Vincent van Gogh’s turbulent relationship with mothers—especially his own—began a full year before his birth. On 30 March 1852, Anna Carbentus van Gogh gave birth to a son, Vincent Willem van Gogh, who was stillborn. Anna tearfully buried her son in the cemetery of the parsonage where the Van Goghs lived. A year later to the day, Anna would give birth to another son, whom she also named Vincent Willem van Gogh.
Each day, the young Vincent would walk by a grave marked with his name and exact birthday, and weekly, Anna would take Vincent to decorate the grave of his older brother with flowers. Vincent grew up unable to compare to the perfect, imaginary personality Anna had constructed for her dead child. In his letters, Vincent described his childhood as cold and withdrawn, and his relationship with his mother, tense at best. Rejected by his own mother in favor of an ideal to which he could never measure up, Vincent began his lifelong obsessive quest to replace his mother’s love, beginning with his own cousin, Kee.
Kee vos Stricker visited the van Gogh family at Etten after the death of her husband in 1881, bringing her young son Jan with her. Vincent was attracted to her immediately, quickly falling into a possessive infatuation that the family shunned. For her part, Kee was categorically disinterested in—and even frightened by—Vincent, rejecting him with the words, “No, never, never.” Vincent was stunned by this dismissal. He wrote repeatedly to Theo, insisting that he and Kee could be together, if only she were not so preoccupied with her past.
He wrote: “I sometimes shudder at the thought of K.V., seeing her dwelling on the past and clinging to old, dead notions. There’s something fatal about it, and oh, she’d be none the worse for changing her mind. I think it quite possible that her reaction will come, there’s so much in her that’s healthy and lively.” (Letter 193, December 1881).
The same, of course, could be said of Vincent’s mother, who was hung up on the perfect child that never was—the first Vincent Willem van Gogh. As seen in his letters, Vincent returned to a state of childlike petulancy, even going to his uncle’s house and dramatically demanding to see Kee by holding his hand over a flame.
Eventually, Vincent, estranged from his family and from the woman he loved, left for The Hague, where he encountered a pregnant prostitute, Clasina Maria Hoornik, called Sien, and her child. Moved by her destitute life, Vincent took her in in an attempt to rehabilitate her. During the course of their relationship, Vincent created a series of drawings of her performing household tasks like sewing or caring for her son. Despite the tumultuous reality of their relationship, Vincent depicted Sien in states of domestic bliss, deliberately constructing false images of the happy home life that had always eluded him. Thus, the Sien series calls to mind his past relationships with his mother and Kee. In Woman Seated, Vincent even draws Sien in a dress identical to one worn in a portrait of Kee with her son Jan.
In Sien with an Umbrella and Prayer Book, Sien looks startlingly similar to Vincent’s mother, a parson’s wife and severe woman whom Vincent would have seen constantly carrying a prayer book. Through his Sien series, Vincent hoped to create the life he had always wanted through his art—although, of course, he was unsuccessful. Eventually, unable to shape the strong-willed Sien into his idea of perfect domesticity, the two parted ways, leaving Vincent devastated.
For a time, it seemed that Vincent had abandoned his maternal obsession. However, as his mental health suffered previously unknown strains, Vincent returned to the motif of the mother once more. In 1888, Vincent would paint Memories of the Garden of Etten (The Ladies of Arles), one of his most poignant works. In it, he depicts his mother and a young woman, probably his sister Wil, walking through a swirling garden, flanked by a woman gardening brilliantly colored flowers. Remarkably, the young woman looks extremely similar to images Vincent had previously made of Kee and Sien. Indeed, the “memories” to which the title refers are of the summer of 1881 in which Vincent had first laid eyes on Kee. Wistful and supernatural, Memories is the pinnacle of Vincent’s obsession with his own mother and the women he had sought to replace her, reaching out to them through space and time.
Like many aspects of Vincent’s life, his relationship with his mother did not have a happy ending. The two were never fully reconciled, and Vincent suffered psychologically because of their estrangement. Regardless, Vincent’s images of motherhood allow us a glimpse into the mind of a man who sought, above all else, acceptance and affection.
Image Credit: “Wheat Field with Crows” by Vincent van Gogh, 1890, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.