On the evening of 20 January 1889, Meijer de Haan (1852–1895) sat at the table in Theo van Gogh’s (1857–1891) apartment, in rue Lepic in Paris, and sketched his host as he wrote a letter to his fiancée, Jo Bonger (1862–1925). Theo enclosed the drawing with his letter to Jo, who hung the portrait above her bed in Amsterdam so that she could see his face ‘first thing every morning’. De Haan made the quickly rendered sketch on the back of invoicing paper from Boussod, Valadon & Cie, the art dealership for which Theo worked. The sheet, which is torn along the right-hand edge, was later pasted onto another, sturdier piece of paper. Three horizontal fold lines no doubt recall the size of the envelope in which Theo dispatched it soon after it was made. The striking study exhibits a great feeling for light and shade, both in the clothing and on the face. De Haan employed the sharp point of the charcoal for the strong lines in the face and hair, and the blunt edge for filling in.
Dedicated art dealer
This sketch possibly brings us closer to Theo as a person than any other portrait of him. Here we see Theo van Gogh the serious and dedicated art dealer who was familiar with the Parisian artistic avant-garde. A photograph of him from the same year shows that the large moustache, thin beard, rectangular forehead and narrow nose in the drawing correspond to his actual appearance. Because Theo did not pose for the drawing, it provides an even more accurate representation of his personality.
For the artists in his immediate circle, Theo was much more than just a dealer. This was certainly the case for the Dutch artist Meijer de Haan. The period in which he stayed in Theo’s apartment in Paris, from October 1888 to April 1889, was decisive for his subsequent life and artistic development. Living in Paris was a revelation for De Haan, just as it had been for Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) a year and a half earlier. Thanks in part to Theo, both artists were introduced to a young generation of experimental artists working in the French capital and were, at the same time, exposed to works by the more established generation of impressionist artists.
It is not clear exactly how De Haan and Theo made each other’s acquaintance. They probably first met in Paris not long after De Haan arrived there, most likely in September or early October 1888. Theo evidently took to De Haan instantly, and on 28 October the latter became his housemate. Thanks to Theo’s intensive correspondence with Vincent, his sister Willemien (1862–1941) and his fiancée Jo, we know a good deal about De Haan’s stay and his relationship with Theo.
On 23 October, Theo wrote to Vincent: ‘This week De Haan is coming to live with me, which I’m delighted about, because it’s likely that some time from now it will be he who will form the nucleus of the group of young people here.’ He had already sent Vincent descriptions and photographs of De Haan’s work and that of his travelling companion, friend and pupil Joseph Jacob Isaacson (1859–1942). Theo found the paintings and studies they had made in the Netherlands and sent to him in Paris ‘very good, but a bit dark. They intend to stay in Paris for the winter and to leave for the country as soon as the weather’s good enough for working outside.’ Theo and Vincent immediately recognized potential artistic allies in the two artists, and Vincent proposed to write Theo ‘a letter just so that you can have them read it, to explain once again why I myself believe in the south for the future and the present’.
Theo also expressed his enthusiasm for his new housemate in a letter to Willemien:
‘De Haan is a great painter, who is very attracted by the movement here and therefore has a good deal to think about right now, as he clearly sees the uselessness of some of his previous work, but nevertheless has made some beautiful things since he’s been here. His earlier work has something of Vincent’s work from Nuenen, but it doesn’t have Vincent’s furia, but instead something folksy and Rembrandtesque, which is not to be sniffed at. […] Both [De Haan and Isaacson] are very smart as far as their brains are concerned, so they make for interesting company. Because De Haan is weak, he is almost always at home, which means that we have many visitors and have a good time.’
