Women on the Peat Moor

Vincent Van Gogh, Women on the Peat Moor, Nieuw-Amsterdam, October 1883, oil on canvas, 27.8 cm x 36.5 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Writing to his brother Theo from Drenthe, a part of north-east Holland popular with nineteenth-century landscape artists, Van Gogh described how its expansive peatland seemed ‘irritatingly tedious’ in midday sun, but ‘inexpressively beautiful’ in the evening: when ‘a poor little figure moves through the twilight — when that vast, sun-scorched earth stands out dark against the delicate lilac tints of the evening sky, and the very last fine dark blue line on the horizon separates earth from sky — [it] can be as sublime as in a J. Dupré. And it’s the same with the figures. The peasants and the women aren’t always interesting, but if one is patient one will nonetheless really see the whole Millet-like quality’.[1]

Van Gogh was only two years into his career as an artist, and it is hardly surprising that his comment references other work: the atmospheric landscapes of Jules Dupré, and the celebration of rural labour of Jean-François Millet, French painters he admired. If the figures lifting turfs in Women on the Peat Moor loosely recall Millet’s Gleaners, however, his picture is also clearly personal; something observed at first hand. The strokes of tactile paint evoke the very substance of the furrowed, worked peat, and render the lowering cloud and last streak of light almost tangible. Silhouetted against that light, the women meanwhile seem like mounds of peat themselves.

Van Gogh had come to Drenthe after breaking up with his first lover, Sien Hoornik, and he told Theo ‘I’ll… fill my lungs with heathland air, and believe that in a while I’ll be fresher, newer, better myself’,[2] and that ‘this countryside has the effect on me of bringing me peace, faith, courage’.[3] He saw the peat-workers in turn as good, and took a great interest in the formation of the peat itself: ‘Yesterday I drew decaying oak roots, so-called bog trunks’, he told Theo, explaining that these were ‘oak trees that have been buried under the peat for perhaps a century, over which new peat has formed — when the peat is dug out these bog trunks come to light’.[4] A drawing Van Gogh made of the ‘bog trunks’ makes them seem almost like human hands reaching from boggy pools,[5] much as he wrote to Theo ‘We are today what we were yesterday’ – a paraphrase from the French historian Jules Michelet.[6] Although we recognise today that extracting peat harms the environment, for Van Gogh the work involved seems to have been something quasi-elemental, an extension of nature’s own processes of change and transformation. 

Vincent van Gogh, Landscape with Bog Trunks (Travaux aux Champs), October, 1883, Graphite with pen and brown ink, 34.3 x 42.4 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of John Goelet, 1975.375. Photograph: © 2021 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Nieuw-Amsterdam, the village where Van Gogh painted Women on the Peat Moor, had seen significant commercial development of the surrounding peatlands from the mid 19th century, as a result of the extension of the Hoogeveensche Vaart, a major canal that facilitated peat transportation.[7] Much of Holland is, of course, land reclaimed from the sea, and Dutch expertise was instrumental to the draining in the seventeenth century of the Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire fenlands in Britain, that gave access to their rich peat, now used for intensive agricultural production.[8]

Whittlesey Dike, Whittlesey, Cambs. The Dike, of unknown age, forms part of an ancient relief channel for the old course of the River Nene between Stanground, near where the Nene emerges from its upland valley, and Flood’s Ferry, a mile to the east.
  © Copyright Rodney Burton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Clare A.P. Willsdon

[1] Letter to Theo Van Gogh from Hoogeveen, Drenthe, 16 September 1883, no. 387, http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let387/letter.html (accessed 26.9.21) in Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten, Nienke Bakker (eds.) (2009), Vincent van Gogh – The Letters, Version: http://vangoghletters.org, Amsterdam & The Hague: Van Gogh Museum & Huygens ING.

[2] Letter to Theo Van Gogh, Nieuw-Amsterdam, on or about 15 October 1883, no. 396, http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let396/letter.html (accessed 26.9.21), in Jansen et al, op. cit.

[3] Letter to Theo Van Gogh, Nieuw-Amsterdam, 12 or 13 November 1883, no. 406 in ibid.

[4] E.g. ‘….if I compare the population of a city and these people, I don’t hesitate for one moment in saying that these heathland people or peat workers seem better to me’, letter to Theodorus van Gogh and Anna van Gogh-Carbentus, Nieuw-Amsterdam, on or about 26 October 1883, no. 399 at  http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let399/letter.html (accessed 26.9.21) in ibid; letter to Theo Van Gogh, Nieuw-Amsterdam, on or about 7 October 1883, no. 393 at http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let393/letter.html#n-11 (accessed 26.9.21) in ibid.

[5] Full details of this work are: Vincent van Gogh, Dutch (worked in France), 1853–1890, Landscape with Bog Trunks (Travaux aux Champs), October 1883, graphite with pen and brown ink, Sheet: 34.3 x 42.4 cm (13 1/2 x 16 11/16 in.), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of John Goelet, 1975.375.

[6] Letter to Theo van Gogh, Hoogeveen, Friday, 12 October 1883, no. 394, at http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let394/letter.html  (accessed 26.9.21) and its note 7, in Jansen et al, op. cit.

[7] See https://www.geheugenvandrenthe.nl/verlengde-hoogeveensche-vaart (accessed 26.9.21) for the extension.

[8] See T. Williamson, ‘Dutch engineers and the draining of the fens in eastern England’, in Nederlandse Geografische Studies (338), 2006, pp. 103-119.