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Letter from Dr Mark Edo Tralbaut to n/a
Antwerp, 1948

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Many particulars of his stay in Antwerp and the work Vincent made there are contained in the solid dissertation by Doctor Mark Edo Tralbaut, published under the title Vincent van Gogh in zijn Antwerpse Periode (V. v. G. in his Antwerp period) by A. J. G. Strengholt's Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1948.

The following details are reprinted from this book, with the exception of an interview with Hageman, which is reprinted - as it is by Dr. Tralbaut too - from Louis Pierard's La vie tragique de Vincent van Gogh, Editions Correa & Cie, Paris, 1939.

Vincent arrived in Antwerp on November 27 or 28, 1885. He lived in Beeldekensstraat (Rue des Images, Little Images Street!) at No. 194, now [i.e. in 1952] changed to 224 Lange Beeldekensstraat. On January 18, 1886, he was entered at the academy (Tralbaut reproduces a facsimile of the register). Karel Verlat, the director, saw Vincent's work and admitted him. He followed the evening classes led by Eugene Siberdt 1 for drawing after the live model, and those led by Frans Vinck for the drawing of ornaments. Moreover, he participated in the day classes led by Piet van Havermaet, for drawing from life and antique subjects.

Vincent drew at two evening clubs, apart from the academy. Tralbaut says of this, on pp. 171-172 of his book:

As Richard Baseleer [note: Richard Baseleer was a well-known marine painter, a contemporary of Vincent's] confided to us, one day the whole painting class went on strike - not exactly an everyday sort of strike, this! - because Verlat, whom the pupils liked very much notwithstanding, was always giving them the same models. As a result of this “palace revolution,” a studio was fitted up in what is now “Winkler's House” in the High Market. And ... it is quite possible, so Baseleer asserted, that it was in this very studio that Levens painted the portrait of Vincent, a reproduction of which was published in Van Nu en Straks [The Present and Presently]. He was unable to prove this, but the statement appeared to rest on a strong impression.

By the way, let it be mentioned in passing that Vincent made a picture of the so-called “Winkler's House” when, during his stay on the banks of the Scheldt, he did a drawing of the High Market (Grote Markt), with the Cathedral tower in the background.

The stinginess with models also found expression in another field, namely the study from the nude, the very object of Vincent's quest.

According to Richard Baseleer the pupils were not allowed to paint or draw from the completely nude model, at least not in the day classes; on the other hand, it was permitted in the evening, but in that case never from a female specimen! The utmost limit of propriety and moral decency, which it was under no circumstances allowed to overstep, was the head of a woman, but never a torso!

However, in the clubs, mostly got up by the students of the higher classes, they were free in the choice of their models. In his correspondence Vincent called them “drawing clubs,” whereas the Antwerp people were in the habit of calling them “sketching clubs.” Not the faintest trace could be found of a regulated organization. At the end of the week each member paid his share of the expenses, which were strictly limited to the remuneration of the models, for they got the room “free for nothing,” as the members drank a pint of beer each every evening.

At the time Baseleer was also a member of a drawing club, which was located in Reynders Street, and which owed its existence to the reaction against…Siberdt, with the object of getting a free choice of models. Seeing that Vincent mentions two drawing clubs, where he went to work in the evening, it is not impossible, on the contrary it is highly probable, that these two clubs were the sketching clubs here described. However, this is not absolutely certain, and seeing that these clubs were not organized in the accepted sense of the word and therefore possessed neither registers of members nor records of the proceedings, nor cash books, one may suppose there is little chance of discovering new evidence in any records that may yet be unearthed.

Because of Vincent's membership in two such clubs, he at last fulfilled his ardent wish, for which his artist's soul had been craving painting from the nude.

As to Vincent's entrance into the academy, Richard Baseleer, who was also present, told Tralbaut the following details (see Tralbaut, pp. 138 - 139):

Both the drawing and the painting class were housed in the covered courtyard, but they were separated by a wooden partition. One-third of the space was reserved for the drawing class, the remaining two-thirds at the disposal of the painting class. As a result of this arrangement, one was obliged to cross the whole painting class in order to reach the drawing class.

