In this small painting by Vincent Van Gogh that hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago you have a large world that opens up to us. The peasant woman whose face that you do not see tells more than many volumes could.
There are a number of things in this painting that tell you about the woman, for example the size of the cottage and it’s lack of any formality. There is no entry, path, or garden which shows you that she is of the very poor. The cloths that she wears and scarf on her head appear to be tattered and ragged. There is almost no color in the area, that is, flowers, lamps, bricks, and garden decor. Everything about this house is the bare minimum, however the woman here has dignity for though she is poor and probably uneducated she is clean and on task. She is not sitting in an easy chair on the front porch, because of her poor station she is aware that the days are short with not that much light until sunset when her work must stop. It should be noted here that in the 19th Century things for the poor in the countryside were dark. Electric lighting as we know it was not available so they had to do what they could with natural day light. It is a difficult task to do little more than talk in the evening when you live by candle light. One certainly cannot draw or paint, I have attempted this myself and it was most difficult.
The structure of the house is simple, a low thatched roof that lays close to the ground to protect the walls and interior of the home. The weather is cold and wet in this region and structures must be built to ward off the elements. Van Gogh employs black and brown to express the shaded areas of the house under the roof which runs along base of the house in both directions. This strong dark paint gives strength and support the cottage and the painting in general. Van Gogh is one of the few artists that knows how to work with black and this painting demonstrates that.
The brush strokes the make up the roof, the adjacent building, and trees behind are quick and rich with paint. Along the roof of the house the artist has applied various earthen tones and some white to bring out the texture of the thatching. For a small painting Van Gogh has offered us a lot.
Stephen F. Condren – Artist