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Woman Sewing, with a Girl

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Details
Natural black, chalk, pen and brush in brown-black ink (possibly black originally), black watercolour, opaque grey watercolour, grey (?) wash, scratched, on wove paper

55.6 x 29.9 cm.
The Hague: March, 1883
F 1072, JH 341

Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum

History
Provenance
Exhibitions

Analysis
See below

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During the two years Vincent van Gogh lived in The Hague, he produced more than 50 drawings of Clasina Hoornik (better known as "Sien") and her family. This drawing calls attention to the quiet domesticity that Vincent desperately desired--an idealized home life that would, however, be turbulent and short-lived.


Who was "Sien"?

Clasina Maria Hoornik was born in The Hague on 22 February 1850, making her three years older than Vincent. In the letters to his brother, Theo, Vincent rarely mentioned Clasina's name (most of the time referring to her as "the woman"), but when he did he called her "Christien" which he would later shorten to "Sien". It is by this single name that she is best remembered.

Sien lead an extremely difficult life which, in some ways, made her an ideal match for Vincent. Her father died in 1875 and her life in The Hague was divided between working as a seamstress (as shown in this drawing) and prostitution. Before meeting Vincent, Sien had two other illegitimate children who died early in life. When Sien first met Vincent she had a daughter, Maria Wilhelmina, aged five (shown seated in this drawing) and was pregnant with a son. This second child is sometimes wrongly thought to be Vincent's, but it was conceived months before Vincent and Sien ever met.

In Letter 192 Vincent wrote to Theo about his first meeting with Sien:

Last winter I met a pregnant woman, deserted by the man whose child she was carrying. A pregnant woman who walked the streets in the winter--she had her bread to earn, you'll know how. I took that woman on as a model and have worked with her all winter. I couldn't pay her a model's full daily wages, but I paid her rent all the same, and thus far, thank God, I have been able to save her and her child from hunger and cold by sharing my own bread with her.

Vincent would live with Sien for more than a year and a half. This time was marked by physical and emotional instability by both Vincent as well as Sien. As Vincent became more and more involved in his work, Sien was pressured by her mother to return to prostitution in order to earn a better living. Vincent and Sien would often argue about their abject poverty. Despite Vincent's deep longing for a family life, he and Sien would eventually end their relationship.


The Drawing: Woman Sewing, with a Girl

In the work shown on this page, Vincent van Gogh expertly captures the complex nature of his relationship with Sien and her family. The drawing, while beautifully executed, shows little familial warmth between the subjects of the work. On the contrary, Vincent's depiction of the girl's face is done with incredible precision in that it masterfully conveys feelings of isolation and loneliness while using a minimum of pencil strokes.

At the same time, however, there is a quality of domestic charm to the scene: a quiet moment with the mother sewing in close proximity to her daughter. Vincent would often draw Sien and her family in a compassionate, but by no means overly-sentimental, fashion. The drawing Girl Kneeling by a Cradle is a lovely composition of Sien's daughter kneeling by the cradle of the new baby and watching him sleep.

Visions of domestic happiness

One of the common misconceptions about Vincent van Gogh is that he was antisocial and disdainful of a contented family life. While Van Gogh did, in fact, spend most of his life in isolation from others, he frequently longed for a family of his own throughout most of his life. Despite his often volatile relationship with Sien, Vincent's letters during the period clearly show the happiness that he derived from his time spent with her:


Then the little living room with a table, a few kitchen chairs, an oil stove, a large wicker armchair for the woman in the corner by the window overlooking the yard and the meadows that you know from the drawing, and next to it a small iron cradle with a green cover.

This last piece of furniture is something I cannot look at without emotion--because a man is gripped by a strong and powerful emotion when he sits down next to the woman he loves with a baby in the cradle beside them.

Letter 213
The Hague
6 July 1882


The letter above was written just four days after the birth of Sien's son, Willem, on 2 July 1882. Vincent would cherish the child as if it were his own and found a great deal of joy in young Willem's company:


He often sits with me in the studio on the floor in a corner, on a few sacks; he crows at the drawings and is always quiet in the studio, because he looks at the things on the wall. Oh, he is such a sociable little fellow!

Letter 284
The Hague
9 or 10 May 1883


When Sien and Vincent decided together to end their relationship Vincent maintained a great deal of compassion toward the Hoornik family. Sien and her children saw Vincent off at The Hague's train station as he began the next leg of his life long journey. Vincent wrote to Theo simply: " . . . the parting was not very easy."