Considered apart, this was a decidedly unfortunate solution of the ticklish problem of the Lebenstraum, at least as far as the youthful draftsmen and painters of the Antwerp academy were concerned. But the acme of what may be looked upon as a miniature babel of confusion was reached every time there was an interval between the lessons, for then the whole crowd of young people would swarm about, like a disturbed anthill, in bustling tumult. True, there was a kind of supervisor to maintain order among Mr. Verlat's pupils, and, in his absence, of Mr. Havermaet's, in the shape of a retired Flemish gendarme, who felt obliged to jabber at all costs some sort of lingo, which he himself took to be French, and which for instance would culminate in his favourite repartee: “Moi, je frotte ma cu à toutes vos blagueries! [I wipe my ass with all your humbug.]

But on the day when Vincent came rushing in like a bull in a china shop, and at once began to spread all over the floor a roll of studies that he had brought under his arm - to the uninitiated an extremely eccentric method, but in the world of artists a highly normal way of exhibiting work for professional inspection - the one-time gendarme was wholly incapable of exercising his, under other circumstances already dubious, authority.

They all formed a jostling crowd around the newly-arrived Dutchman, who looked more like an itinerant oilcloth merchant, unfurling and unfolding at the bargain market his cheap remnants of extra-pliable tablecloths than like an artist - not to mention the now world-famous master, who at that moment was already through with the Nuenen episode, with the universally admired “Potato Eaters.”

Well, it was a funny spectacle! And don't ask me if there was an uproar in consequence! The majority of the young fellows split their sides with laughter. Richard Baseleer distinctly remembered that the Englishman Pimm, who instructed his colleagues in the art of boxing, the Dutchman Briette, and also the Antwerp artist Karel Berckmans, who later sang the part of Tamino in Mozart's Magic Flute and other star parts of the light tenor repertoire, all attended the painting class.

Very soon the news spread like wildfire all over the building complex that some sort of savage had dropped in, and people looked round at Vincent as if he were a rare specimen out of a collection of human freaks belonging to some traveling circus.

However, Vincent himself did not perceive this, or rather behaved as if he did not, for a man with such acute powers of observation as his could hardly have failed to notice it, and later on he withdrew into that stoical taciturnity that soon gained him a reputation for self-centeredness.

On another occasion Van Baseleer gave the following description of Vincent's arrival at the academy (in an interview by Charles Bernard in the Antwerp paper Le Matin of November 13, 1927, Tralbaut, p. 140):

And there Van Gogh appeared on the scene - the Van Gogh, who was the spitting image of the portrait the Englishman Levens made of him, and which was reproduced in the first number of The Present and Presently. A flat, pink head with yellow hair, an angular mask, a pointed nose, a short pipe stuck in the midst of a tough, ill-cut beard. Van Gogh unfurls his drawings, at which we look with something like a shuddering terror, and immediately afterward starts painting the nude model, who at that moment appears before the class.

Tralbaut publishes a reproduction of the official records of the session of the academy's Board of Governors, at which Vincent was relegated to a lower class (it was said that he could not draw, although he had already painted the “Potato Eaters”).We find in Piérard's book what Piet van Havermaet told him on this point.

[Piérard, pp. 155-159] On the subject of Van Gogh's arrival at the academy in Antwerp, here are the reminiscences noted down from the lips of Mr. Victor Hageman (who died in October, 1938).

At the time I was a pupil in the drawing class. There were only a few weeks left until the end of the course. I remember quite well that weather-beaten, nervous, restless man who crashed like a bombshell into the Antwerp academy, upsetting the director, the drawing master and the pupils.

Van Gogh, who was then thirty-one years old, first went into the painting class taught by Verlat, the director of the academy, the perfect type of the official painter, whose duty it was to transmit to posterity, by means of the interpretative realizations of the art of painting, memories of great patriotic solemnities. One morning Van Gogh came into the class, in which there were about sixty pupils, more than a dozen of whom were German or English;

Van Gogh started painting feverishly, furiously, with a rapidity that stupefied his fellow students. “He laid on his paint so thickly,” Mr. Hageman told us, “that his colors literally dripped from his canvas on to the floor.”

