After painting during the last five years in the Netherlands, Van Gogh moved to Antwerp in 1886. It wasn’t his first time in Belgium. He spent some time in Brussels a few years before. And have also lived for two years preaching among the coal miners in Borinage region between 1878 and 1880. I’ve spent a few days exploring those places, and have created this guide with locations related to life and work of Van Gogh in Belgium, to help you do the same.
Following the footsteps of Van Gogh in Belgium
During my trip on which I followed the footsteps of Vincent van Gogh, I went to Belgium, as well. I visited places related to his life and work in Antwerp and Borinage. I haven’t visited any locations related to him in Brussels. But, if you would like to do that, check the link here for more info about them.
Van Gogh in Borinage
Between December 1878 and October 1880, Van Gogh worked as an evangelist preacher at the coal mining area of Borinage in Belgium. Although he was preaching and helping the miners there, that’s also the place where he created some of his first drawings.
That’s why, after spending a weekend in Brabant, I have continued to Belgium, to Mons and Borinage region. Well, it didn’t go without some flaws – I’ve got lost on my way from the hotel to the train station in Antwerp. And when I finally managed to come on time at a station, I learned my train was cancelled. Luckily, I’ve managed to catch another one and came safely and on time to Mons.
Mons is a lovely and picturesque historic town. It has a beautiful Gothic town hall, monumental Medieval church of St. Waltrude and the only Baroque belfry in Belgium.
And although I could easily spend a few days by exploring Mons, I wanted to visit the Borinage region, where Vincent lived for a bit less than two years. Accompanied by Manon from the local tourist office, we’ve taken a bus and went to meet Filip, a local guide in Borinage and the Van Gogh expert.
*TIP: If you would like to learn more about Van Gogh’s time in Borinage, take a look at Filip’s blog on a link here. It’s a great source of information about this Belgian region. I enjoyed in Filip’s tour and his explanation, and would highly recommend him as a guide to anyone visiting Borinage. You can contact him through the link here.
Filip took us on a walk around the area and showed us some of the remains of a coal mining tradition there. While wandering around, we listened to recordings of Vincent’s letters in which he mentioned some of the places we’ve seen, like the house in Petit-Wasmes where he lived or a local protestant church.
I’m used to think about Van Gogh as a painter, so it was quite interesting to discover his deeply religious side. He was so determined to make the life of those miners at least a bit easier. He was also so passionate about explaining the stories from the Bible to them. However, in almost every single letter we’ve listened to, he’s mentioning art, painters he knew and details he has noticed during some of his walks. So, I could definitely feel how he started to be interested in creating art while in Borinage.
Marcasse coal mine in Wasmes
Borinage is such a striking region. At one hand, the nature is so serene, and in such a contrast with a dark artificial hills made of the coal mining waste.
When we came closer to Marcasse coal mine, I’ve realised all the suffering of those people once working there. At a very entrance, there are names of people who died in a mine. We’ve listened to Vincent’s description of getting inside that mine and going to the depth of around 700 metres.
If I have got an impression in Brabant, that he wasn’t that lonely and that he enjoyed the life more than I thought, after seeing Borinage, I’m once again not so sure what to think about him. What was his real motivation to get there?
Religion was so crucial to Vincent while he was in Borinage, it’s hard to believe that in 1881 in Etten-Leur he’s not interested in it at all anymore…
After spending a night in a gorgeous Van der Valk Congres Hotel in Mons, I’ve met with Manon again. We’ve met our guide for a day and went to the Artotheque.
It’s a place where one important thing related to Van Gogh is kept – one of the rare existing drawings he made while in Borinage. I felt so nerdy and excited while there, at a museum depot, among all those paintings. I can’t express how grateful I was, they allowed me there.
On that drawing, Vincent has depicted two peasant men working at a field. It’s an image so typical for his early career. However, one detail I especially liked were their shoes. They are wearing regular shoes from the region. The same how on his Dutch paintings with peasants, they’re wearing wooden shoes. It was just another proof to me, he’s always drawing and painting after the reality.
After that, we went to a house in Cuesmes where Vincent lived in 1880. That’s also where he created some of his first drawings. There is a small exhibition there about Vincent’s life in the region. But, absolutely the best part of it was a wonderful movie about his life in Borinage. It’s so well made, and I really liked it!