Other Sien Drawings

Van Gogh's many drawings of Sien are stark and uncompromising. Vincent once described Sien as "pockmarked" and "no longer beautiful" and his drawings, while arguably sympathic toward its subject, are nevertheless unromanticized and realistic. In the famous lithograph "Sorrow", for example, one sees a woman overwhelmed with despair--an unusual nude in terms of the harsh depiction of its subject.

Many of the dozens of drawings of Sien show her frowning or in unflattering situations. Nude Woman, Squatting, for example, was unusual in the frank nature of its subject matter.


Sien's Unhappy End

It comes as no surprise that Sien's life after Vincent would remain miserable and with little hope of finding happiness.

Sien's relationship with her family was so unstable that at times she would turn over custody of her daughter, Maria, to her mother and her son, Willem, to her brother.

In 1901 she married Arnoldus Franciscus van Wijk as a means of giving her son, Willem, a respectable name. The marriage was one defined more by convenience than by love, however, and Sien found that married life provided her with no means of release from her own personal despair and anguish.

It's believed that Sien once told Vincent that she would one day drown herself. In 1904 Sien did indeed drown herself in the Schelde River ending a life filled with tragedy and profound unhappiness. Ironically, Vincent prophesied about Sien's fate in Letter 216 (19 July 1882), but found comfort in the thought:

"As long as I drown at the same time, I don't care. But we felt distinctly enough that her life and my life are as one . . . ."


References

1. Sjraar van Heugten, Volume One: Drawings--The Early Years, 1880-1883 (V+K Publishing, 1996).
2. Jan Hulsker, Vincent and Theo Van Gogh: A Dual Biography (Fuller Technical Publications, 1990).
3. Ken Wilkie, In Search of Van Gogh (Prima, 1991).


Provenance

Owner

Location

Date acquired

Comments

Theo van Gogh

Paris

1890-91

 

Johanna van Gogh-Bonger

Amsterdam

1891-1925

 

V.W. van Gogh

Laren

1925-62

 

Van Gogh Foundation

Amsterdam

1962

On loan to the Stedelijk Museum 1962-73.

Van Gogh Museum

Amsterdam

1973

 


Exhibitions

Year City Country Venue Exhibition Name Start Date End Date No.
1909-10 Berlin Germany Ausstellungshaus am Kurfürstendamm 19. Ausstellung der Berliner Secession. Zeichnende Künste 27 November 1909 9 January 1910 ---
1914-15 Amsterdam Netherlands Stedelijk Museum Teekeningen door Vincent van Gogh uit de verzameling van Mevrouw J. van Gogh-Bonger en den Heer V.W. van Gogh 22 December 1914 12 January 1915 7
1927-28 Berlin Germany Kunsthandlung Otto Wacker Vincent van Gogh. Erste Grosse Ausstellung Seiner Zeichnungen und Aquarelle 6 December 1927 1 February 1927 12
1928 Vienna Austria Neue Galerie Vincent van Gogh. Gemälde  
 
12
1928 Hanover Germany Kestner-Gessellschaft Vincent van Gogh. Fünfunddreißig unbekannte Gemälde aus Privatbesitz 3 April 1928 25 April 1928 12
1928 Paris France Galerie Dru Aquarelles, dessins et pastels de Van Gogh (1853-1890) 23 June 1928 12 July 1928 4?
1948-49 The Hague Netherlands Haags Gemeentemuseum Vincent van Gogh. Collectie Ir. V.W. van Gogh 12 October 1948 10 January 1949 187
1953-54 Bergen op Zoom Netherlands Stadhuis Vincent van Gogh 23 December 1953 10 January 1954 20
1955 Antwerp (1) Belgium Feestzaal Vincent van Gogh 7 May 1955 19 June 1955 33
1956 Haarlem Netherlands Vishal Vincent van Gogh 21 July 1956 29 August 1956 9
1957 Nijmegen Netherlands De Waag Vincent van Gogh tekeningen en aquarellen uit de Collectie Ir. V.W. van Gogh 13 March 1957 15 April 1957 15
1957 Stockholm Sweden Nationalmuseum Vincent van Gogh. Akvareller, Teckningar, Oljesudier, Brev 5 October 1957 22 November 1957 18
1990 Otterlo Netherlands Kröller-Müller Museum Vincent van Gogh. Tekeningen 30 March 1990 29 July 1990 43
1996 Amsterdam Netherlands Van Gogh Museum Vincent van Gogh tekeningen. Vroege jaren 1880-1883 10 May 1996 15 September 1996
1997 Florence Italy Van Gogh in nero. La grafica Istituto Universitario Olandese di Storia dell'Arte 10 October 1997 14 December 1997  

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