Vincent van Gogh


Van Gogh visited the Mediterranean fishing village of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the early summer of 1888, where, as he wrote to his brother, he hoped to “get my drawings more spontaneous, more exaggerated.” This sheet is one of nine he made during his week in the village, and one of four he kept in his studio in Arles upon his return. The spontaneity he hoped to achieve is expressed in a vigorous, freely drawn graphite sketch that he then articulated with a broad-nibbed reed pen in a series of marks that range from coarse to delicate.

Vincent van Gogh
Dutch; 1853–1890
Two Cottages at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, 1888
Reed pen and brown ink over graphite


By 2003, the Thaw Collection contained two drawings by Vincent van Gogh, and a letter from Van Gogh to Paul Gauguin with a drawing of the artist's Bedroom at Arles. Then, a remarkable opportunity emerged. Jean Thaw was able to acquire a batch of 21 letters written by Van Gogh to his young protege Emile Bernard. The whereabouts of this cache of correspondence had been unknown, and the acquisition was a thrilling highlight of Thaw's career as a collector.

The letters chronicle the Dutch artist's life from the moment he left Paris in 1887 and arrived in Arles and continue after his falling out with Gauguin and institutionalization at Saint-Rémy in 1889. Only months after the last letter was written, Van Gogh committed suicide at the age of 37.

Devoted to observations about art and life as an artist, the letters reveal much about Van Gogh's activity, ambitions and working method as he painted his best and most iconic works. Nine of the letters are illustrated with drawings that conveyed Van Gogh's paintings and progress to Bernard. In one missive, he muses to his friend, "But when will I do the Starry Sky then, that painting that is always on my mind? Alas, alas, it's just as our excellent pal Cyprien says, in Married Life by Riesemont, 'The most beautiful paintings are those one dreams of while smoking a pipe in one's bed, which one does not make.'"

Hanging nearby, Van Gogh's pen and ink drawing of two cottages captures the first time the Dutch artist glimpsed the Mediterranean Sea on a visit to the town of Saintes-Maries. You can see the water in the distance between the two cottages above the shrubs. It also marks the moment when he began to experiment with different types of pen strokes, patterns, and marks to evoke texture, form, and light in his drawings. In contrast, the style of the drawing depicting workers on a farm executed only two years later with its vibrating short curling strokes of black chalk documents the change in Van Gogh's draftsmanship during the last months of his life.