Van Gogh Comes Home

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Towns across the southern Dutch province of Brabant, where Vincent Van Gogh was born, have joined forces in a new programme entitled Van Gogh Brabant to tell the story of his life from childhood to his artistic awakening, while a special exhibition sets out to dispel the image of Van Gogh as an anti-social, tortured character.

The temporary programme, involving three heritage centres, 39 official Van Gogh monuments and an award-winning Van Gogh Cycle Route, also highlights his love of the Brabant landscape, rural lifestyle and common people which permeated his works. There are also many information points and guided walks by local Van Gogh experts.


Vincent van Gogh was born in Zundert in 1853, the eldest of three sons and three daughters, and there he lived for most the first 17 years of his life, interupted by a period at boarding school. His father Theodorus was the Protestant pastor in a predominantly Catholic region.

On the site where Van Gogh’s birth house once stood, the Vincent van Gogh House hosts exhibitions by Van Gogh’s contemporaries and modern artists inspired by him. Behind the building visitors can stroll in the garden where Van Gogh played as a child.

Nearby is the church where Theodorus Van Gogh preached and where Vincent was baptised. The font is still there. In the small cemetery is a poignant reminder of something which may have hung heavily on the young Vincent’s mind. A year to the day before he was born, his mother gave birth to a still-born boy, also named Vincent. Van Gogh would have passed close by to his namesake’s grave when he attended church and his family would have tended to it with Vincent present. It can only be imagined how the constant reminders of a ‘ghost brother’ may have affected him as he grew up.

Next to the church is a statue of Vincent and his older brother Theo, the most important person in his life, in a brotherly embrace. The pedestal bears a quote in French from an unsent letter to Theo found in Vincent’s pocket after he was shot.


Van Gogh arrived in Etten-Leur in 1881 aged 28 after spending restless years in England, France and Belgium. His father had been moved to the local church and his family encouraged him to stay. In the local Town Hall Van Gogh first registered himself as an artist and he went on to make some 200 drawings (he did not paint in Etten), including ‘The Sower (after Millet)’, now in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

The renamed Van Gogh Church, where Vincent’s father preached for seven years and which is now deconsecrated, hosts exhibitions of contemporary takes on Van Gogh’s work. Currently showing is photographer Marc Boom’s Closer to Van Gogh (until Dec 22), for which he has reproduced famous Van Gogh portraits using family and friends as models.


Vincent returned once more from further travels to the bosom of the family, his father having again been moved, this time to the charming Reformed Church in Nuenen, which Van Gogh would famously depict in ‘Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen’ (1884).

In Nuenen Vincent found the place where he finally became a real artist. As a painter he lived the longest time of his life there (1883-85) and made over a quarter of his total output, more than anywhere else. Here too he created his first recognised masterpiece, ‘The Potato Eaters’, after glimpsing a family at their evening meal through a window.

Nuenen has a plethora of landmarks associated with Van Gogh, including 14 of 39 European Van Gogh locations and information points at exact spots from which he made drawings and paintings. You can also hear spoken excerpts from his letters.

Nuenen also boasts the first monument in the world to Van Gogh. Erected in 1932, a monolith of basalt from the south of France has a golden sun inset into it representing the change of light in Van Gogh’s work after he moved to Provence. It sits on a millstone base, symbolising the influence of local rural life on his work.

Another key monument is a large sculpture of The Potato Eaters’ in the pretty central park, making it possible for blind people to ‘feel’ the painting, while nearby there is fine statue of the man himself.

Built in 1874, the Salon Nune Ville was the home of the Begemann family, whose youngest daughter, Margot, was Vincent’s first girlfriend. The Van Gogh parsonage was the neighbouring building (it still serves as such today and is not open to the public), making Margot literally the girl next door. However, both families disapproved of the relationship and it would have no future. Margot later made a failed suicide attempt.

ABOVE: The parsonage at Nuenen BELOW: The Salon Nune de Ville, where Vincent fell in love with the girl next door 

After standing empty for some years, the house was bought recently by a Van Gogh enthusiast, lovingly restored and filled with 19th century furniture, objects and paintings by contemporaries and students of Van Gogh. There are guided tours on Saturday afternoons and by appointment on other days of the week, when you will hear how the attic served as a hiding place for a young Jewish boy during WWII, when the house was occupied by a minister’s family.

The cutely named Vincentre is the name of the new Van Gogh centre, where a multi-visual exhibition (until Mar 31, 2020) highlights his friends from the Nuenen period and traces how he lived and painted while there. The foundation which runs the Vincentre is working in partnership with the Dutch technology company ASML to create a Van Gogh-inspired “lightlab”, which will give visitors an immersive experience of Van Gogh’s Nuenen days. The attraction is due to open in 2021.

The towns of Zundert, Etten and Nuenen are collaborating on a new exhibition for 2020.


Helpfully, the Dutch have abbreviated ‘s-Hertogenbosch (The Duke’s Wood) to Den Bosch, home to the Noordbrabants Museum and its special exhibition Van Gogh’s Inner Circle: Friends, Family, Models (until Jan 12, 2020).

Through some 90 paintings, drawings, letters, documents and sketchbooks, the exhibition sheds light on people in Van Gogh’s personal orbit who contributed in some way to his life and work and in particular challenges the notion of him as a troubled lone wolf. On the contrary, it shows that, despite his often complex relationships, Van Gogh had strong, enduring ties to family, friends and fellow artists, with one recalling: ‘He had the rare gift of never forgetting a friend,’ while Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo: ‘Like everyone else I am in need of affection’.

Curated by Sjraar van Heugten, former Head of Collections at the Van Gogh Museum and an independent curator, the exhibition presents the most important people in Van Gogh’s life in roughly chronological order, from his years in Brabant, through the periods in Paris and the south of France, until his death in Auvers-sur-Oise in 1890. It also examines his friendships with friends and family, fellow artists and his love affairs. A few works by Van Gogh are accompanied by those of his contemporaries and supplemented by letters, sketchbooks and other rarely seen documents.

Key loans include ‘Still Life with Bible’ (1885) from the Van Gogh Museum, ‘Madame Roulin Rocking the Cradle (La Berceuse)’ (1889) from the Art Institute of Chicago and ‘L’Arlésienne (Madame Ginoux)’ (1890) from the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Rome. There are also three Van Gogh paintings that the Noordbrabants Museum has acquired in recent years.

The depth of feeling towards Van Gogh by his fellow artists is seen in condolence letter to his brother Theo on news of his death from the likes of Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Signac.

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