It would be difficult, we suppose, to visit The Netherlands and not hear about Vincent Van Gogh, the well-known post-impressionist artist known for “greats” such as Starry Night, Sunflowers, The Bedroom, and The Potato Eaters. But what we didn’t realize was that his life was a humble one, living, as he did, in a small but charming town called Neunen.
I don’t know anything with certainty, but seeing the stars makes me dream.Vincent Van Gogh
As a side venture with our Viking River Cruise “Holland & Belgium,” we walked the town where Van Gogh spent his life from December 5, 1883, to November 24, 1885. And it was here that he created his now-famous painting The Potato Eaters as well as hundreds of other paintings and drawings.
Although his major works are housed in Amsterdam in the Van Gogh Museum , several minor paintings show the progression from his “darker” years to the happy, brighter works with which we’re all familiar.
A stroll through Neunen takes you through Het Park where a monument to Vincent stands as part of a protected village.
But it may have been the humble abode where he worked — alone much of the time — that helped us understand how his environment shaped him. We first caught a glimpse of it in this painting dated 1858: The Vicarage at Nuenen at Night, Rear. The somber tones and loneliness of his early years set the stage for many dark days in Vincent’s life.
We walked past the ancestral home of Margot Begemann, Vincent’s lover and companion. The house also served as a hiding spot for a Jewish boy during World War II.
But it’s the full-size sculpture of The Potato Eaters that made the biggest impression on us: An embodiment of the 1885 oil on canvas that shows the harsh reality of country life. The people at the table are not glorified but rather represented in a familial setting as they live their daily rituals — eating dinner together, conversing, and surviving. It was Van Gogh’s art focused on real people rather than royalty or aristocrats that has influenced painters since his time.
If you’re in The Netherlands, stop by Neunen. It’s definitely a place to learn more about the artist who fought personal demons to survive as best he could, while leaving us with treasures of art known all over the world.
A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke.”Vincent Van Gogh
Rusha & Bert
This post is one in a series prompted by a recent trip to The Netherlands and Belgium. Thank you to Viking cruises (Holland & Belgium 2022) and our travel agent, Lauren Gunnels of Ortelius Travel Advisors, for the arrangements and free time to enjoy the scenery!