is a round brass jug in which they transported milk on farms in France. The book contains a pastel drawing by Millet, one of Van Gogh’s heroes, of a woman washing such round milk jugs with water from a wooden bucket, and a postcard with a girl carrying one on her shoulder. A rope is tied around the neck of the jug, which she uses to keep it in balance. It looks very different from the two-bucket yoke that was common in the Netherlands.

Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers (1889) and the Greasepot as a Vase. These pots, with a glazed inside and a half-glazed outside, were used, among other things, for canning and for storing shortening.Photos Van Gogh Museum, Martin Bailey collection

Have we gone astray now? What is the use of information and speculation about old vases and pitchers? It’s mainly about how Van Gogh painted, isn’t it? Does it matter if he painted a vase or a grease pot or a milk jug, it’s about something else, his fire, his vision? Or is Van Gogh so famous that everything we can know about him is interesting? Like a Marilyn Monroe bra, a Gandhi spoon, a Neil Armstrong comb, a piece of Britney Spears chewed gum (yes, all sold at auction, these things). Signatures. relics.

Perhaps this stanza from Van Gogh’s letters, made into poetry by Ramsey Nasr earlier this year in the collection We were under the spell a way out:

“I can […] want […] may not live without love in anticipation of it I devour […] the reality”

Van Gogh wrote in remarkable detail about the objects he painted

Over the phone, Alexandra van Dongen points out a number of practical and art-historical advantages of her type of research: for example, the original color of an object can say something about Van Gogh’s use of color and the later discoloration of a painting or help in dating paintings. The pottery saucepan featured on Still life with potatoes is, for example, a French saucepan from Vallauris, which makes it unlikely that this still life was painted in Nuenen in 1885. Pans like this only came to the Netherlands in the twentieth century, as fondue pots.

Like Ramsey Nasr, Van Dongen sifted through Van Gogh’s letters and found many passages where he wrote in remarkable detail about the objects he painted. On May 20, 1888, he wrote to his brother Theo: “I made two still lifes this week. A coffee pot of blue enamelled iron, a cup (left) in royal blue and gold, a light blue and white checkered milk jug, a white cup – right – with blue and orange design on a saucer of grey-yellow earthenware, a jug of blue mud earthenware or majolica with red-green-brown pattern, finally 2 oranges and 3 lemons; there is a blue cloth on the table, the background is greenish-yellow, so 6 different blues and 4 or 5 yellows and oranges.”

Vincent van Gogh, Agostina Segatori in Le Tambourin (1887) and a ribbed match holder from Limoges. The match ignited if you stroked it over ridges on the outside.Photos Van Gogh Museum, Tom Haartsen

It is striking – or not – that Van Gogh painted what was available. Nothing special. “If you follow Van Gogh from Nuenen to Arles, the objects match what was available at that place and at that time,” says Van Dongen. Sometimes he bought things at a flea market, more often he used what there was, although not everything is what it seems. Up the white mugs The potato eaters they weren’t special peasant coffee cups, they were industrial pottery from Maastricht, from the Regout factory or the Société Céramique, which, as Van Dongen says, “everyone was using then”.

Van Dongen was the first to conduct part of her research in the Vincent van GoghHuis in Zundert, Van Gogh’s native village. curator in residence. There is now also an exhibition that she organized together with André Smits & Monika Dahlberg, who stayed there as artists in residence. There are no paintings by Van Gogh to be seen, but there are some of the objects he painted. Sometimes it concerns objects of the type he painted, such as a kerosene lamp or a ewer, sometimes objects that he actually painted, such as the French liqueur jug ​​and the Normandy milk jug, painted by Jo van Gogh-Bonger, the widow of Vincent’s brother. Theo, have always been kept and kept on the cupboard at her home in Amsterdam, as can be seen in a number of photos.

Also read: Vincent van Gogh’s famous bed may still be somewhere

Jo Bonger once also owned Van Gogh’s pine bed that is depicted in the painting The bedroom from 1888 can be seen. A lot of history comes together in the story about this bed. After Van Vincent van Gogh’s suicide, his brother Theo took it home. It eventually ended up in the villa in Laren of his son Vincent Willem. This Vincent wanted to donate the beds to Arles for the Yellow House, which would become a museum. But the yellow house was destroyed in 1944. The bed was donated to the Red Cross by Vincent in 1945. It probably ended up in Boxmeer, a municipality in Brabant that had been badly hit by the war. There is another photo of the aid campaign ‘Laren helps Boxmeer’, which shows trucks full of goods. Perhaps Van Gogh’s bed is in one of that truck. Van Gogh expert Martin Bailey tried to find the bed a few years ago, but was unsuccessful. Maybe someone else is sleeping in it. It cannot be ruled out.

Vincent van Gogh, The Potato Eaters (1885) and the White Mugs. Pottery from Maastricht that everyone used then, not just farmers.Photos Van Gogh Museum, Tom Haartsen

A bed is still a bed. Most of the objects in Van Gogh’s paintings have become old-fashioned. Nobody uses them anymore, certainly not the way they were intended. Lamp ewers, milk ewers, match holders, grease pots, they are gone. The objects have become more old-fashioned than paintings, which are still being made. Vita Brevis, Ars Longa. Maybe a few things managed to survive as a vase. Improper use, as Vincent van Gogh already did. Vita Brevis, Ars Longa. In this case even more, because the yellow grease pot probably could never have stood in real life with so many long, heavy flowers in it. He does not fall over in Van Gogh’s painting. ‘I am convinced that Vincent used a larger size of the same type of pottery for his sunflowers,’ says Van Dongen. “We only know a small surviving model, I’m still looking for a bigger one without ears.”

Not everything is art yet. I have a jam jar in my kitchen, just like the one Van Gogh painted in Arles in 1888 after he put a blossoming almond sprig in it. It is one of those glass jars with ridges and a red and white checkered lid, an imitation of the red and white checkered cloth with which such a jar was closed in Van Gogh’s time. There’s still jam in it.

Vincent van Gogh, Still life with fritillaria (1887) and a milk jug as a vase. Milk was stored in such brass jugs on farms in Normandy.Photos Van Gogh Museum

A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of September 22, 2022

The article is in Dutch

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