The Van Gogh Museum has two paintings and two watercolours by Théophile de Bock (1851–1904) in its collection. He probably made them in the vicinity of The Hague, where he lived from 1869 to 1887. In 1880, De Bock visited Paris, where he occasionally saw Theo van Gogh (1857–1891). On 5 July 1880, Theo’s mother wrote to him: ‘It’s nice that until October you’ve got a good friend in Mr de Bock and then Rappart [sic].’ De Bock first exhibited a painting at the Paris Salon that year, and he probably wished to see it with his own eyes. It is likely that the four works by De Bock entered Theo’s collection, either as gifts or purchases, around this time and that they can also be dated to this period. It was at this time, too, that De Bock bought drawings or etchings by Jean-François Millet (1814–1875) from Theo at Goupil’s Paris branch. It is not known why precisely these paintings and watercolours by De Bock ended up in Theo’s collection. The only thing that can be said is that these four landscapes are representative of his oeuvre: they are all in vertical format and display a low horizon that provides ample space for a dynamic, cloudy sky, while the bodies of water and the reflections on them, the winding paths and the recognizable tree species are also recurring elements in De Bock’s compositions.
Working in a tradition
De Bock may be counted among the third generation of artists of the Hague School. Over the years he received instruction from various predecessors, among them Jan Hendrik Weissenbruch (1824–1903) as well as Jacob (1837–1899) and Willem Maris (1844–1910), the latter of whom became a friend and collaborator. Willem Maris frequently painted the animals and sometimes the people in De Bock’s landscapes. The French painters of Barbizon were also important examples for De Bock. It is highly likely that, while staying in Paris in 1880, he also visited the painters’ colony in the Forest of Fontainebleau, to the south-east of the city. After returning to the Netherlands, he exhibited two paintings of the landscape around Fontainebleau and Paris at the Tentoonstelling van Levende Meesters (Exhibition of Living Masters) in 1881. Moreover, he copied work by Jean Baptiste Camille Corot (1796–1875). De Bock’s compositions often contain recognizable features of Corot’s style, such as the use of colour and manner of painting, as seen for example in Trees by the Water.
De Bock was known to be especially fond of trees; he even went so far as to give pet names to some of the trees in his immediate surroundings. This predilection did not result in precise depiction, however. The foliage of De Bock’s trees is characterized – as it is in the work of Corot – by a certain woolliness. De Bock articulated the essence of his own notion of style and that of many artists in his circle in a discussion of a ‘tree painting’: ‘Finishing this piece I understand as imbuing it with atmosphere – indeed, it has happened to me that I made the foliage too precise, then it became stiff, coldly executed, and without any fascination. The concern of wanting to make something complete then deteriorates into component parts – and harms the whole.’ In his view – which was in keeping with the ideas of the Hague School – a general impression of nature was the best strategy for capturing a fleeting, personal perception of the ambience.
The four works in the family collection
The trees in the painting Trees by the Water were not worked out in much detail either, but nonetheless they clearly display the characteristics of pollard willows and birches. The work is painted in shades of green, blue and white. Barely visible on the path between the trees is a woman wearing blue and grey clothing and a white cap on her head.
A similarly clothed woman is depicted in the watercolour Standing Figure in a Landscape with Trees. She stands at the crossing of two diagonal lines in a landscape that is closed off on the right by tall trees. By inserting such figures, De Bock emphasized the proportions within a landscape. The drawing was probably exposed to too much light, making it impossible to determine the original appearance of the highly discoloured sky passage. In the three other works in the collection, however, the sky is full of contrast and contributes greatly to the lively impression of the landscape.
The painting Lake with a Boat was executed in a palette similar to that of Trees by the Water and on a canvas of the same format – a standard paysage 10. The way in which the paint was applied is also very similar. The surface of water in the foreground and the reflections on it were painted with a few loose but unerring brushstrokes.
The watercolour Landscape with a Boat on a Lake displays almost the same composition as the painting, except that the boat – now manned by two figures – is seen from the front. De Bock found that transparent watercolour lent itself much better to conveying subtle reflections in rippled water, as clearly shown by the pole to the right of the boat. The bulrushes, with their recognizable sword-shaped leaves and cigar-like flower spikes, as well as other water plants, are very true to life.
