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Letter from Benno J. Stokvis to n/a
Breda, 1926

[From Investigations about Vincent van Gogh in Brabant by Benno J. Stokvis, Lld., 1926.]

VISIT TO BREDA

Although the town of Breda never played a part of paramount importance in Vincent van Gogh's life, it possesses special importance for the historian because it is one of the best places to find works proceeding from the hand of the artist.

This consideration induced me to go to Breda first of all. An introductory observation is indispensable, however. During the years 1884 and 1885 Vincent had his studio in the house of the sexton of the Roman Catholic church for some time. When at last there arose a difference of opinion between the priest and the painter, the latter went away to Antwerp, leaving behind almost completely the voluminous collection of his work in the studio. The Rev. Mr. Van Gogh had died more than half a year before. Old Mrs. Van Gogh went on living at the parsonage for the time being, but at last decided to move to another place along with her daughter Wilhelmina. Vincent's work, which had remained in the house of the sexton all the time, was packed into cases and entrusted to the care of a carpenter at Breda along with a great part of the family's furniture. Mrs. Van Gogh-Bonger states that in the course of time the cases which were in the house of the carpenter were simply forgotten, and that the latter later sold them to a secondhand dealer, after which they disappeared. 1

In the first place it was my intention to make a search for the secondhand dealer who had got hold of the work. I knew that the carpenter (Schrauer) had long ceased to belong to the realm of the living. All that I had been able to find out about this secondhand dealer was that he had a “French-sounding” name.

The task did not seem easy. However, Breda is a small town, and in small towns people know a lot, and moreover it happened to be “kermis” (fair time), so that it may be presumed that people were more communicative than they would have been in a period which was not kermis. I was very soon informed that there are, in the vicinity of the Great Church [Grote Kerk], secondhand shops which have been handed down from parent to child. And when a short time later I trod the pavement of Hal Street, and soon descried on my right a shop with the requisite qualifications, and asked a cautious introductory question, I immediately discovered to my joy that I had found the right man. Indeed, Mr. Couvreur and his brother J. C. Couvreur had done business with Vincent's work at the time. Of the information both gentlemen imparted to me with the greatest alacrity, I here give the following particulars.

After the Van Gogh family had had the furniture bought back from Schrauer, the cases remained at the latter's house for a great number of years, as it were without an owner.

It would seem that at last Schrauer, who had come to look upon himself as the owner, broke everything open, and took the portfolios full of drawings, sketches and watercolours, as well as the painted canvases - either put on stretchers or not - out of the cases, after which he used the wood for practical purposes. It is a certain fact that the Couvreur brothers found only loose portfolios of drawings and painted pictures.

One day in the year 1903, J. C. Couvreur went to the house of Schrauer the carpenter in order to buy some old brasswork, such as little kettles and the like. After some haggling Schrauer agreed to part with the whole lot for one rijksdaalder [i.e., one dollar or four shillings and fourpence!], but being suddenly reminded of something he added, pointing to a corner in which Van Gogh's work was lying in a pile, “But then you will have to take away this lot of rubbish too.” This happened. Schrauer did not receive one single cent for the “lot of rubbish.” This came to light in the course of the legal proceedings following an action brought against him by the painter's family.

Couvreur bought home a cart piled high with Van Gogh works, and the whole lot was stored in the cellar for the time being. About a hundred crayon drawings, looked upon as having no value, were torn up on the spot and thrown away. After this some larger canvases were sold to a rag shop, and went to “the works” at Tilberg to be scientifically destroyed. It is possible that some workman took one of these pictures home “for fun.” Couvreur's wife objected to her husband's keeping drawings from the nude about the house, and so these were thrown away.

In those days some dealers from Rotterdam called on Couvreur; he showed them his new acquisitions, but those men told him that “there was nothing in it,” and that the value was nil. This was one of the reasons why Couvreur paid so little attention at first to Schrauer's present. At long last he nailed some of the canvases to his pushcart, filled it with drawings, and sallied forth to try to sell them in the bargain market. He sold them, according to size and “prettiness,” for a penny or twopence apiece, some even went three for twopence, drawings and little paintings thrown together. Many farmers and farmer's wives bought something. Finally there came along a certain gentleman (Mouwen) who bought all that remained on the cart for one guilder [40 cents or about one shilling, seven pence halfpenny].

These is a remarkable coincidence in this with a story I once heard as a boy which made a great impression on me. It was told that some man, a hawker, was wandering about the streets of a small Brabant town with a pushcart full of Van Goghs; a gentleman had bought the whole lot out of pity; later on the well-known H. P. Bremmer 2 happened to see the collection and made important purchases in behalf of the Kröller collection (then private), for Hidde Nijland 3 and himself. I have a very strong suspicion that the persons called the hawker and the gentleman in this story are identical with Couvreur and Mouwen.