Theo was clearly enjoying his new company. In the same letter, he calls De Haan ‘the little hunchback’, referring to the spinal deformation that is clearly visible in a sketch that Isaacson made of De Haan , perhaps during the same evening. Isaacson also made a sketch of Theo as he was writing a letter or putting it in an envelope . In these pen-and-ink sketches, the housemates are seen from further away and are rendered with less detail. Because De Haan was seated closer to Theo, whose hand and forearm frame his chest like a parapet in a classic Italian portrait, De Haan’s sketch makes a more powerful impact. Whether De Haan was consciously engaging with such an art historical tradition in this drawing is, of course, open to debate.
A striking element in the drawing is the presence of a pencil inscription on Theo’s cuff, which reads: ‘coke, apartment, Jo, Coffee, Candles’. When Jo Bonger enquired what this meant, Theo explained that he had a bad habit of using his cuffs as a notebook. With this visual joke, De Haan not only draws attention to one of his friend’s idiosyncrasies but also gives us an insight into what was occupying this busy art dealer at the time: he was searching for a new apartment for himself and Jo to move into after their wedding.
As had been the case with Vincent van Gogh, De Haan’s work in Paris constituted a transitional phase in his oeuvre. Unfortunately, very little of his work from this period has survived. The whereabouts of his View from the Window on Rue Lepic (c. 1888), a view that Vincent had captured several times eighteen months earlier, are unknown. As such, this modest sketch is an important link within his small body of work. Compared to the drawings he had made earlier, in his Amsterdam period, such as Self-Portrait with Baker’s Cap , this sketch is airier and more spontaneous. The stronger lines are evidence of his recent contact with modern artistic developments in the French capital. The same applies to the only surviving painting from his Paris period, Portrait of a Bearded Man. Although this canvas is painted much more loosely and directly than his earlier Amsterdam work, it still retains the darkness and Rembrandtesque quality that Theo had described. This was in great contrast to the works that he would later make in Brittany, where, side by side with Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), he would make rapid innovations in perspective, colour and technique .
Contact with Gauguin
It must surely have been thanks to Theo that De Haan came into contact with Gauguin. In the same week that De Haan moved in with Theo (28 October 1888), Gauguin joined Vincent in the Yellow House in Arles (23 October 1888). From the letters that Theo and Vincent wrote during that period, it is clear that Theo had plenty of Gauguin’s works in stock at that time. De Haan also visited Père Tanguy, the dealer in art supplies who stored works by Gauguin and Van Gogh, among others. De Haan must have met Gauguin in person for the first time in the winter of 1888-89, after the latter had rushed from Arles to Paris following his quarrel with Vincent and the infamous ear incident. Through Theo’s mediation, De Haan found an inspiring artist friend in Gauguin.
In Brittany, in Gauguin’s company, De Haan underwent a substantial artistic development from the summer of 1889. In a letter to Theo, he called Gauguin ‘a great artist from whom there is much to profit’. Where De Haan saw Gauguin as his artistic mentor, Gauguin felt intellectually nurtured by De Haan. The ‘Nabi hollandais’, as Paul Sérusier (1864–1927) would dub him, inspired his artist friends with his erudition and ‘exotic’ Jewish background, to which they attributed mystical and prophetic qualities. Theo had also found it interesting and pleasing to converse with the ‘Christian Jews’, De Haan and Isaacson, with their ‘remarkable clarity of mind’.
A key figure
Following Theo’s rather sudden death in January 1891, De Haan continued to correspond with Jo. De Haan’s letters demonstrate his great appreciation of and gratitude to Theo. In his last letter to Theo himself, written on 8 October 1890, De Haan had referred to him as his very best friend, who had afforded him the opportunity to discover the ‘true life of Art’. Theo was a key figure in the Parisian art world and helped to determine art history through his role as a facilitator: without him, the artists discussed here would not have met one another and probably would not have had money or accommodation. Apart from a few photographs and Isaacson’s sketch , Meijer de Haan’s drawing is the only portrait we have of such a pivotal figure in the Parisian avant-garde of the late nineteenth century. As such, this modest sketch possesses a wealth of art historical relevance.