Works Collected by Theo and Vincent van Gogh

The Mine Crachet-Picquery in Frameries, Borinage

Eugène Boch

The dark smoke billowing from tall chimneys betrays the violence done at the Crachet-Picquery mine in Frameries, in the Borinage region of Belgium, where miners risked their lives extracting coal hundreds of metres underground. Established in the late eighteenth century, the mine belonged to La Compagnie des Charbonnages Belges. As evidenced in this painting, this region was characterized by the coal industry: more factory chimneys and a coal heap dot the horizon. Despite the harsh, perilous work inside the mines, the painting presents a serene scene with soft tones and a balanced composition. Through the strong horizontal orientation and the cropping of the canvas on either side, the mine in this painting almost blends into the landscape, while the miners and their hardships remain unseen.

Boch and Van Gogh

Created around 1888–90, this scene was painted by Eugène Boch (1855–1941), who was born in Saint-Vaast in Belgium. While he learned to paint in Belgium and the Netherlands, he moved to Paris in 1879. There, he studied under Léon Bonnat (1833–1922) for a few years before apprenticing with Fernand Cormon (1845–1924), at the same time as other artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901) and Emile Bernard (1868–1941). Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) also came to study at Cormon’s atelier in 1886, but there is no evidence that the two were acquainted then. They may have met at the gatherings of the Peintres du Petit Boulevard, although Boch was very absorbed in his work during that period and had limited social interactions. What is certain is that Boch and Van Gogh crossed paths two years later when the American painter Dodge MacKnight (1860–1950), who was then working with Boch in the small Provencal town of Fontvieille in 1888, took him to nearby Arles to visit Van Gogh. MacKnight unquestionably knew Van Gogh through Cormon’s atelier, and he had described him to Boch as ‘a remarkable character (eccentric), but a good fellow’. Van Gogh was immediately drawn to the Belgian: ‘He’s a lad whose outward appearance I like very much. Face like the blade of a razor, green eyes, and distinction with all that.’ They had extensive discussions about the new directions in art and quickly became friends. When MacKnight set off, leaving Boch behind with Van Gogh, Van Gogh did not mind; he thought MacKnight was a slacker and that at least the Belgian painter ‘knows what he wants’.

It was Van Gogh who advised Boch to paint miners in the Borinage area of his own homeland. Boch took this to heart and after leaving Arles travelled to the Borinage, working there between 1888 and 1891. Only a few paintings from this period are still known, including Coal Mine . Like the canvas in the Van Gogh Museum, this painting portrays smoky factory chimneys, but in gloomier tones and a looser style. The Red Roofs – which prompted Théo van Rysselberghe (1862–1926) to invite Boch to exhibit at Les XX in 1890 – depicts the modest cottages where miners lived. Similar to The Mine Crachet-Picquery in Frameries, Borinage, Boch depicted the miners’ surroundings in these works, rather than the workers themselves.

Eugène Boch, The Red Roofs, 1888–90, oil on canvas, 66 × 91 cm, private collection

Eugène Boch, The Red Roofs, 1888–90, oil on canvas, 66 × 91 cm, private collection

Art exchange

In 1890, the Van Gogh brothers acquired The Mine Crachet-Picquery in Frameries, Borinage through an exchange of paintings. Theo (1857–1891) brokered the swap: ‘I have something to write to you which I think will give you pleasure,’ he informed Vincent. ‘Yesterday I was first at the Salon with Boch […] after which we saw your paintings. He likes them very much, and it seems to me that he understands them. As you had said that you would willingly do an exchange with him […] I told him that he could take that one in exchange for a painting of his.’ Theo got to choose a work in Boch’s studio, and this canvas soon caught his eye. Theo enthusiastically described the painting to his brother: ‘the whole factory is in smoke and steam and stands out darkly with very bright reflections of the sun on one side against the green wheat. The sky is very luminous.’ In exchange, Theo gave Boch Mountains at Saint-Rémy . Already in October 1888, in a letter to Boch, Van Gogh had expressed his desire to exchange a work for one that Boch was going to make in the Borinage.

In his description of Boch’s painting, Theo praised both ‘the subject and the intention of what [Boch] wanted to do’, acknowledging that it was ‘neither very skilful nor powerful’ but ‘very sincere, like the fellow himself’. This aligned with Van Gogh’s earlier remarks about Boch’s work; he found the lineation in Boch’s paintings ‘poor’ but thought that the colour was ‘already beginning to be lively’. However, Boch’s omission of the hard labour and humble existence of the miners was at odds with Van Gogh’s emphasis on depicting the ‘authentic’ lives of peasants and the destitute in his work. Boch’s rather clean lines and smooth brushwork – with occasional instances of freehand-painted smoke and fire from the chimneys and even some impasto in a plume of smoke on the right – also imparted a somewhat idealized quality to the painting. Possibly Vincent and Theo missed the ‘raw’ aspect of life in the Borinage in this work by Boch. Nonetheless, Vincent was pleased with the exchange, referring to it as ‘very good’. Whether he ever saw the work in person remains unknown; he visited Theo in Paris shortly after the swap but died later the same month.