After spending two days in Borinage, I could see why he was so attracted to that region. He could help people that were having such a tough life. And make it at least a bit easier. It was also so interesting to see that transition from a preacher to his first attempts of becoming a painter.
List of locations related to Van Gogh in Borinage:
# – Marcasse coal mine in Wasmes, address: Rue de Marcasse, Petit-Wasmes
# – Van Gogh House in Petit-Wasmes, address: 221 Rue Wilson, Wasmes
# – Van Gogh’s house in Cuesmes, address: Rue du Pavillon 3, 7033 Cuesmes
# – Artotheque in Mons, address: Rue Claude de Bettignies 1, 7000 Mons
*TIP: If you’re going to visit Mons and Borinage without a car, you can easily visit these locations with public transport. There are local buses you can take to Wasmes and Cuesmes from Mons. At the tourist info office at Mons, you can rent a bicycle and visit Van Gogh house in Cuesmes that way, too.
Vincent van Gogh moved to Antwerp in November 1885 and has spent two months there. He joined Art Academy and started attending art lessons there. Although he spent only two months in Antwerp, that time was definitely important to Vincent, because it was the only formal art education he has got during his lifetime.
During his time in Antwerp, he visited museums and churches that had collections of some famous Flemish Baroque masters. He was utterly amazed at a way Peter Paul Rubens was capturing the light on his paintings. That was also his way of learning during that time.
To learn more about Vincent’s time in Antwerp, I’ve looked for some places related to him there. I’ve found a house in which he was living in (there is still a sign on it marking that Van Gogh used to live there). I’ve also found the old building in which the Art Academy used to be.
*TIP: If you’re going to explore Antwerp and will be looking for places related to Van Gogh, I would advise you to get the Antwerp City Card. I’ve got a 24-hours one, and it was handy to have it for public transport and free entrance to some museums and churches (like Antwerp Cathedral, for example).
However, I also wanted to understand what kind of art he was surrounded by in Antwerp. And what kind of paintings were potentially influential on him. That’s why I visited some of the churches he’s mentioning in his letters to see the paintings there (especially some created by Rubens).
I’ve noticed one motif being present in many paintings – a skull. And one of the most unusual of his paintings in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam is a painting of a skull with a cigarette in its mouth. Have I found the influence for it, maybe? I’m putting some photos here, so you can decide for yourself.
After exploring Antwerp and learning about Van Gogh’s life there, I think I also understood why he has left it so soon. Although he was admiring those old baroque masters, that art was just too traditional for him. There was no emotion in it he was looking for. And on top of that, at the art academy, he was looking so forward to attend, they were learning how to draw in such a traditional way, he felt he was losing his time on it. He wanted something new, something challenging. He wanted the Avant-garde.
That’s why, in February 1886, he went to the centre of modern art in a moment, to Paris. And that’s where I went next in my search for him, as well.
List of locations related to Van Gogh’s life in Antwerp
# – House where he lived, address: Lange Beeldekensstraat 224, Antwerp
# – Art Academy in Antwerp, address: Mutsaardstraat 31, Antwerp
# – Cathedral of Our Lady, address: Groenplaats 21, Antwerp
# – St. Andrewchurch, address: St-Andriesstraat 5, Antwerp
# – Het Steen, address: Steenplein 1, Antwerp
# – Royal Museum of Fine Arts, address: Leopold de Waelplaats 2, Antwerp
Van Gogh’s time in Belgium is not so well known, but, it was definitely vital for his development as a painter. And although he didn’t arrive as a painter to Borinage, he definitely left it with an idea of becoming one.
You can read all of the posts from my Van Gogh trip below:
# – I’m going to follow the footsteps of Vincent van Gogh
# – Visiting Kröller-Müller Museum
# – Vincent Van Gogh in the Netherlands
# – Vincent Van Gogh in Belgium
# – Vincent van Gogh in Paris
# – Vincent Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise
# – Vincent Van Gogh in Arles
# – Vincent Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence
# – General info about my Van Gogh trip
*My visit to Belgium and places related to Vincent’s life there was a part of my “Follow the Footsteps of Vincent van Gogh” trip. It was supported and organized by the Van Gogh Europe, Visit Mons and Visit Flanders. Many thanks to all of them and everyone else who helped me organize it.