'...there is anticipation of post-Impressionist innovation in the bold planes and angles of the woman’s figure'

A Peasant Woman Digging, 1885, by Vincent Van Gogh (1853–90), The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham. Bridgeman Images.

David Lodge says:
‘My favourite painting in the Barber is also one of the smallest in the collection. It’s an early work, but already, it seems to me, there is anticipation of post-Impressionist innovation in the bold planes and angles of the woman’s figure. This treatment also vividly conveys the ache in her bones of a lifetime’s labour. I was glad to see it put in context in the current RA exhibition, but I enjoy it more in the Barber as a single minor masterpiece.’

David Lodge is a novelist, critic, and Emeritus Professor of English at Birmingham University. His most recent novel is Deaf Sentence.

Art critic John McEwen comments:
‘This picture is part of the exhibition ‘The Real Van Gogh’, at the RA until April 18 (Country Life, January 20), where the artist’s letters are exhibited beside relevant drawings and paintings. In the summer of 1885, Van Gogh made numerous charcoal sketches and some oils of labouring peasants.

In a letter to his younger brother Theo, he defended the result against the criticism of an artist friend: ‘tell him that I don’t want them academically correct…Tell him that in my view Millet and Lhermitte are consequently the true painters, because they don’t paint things as they are, examined dryly and analytically, but as they…feel them. Tell him that my great desire is to learn to make such inaccuracies, such variations, reworkings, alterations of the reality, that it might become, very well—lies if you will—but—truer than the literal truth.’ Ironically, artists I met visiting the show have commented on Van Gogh’s innate facility. Similarly dispelled is any notion of him as a wild, untutored primitive. One letter is in impeccable English (he spent three pre-artistic years in England), most are in French and among the correspondents are Gauguin, Signac an Émile Bernard.

The famous Dutch painter Anton Mauve was Van Gogh’s cousin and gave him art lessons. As for never selling a picture, one art-dealer uncle commissioned a series of 18 Hague views to get him started, and Theo, who ran the Montmartre gallery of the international Paris-based art business Goupil & Cie, which was co-founded by another uncle, paid Van Gogh’s material costs and gave him a monthly allowance.’

This article was first published in Country Life, March 24, 2010