At the behest of Mr. Mouwen, who saw the promise of much profit in this affair, the Couvreur brothers later called on the persons to whom they remembered having sold drawings, for the purpose of buying back as many as possible, but this did not prove too easy - the news of the value these pieces were said to have had penetrated everywhere; for some of them, which had been cheerfully sold for twopence, the Couvreur brothers counted down 100 guilders!

The paintings which they had kept in their possession the sold successively to Mr. Mouwen, the last one for 90 guilders; it was a trick of fate that on the very next day J. Couvreur happened to read in the Nieuwe Rotterdamse Courant an elaborate article on the famous painter Vincent van Gogh. Of his former stock there then remained not one piece in his possession; a few weeks later he discovered that the canvas, the sale of which for less than 100 he had supposed to be a highly profitable bit of business, had been put down in the records of a public auction as having been sold for 4,000 guilders.

In those days, when all these happenings had become general knowledge, a veritable Van Gogh rage broke out in Brabant; people everywhere thought they had discovered new work by the painter. It seems that in consequence of this a number of falsifications were produced. I may state that in this connection I heard the name of a rather well-known painter, whose work so strongly resembled Vincent's paintings in this period that some dealers snapped up everything he produced, obliterated his signature without his knowledge (much of Van Gogh's work is unsigned), or altered it, and presented the pictures to the world in this way. According to Mr. Couvreur, a connoisseur can always easily recognize a real Van Gogh drawing, for “they are all of them little straight lines, and yet it is round”; both brothers agree on the particular that the majority of Vincent's works were characterized by a peculiar smell.

In reply to my question as to the number of pieces of the various kinds of Van Gogh's work which the Couvreur brothers had had in their possession, they mentioned a rough estimate of: 60 paintings on stretchers, 150 loose canvases, two portfolios with approximately 90 pen drawings, and some 100 or 200 crayon drawings.

The following historical anecdotes were confided to me.

Shortly after the work had come into his possession, Couvreur made a friend of his, an innkeeper in Ginneken Street, Breda, a present of a number of drawings and little paintings. Visitors who drank a more or less considerable number of glasses of beer then got one of these pieces as a souvenir. One of this innkeeper's waiters bought a loose canvas for a few “dubbeltjes,” and took it with him when he went to Antwerp. When later the great value of these pieces came to light, Couvreur went in search of this waiter. He discovered that the man had pasted the picture onto the door of his little attic, and this so efficaciously that taking it off proved to be impossible without damaging it; so the corresponding part of the door was sawed out, and later the precious discovery was carefully separated from the wood.

Another story runs as follows. Carpenter Schrauer had given a batch of thirteen canvases on stretchers to a lady of his acquaintance. She had used them to repair the holes in the walls of her summer house by the simple expedient of nailing them over these holes. So the pictures were exposed to wind and weather. Couvreur got hold of the collection at a price of 100 guilders, and sold it to Mouwen for 300 guilders.

Some years after all this had happened, Couvreur bought all the furniture of a house somewhere outside Breda. Among the goods there was a small iron hearth plate to which the son of the seller seemed to attach some sentimental value. Therefore he proposed to exchange it for a number of drawings he still had in his possession. “All right,” Couvreur said, “if you hand over another fourpence.” It appeared that the drawings were six Van Goghs, which were later sold for 180 guilders.

Finally I put the question, “Do you happen to remember what some of the pictures represented?” Two of them had stuck in Mr. Couvreur's memory: one was the picture of a rural wedding party in an inner room, around the table, under a lamp which poured down a fierce light, a number of peasants, standing with glasses in their hands; the other one was a winter scene, an ox before a wagon on a field, desolate, and with crows.

It appeared further that no members of the painter's family were living either at Breda or at Prinsenhage (where at the time an uncle of Vincent's and later also his mother lived).

  1. [Note by Dr. Stokvis] According to a correction which I received from a well-informed person of the assertion that these cases were forgotten through neglect, let it be mentioned here incidentally that there was really no question of this. In fact, when the furniture was brought back from the carpenter, one of the painter's younger sisters investigated the cases in which his work was stored, and found in them traces of woodworm. Vincent's mother, being afraid of “infection,” thereupon decided to leave everything in the place and in the state it was. Everyone is at liberty to see I this a striking example of the respect and understanding Van Gogh's nearest relatives showed with reference to his work!

  2. Hendrik Pieter Bremmer (born 1871), originally a painter, later a leading art critic and “teacher of practical aesthetics.” He had great influence on the organization of the National Kröller-Müller Museum.

  3. Dirk Hidde Nijland (born 1881), Dutch painter and graphic artist, renowned as an illustrator.


At this time, Vincent was 73 year old
Source:
Benno J. Stokvis. Letter to n/a. Written 1926 in Breda. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number htm.
URL: http://webexhibits.org/vangogh/letter/15/etc-A13a.htm Lost works.

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