When Verlat saw this work and its extraordinary creator, he asked in Flemish, in a tone of voice that showed how dumfounded he was, “Who are you?”

Van Gogh replied quietly, “Well, I am Vincent, a Dutchman.”

Then the very academic director proclaimed contemptuously, while pointing at the newcomer's canvas, “1 won't correct such putrefied dogs. My boy, go to the drawing class quickly.”

Van Gogh, whose cheeks had gone purple, restrained his anger, and fled to the course of good Mr. Sieber (sic), who was also frightened by the novel phenomenon, but who had a less irascible temperament than his director.

Vincent stayed there for some weeks, drawing zealously, taking great pains, and visibly suffering under his efforts to grasp the vigour of the subject, working rapidly, without making corrections, more often than not tearing up the drawing he had just finished, or else throwing it down behind him. He made sketches of everything that was to be found in the hall: of the students, of their clothes, of the furniture, while forgetting the plaster cast the professor had given him to copy. Already everybody marvelled at the rapidity with which he worked, as he did the same drawing or painting over again ten or fifteen times.

One day, in the drawing class of the academy of Antwerp, they gave the students (as if by accident) a cast of the Venus de Milo to copy. Van Gogh, who evidently was struck by one of the essential characteristics of the model, strongly accentuated the breadth of the hips, and made Venus the victim of the same disfigurements he introduced into “The Sower” by Millet, or “The Good Samaritan” by Delacroix, other pictures that he was to copy in the course of his career. The beautiful Greek goddess had become a robust Flemish matron. When honest Mr. Sieber saw this, he tore Van Gogh's drawing sheet with the furious corrective strokes of his crayon, reminding his disciple of the inviolable canons of his art.

Then the young Dutchman, rustic (sic!) of the Danube (sic!) (or of the Lower Meuse) whose rudeness had terrified the fair clients of Goupil's at Paris, flew into a violent passion, and roared at his professor, who was scared out of his wits: “So you don't know what a young woman is like, God damn you! A woman must have hips and buttocks and a pelvis in which she can hold a child!”... This was the last lesson Van Gogh took - or gave - at the Antwerp academy. He had made some staunch friends among the pupils there, especially among the English, such as Levens. (The latter was the man who painted the portrait of Vincent that was later published in the magazine The Present and Presently.)

With those who understood him, who had an inkling of his growing genius, he showed himself communicative, enthusiastic, fraternal. Very often he spoke to them about those rough and kind-hearted miners of the Borinage, whom he had catechized and cared for and helped and nursed with so much love. During the tragic strikes of 1886 he even wanted to go back to that Black Country.

The above was confirmed by Emanuel de Bom in an article published in the Rotterdam newspaper Nieuwe Rotterdamse Courant of November 3, 1938, in which he quotes a letter written by Victor Hageman. In this may be found (Tralbaut, p.154):

“He was told to do a drawing of the Venus de Milo,” De Bom writes. “He was of the opinion that `that woman must have hips,' and he gave her very un-Grecian ones, they were `comme ça' ! The drawing master (I will not mention his name - moreover, he is dead now) sent Van Gogh down to a lower class, and there Vincent, who scorned nothing, did drawings of `noses and ears.'

And Baseleer told Charles Bernard in the interview already quoted that Vincent was reported to have said of the Venus de Milo: “Fine female, nice hips.” And he continues:

“I can still see before me that thickset Venus with an enormous pelvis, that extraordinary, fat-buttocked figure which had issued from Vincent's drawing pencil. Antiquity as seen by Rembrandt, Greece through the medium of a distorting windowpane on the Keizersgracht in Amsterdam.”

Doctor Tralbaut describes in detail how Rubens's pictures induced Vincent to paint his portraits in lighter tones than in Nuenen; those who are interested in the subject are referred to his book.

1. Vincent invariably spelled the name Sibert.

At this time, Vincent was 95 year old
Dr Mark Edo Tralbaut. Letter to n/a. Written 1948 in Antwerp. Translated by Mrs. Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, edited by Robert Harrison, number htm.

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