Admiration and criticism
De Bock’s efforts all served to express his love of nature’s beauty: ‘I prefer to give back the beauty that I see and feel, that is my enjoyment of life. […] let me paint in my own way: the glorious light of the temperate sun, the solemn moonlight, the trembling of the stars in the deep blue atmosphere, the velvety green frosts, the pattering water, everything, everything that seems beautiful to me, because I believe that everything is of and for me.’ Philip Zilcken, chronicler of Dutch art in the nineteenth century, characterized De Bock’s work – on the basis of an etching – somewhat more concisely: ‘It was a true De Bock, a group of trees by a pond, full of taste and elegance.’
Those tasteful landscapes appealed to a large public. Like many artists of the Hague School, De Bock sold well in the late nineteenth century both in the Netherlands and abroad. In Canada, for example, Dutch paintings were ‘a symbol of standing and wealth. People said to one another: “Oh, I see that you don’t have a De Bock yet.” “No – do you already have your Blommers?”’ Compared to the warm reception in Canada, there were mixed reactions to De Bock’s work in Dutch newspapers. One critic applauded the ‘view [of] rare acuity and fine feeling for our Dutch landscape’, while others maintained that his work was somewhat ‘superficial’ or ‘narrow-minded’.
A description of the paintings he submitted to the Tentoonstelling van Levende Meesters in 1881 is typical of this ambivalent attitude (which, for that matter, can also be found in reviews of the work of other masters of the Hague School): ‘It is indeed no small virtue to compose wooded landscape with such taste and to convey its general aspect as naturally as De Bock succeeded in doing in his On the Marne and Evening at Fontainebleau. If one paints them on such a scale, however, then the viewer nevertheless has the right to expect something more than that the character of the trees is scarcely expressed and the leaves and branches display only a formless mass of paint.’ Repeating a successful formula therefore had its drawbacks.
De Bock and Vincent van Gogh
Most likely it was Theo who brought Vincent into contact with De Bock. Both artists were working in The Hague and its environs in the early 1880s. In August 1881, Vincent first wrote to Theo about De Bock, and from then on, for the next two years, they sought each other out, sometimes working together and talking about art. In the summer of 1883, Van Gogh stored his artists’ requisites and artworks in De Bock’s studio so that he would have less to carry when he went to work in Scheveningen. Judging by his letters, Van Gogh’s opinion of De Bock’s artistic qualities tended to vary. Since Van Gogh was himself striving at this time to produce raw and impassioned depictions of nature, he thought – just as the reviewer of the Tentoonstelling van Levende Meesters did – that De Bock’s landscapes were attractive but also superficial: ‘He has a feeling for landscape, he sometimes manages to imbue them with a kind of charm […] but in himself there’s nothing to get hold of. He’s too vague and too insubstantial – cotton too finely woven. His paintings are a shadow of an impression, and in my opinion that impression is scarcely worth repeating so often.’
In 1892, two years after Van Gogh’s death, De Bock played a key role in organizing the first retrospective exhibition of his work, even though this task had come his way accidentally. At first the exhibition was to take place at Pulchri Studio, but after the board cancelled it, the Haagsche Kunstkring (Hague Art Circle) took on ‘Pulchri’s “cast-offs”’ – in the words of their chairman, De Bock. He continued with an analysis that can be seen in light of the bond between the two artists and their differing artistic ideas: ‘I feel profound sorrow at the work of Vincent van Gogh – the phosphor affected him as violently as earthquakes. Oh, why didn’t he have a regulator, the poor soul, the untimely fallen painter!!!’ De Bock handled the contact with Jo van Gogh-Bonger regarding her loans to the exhibition. On display at the same time as the works by Van Gogh were etchings by Millet, Corot and Charles François Daubigny (1817–1878), which, as he wrote to her, were intended to stimulate the ‘friction of ideas’. Thus Van Gogh was presented in the proximity of his examples, who had also exerted a great influence on De Bock.