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Les Marges: “Van Gogh in Antwerp”

Victor Hageman
Interviewed by Louis Piérard

(Published January, 1914)

At the time, I was a student in the drawing class . . . I remember very well that disheveled, nervous, and restless man who fell like a bomb on the Academy of Antwerp, overwhelming the director, the drawing master, and the students.

Van Gogh, who was then thirty-one, first went into the painting class taught by Verlat, the director of the academy, who was the perfect example of an official and characterless painter, charged with transmitting for posterity the memory of great patriotic events by means of painting. Into this class of approximately sixty students, a good fifteen of them German or English. Van Gogh arrived one morning, dressed in the sort of blue smock worn by Flemish livestock merchants, and wearing a fur cap on his head. In place of a palette, he used a board torn from a crate that had contained sugar or yeast. That day, the students were to paint two wrestlers posting on the modeling platform, stripped to the waist.

Van Gogh began painting feverishly, furiously, with a speed that stupefied his fellow students. He had laid on his impasto so thickly that his colors literally dripped from the canvas onto the floor.

When Verlat saw this work, and its extraordinary creator, he asked in Flemish, somewhat bewilderedly, “Who are you?”

Van Gogh answered quietly, “Wel, Ik ben Vincent, Hollandsch.” (“Well, I am Vincent, a Dutchman.”)

Then, the very academic director, while pointing to the newcomer’s canvas, proclaimed disdainfully, “I cannot correct such putrid dogs. My boy, go quickly to the drawing class.”

Cheeks flushed, Van Gogh contained his rage and fled to the class of the good M. Sieber [sic], who was also frightened by novelty, but who had a less irascible temperament than his director.

Vincent stayed there for a few weeks, drawing ardently, applying himself with visible forbearance to capture the subject, working rapidly without retouching and more often than not tearing up his drawing or throwing it behind him as soon as his finished it. He would sketch everything that was to be found in the classroom: the students, their clothing, or the furniture, but forgetting the plaster cast that the professor had assigned to copy. Already Van Gogh had astonished everyone with the speed at which he worked, redoing the same drawing or painting ten or fifteen times.

One day in the drawing class of the Academy of Antwerp, the students were given, as if by chance, a cast of the Venus de Milo to copy. Van Gogh, struck by one of the essential characteristics of the model, strongly accentuated the width of her hips and subjected the Venus to the same deformations that he brought to The Sower by Millet and The Good Samaritan by Delacroix--other works which he was also to copy in the course of his career. The beautiful Greek goddess had become a robust Flemish matron. When the honest M. Sieber saw this he tore Van Gogh’s sheet of paper with the furious strokes of his crayon, correcting his drawing while reminding him of the immutable canons of art.

Then the young Dutchman . . . whose gruffness had frightened off the refined female clientele at Goupil’s in Paris, flew into a violent rage and shouted at the horrified professor: “You clearly don’t know what a young woman is like, God damn it! A woman must have hips, buttocks, a pelvis in which she can carry a baby!” This was the last lesson that Van Gogh took--or gave--at the Academy of Antwerp. There he had made some staunch friends among the students, especially among the English, such as Levens . . . With those who understood him, who sensed his nascent genius, he showed himself to be communicative, enthusiastic, and fraternal. Very often he spoke to them of the rough and good-hearted miners of the Borinage whom he had catechized, cared for, and helped with so much love. During the tragic strikes of 1886, he even wanted to return to that black country.

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