Vincent van Gogh, Mountains at Saint-Rémy, 1889, oil on canvas, 72.8 × 92 cm,  Guggenheim, New York, Thannhauser Collection, Gift, Justin K. Thannhauser, 1978

Vincent van Gogh, Mountains at Saint-Rémy, 1889, oil on canvas, 72.8 × 92 cm, New York, Guggenheim, Thannhauser Collection, Gift, Justin K. Thannhauser, 1978

Van Gogh and the Borinage

His stylistic and technical reservations notwithstanding, Theo had good reason to select this particular work for his brother. The Borinage held a special place in Vincent’s heart. Just before deciding to pursue drawing and painting as his profession in 1880, Van Gogh had lived among the miners of the Borinage, working as an evangelist. Vincent’s time there proved challenging. His polite French was not understood by the local Walloon Borains, and vice versa. The miners distrusted this Dutch young man from the middle class. Moreover, he was not a strong orator, and as a preacher he attracted little attention. He longed for his days at the Goupil & Cie art dealership, saying to Theo, ‘I often feel homesick for the land of paintings.’ In response, Theo encouraged him to embark on an actual artistic journey, and it was in the Borinage that Van Gogh took his first steps in this direction. His earliest drawings as an artist originated there, although he mentioned to Boch in 1888 that he had destroyed most of the work from that period. One of the surviving drawings created in this place is Coke Factory in the Borinage , featuring a factory near the Crachet-Picquery mine. Therefore, it is no wonder that Theo chose The Mine Crachet-Picquery in Frameries, Borinage; it would remind his brother of his own path towards artisthood.

Despite the hardships he had faced there, it was Van Gogh who encouraged Boch to work in the Borinage. In the descriptions he provided to the Belgian painter, there is no hint of the difficulties he himself had encountered in that place. He spoke highly of the Borinage, saying, ‘I so much love that sad region of the Borinage, which will always be unforgettable to me.’ Were he to travel north again, he wrote, he would like to visit Boch. ‘In short, it was in the Borinage that I began to work from nature for the first time. […] But it touches my heart that in the end, all these places are going to be painted.’ Additionally, he was curious whether Anna Boch (1848–1936), Eugène’s sister, would also paint the coal mines; after all, there was plenty of subject matter for two artists.

Vincent van Gogh, Coke Factory in the Borinage, 1879, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Vincent van Gogh, Coke Factory in the Borinage, 1879, pencil and watercolour on paper, 26.4 × 37.5 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Looking back

Van Gogh had painted a portrait of Boch in Arles in the late summer of 1888. His appreciation for the Belgian artist is evident in his descriptions of the work, both before and after painting it. He wrote about ‘my love that I have for him’ and wanted to capture the artist ‘who dreams great dreams, who works as the nightingale sings, because that’s his nature’. He placed Boch against a marine-blue starry sky . Van Gogh titled it Eugène Boch (The Poet) and displayed it in the Yellow House – it can be seen in the initial version of The Bedroom (1888, Van Gogh Museum). Eugène Boch and his sister Anna were among the first to appreciate Van Gogh’s work. Anna was one of the few to purchase one of Van Gogh’s paintings during his lifetime, The Red Vineyard (1888, Pushkin Museum), for 400 francs. Subsequent to the exchange with The Mine Crachet-Picquery in Frameries, Borinage, Vincent wrote to Theo about it, saying, ‘I’m pleased that Boch is doing this exchange with me, for I thought that, relatively, they’d paid a little too much for the other canvas, being friends.’ After Theo’s death, his widow, Jo van Gogh-Bonger (1862–1925), gifted Boch Eugène Boch (The Poet). Thanking her, Boch wrote, ‘I do not know how to tell you, madam, how deeply moved I am by your gift and how much pleasure I derive from it. It is a beautiful work of art, but above all, a memento of Vincent, whom I knew in Arles. I keep remembering the good moments we spent together there. Enthusiastically, for art! For pure art! That is my only thought about your brother-in-law.’

Nina Reid
January 2024


Nina Reid, ‘Eugène Boch, The Mine Crachet-Picquery in Frameries, Borinage, 1888–90’, catalogue entry in Contemporaries of Van Gogh 1: Works Collected by Theo and Vincent, Joost van der Hoeven (ed.), Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum, 2024.

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