Van Gogh’s reed pens

I’m quite certain that the first Vincent van Gogh painting I ever saw was a reproduction of Peach Trees in Blossom that hung for many years in the living room of the house I grew up in.

Peach Trees in Blossom (1889); oil on canvas.  The Courtauld Gallery, London

I’m sure I saw other individual works-either the real things in museums or reproductions in books-but major immersion and deep appreciation came in 1982, when I visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and in 1984, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s landmark exhibit, Van Gogh in Arles.  In December of 2005, I attended what was in many ways an even more revelatory Van Gogh exhibit at the Met, Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings.

Van Gogh’s career as an artist spanned just ten years, so his output of approximately 800 paintings already astonishes.  But in addition to that, he produced more than 1,100 drawings in that decade, most of which aren’t widely known, and 100 of which were the focus of the 2005 Met exhibit.  There were drawings in graphite, chalk, and charcoal, but my favorites were those done, with ink and reed pen, during his time in Arles.  The reeds, which grew locally and could be easily sharpened with a penknife, were more flexible than metal pen nibs.  Because they didn’t hold a lot of ink, they lent themselves to rapidly made marks.

The Sower, ca. August 5-8. 1888.  Reed pen, quill, and ink over graphite on wove paper.

I absolutely love The Sower; the detail is almost inexplicably pleasing to me.  In an essay included in the exhibition catalogue, Colta Ives wrote: “Van Gogh expressed himself graphically in especially distinctive ways, and his marks, their character, their rhythms are riveting.  A fully worked drawing from the apex of his productivity presents a virtual fireworks of hatches, dots, and curlicues, methodically dispersed to the farthest edges of the paper, to hover there or recoil, just short of crossing bounds.”

Here’s another favorite of mine from the show:

View of Arles with Irises in the Foreground, early May 1888.  Reed pen, pen, ink, and wash over graphite on wove paper.

Each of these drawings has a companion in oil on canvas.  Van Gogh’s painting The Sower was actually done prior to the drawing shown above.

The Sower, ca. June 17, 1888.  Oil on canvas.  Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, the Netherlands

This painting was done very shortly after the companion drawing.

View of Arles with Irises in the Foreground, early May 1888.  Oil on canvas.  Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

In a letter to his brother Theo on May 12 1888, van Gogh wrote, “Just now I have done two new [oil] studies… A meadow full of very yellow buttercups, a ditch with irises, green leaves and purple flowers, the town in the background, some gray willows–a strip of blue sky….I’d like to do this study again, for the subject was very beautiful…”

Which versions do you prefer?

Quasi-non sequitur tidbit:  This seven-second exchange from Manhattan came to me while drafting this post.  A native Dutch speaker would have to tell Diane Keaton’s snooty character that her pronunciation was actually incorrect.


  • There is a sepia quality to the drawings that adds a sense of distance. How this dances with the immediacy of the lines and dots is mysterious to me and would take someone with much more understanding of art to explain (or correct!).

    Of the examples of oil and ink that you offered, I think I’d choose the drawings of both. Though the Sower’s sun bothers me.


  • I always like the oil better; it’s all about color for me.

    Will I drag the conversation down if I tell you…well, whether yes or no, I’ll tell you. Van Gogh at this point always makes me think about the new Doctor Who episode, “Vincent and the Doctor” (S5E10), where the Doctor and Amy meet Van Gogh, ending in this amazing scene: (sorry I’m not sure how to do links in a comment here). It’s worth watching.

    Van Gogh’s art (or supposed art) shows up later in the episode “The Pandorica Opens” (s5E12) when Van Gogh’s painting of an exploding TARDIS starts off the action.

    We now return you to your high-cultured discussion of Van Gogh.

    Liked by 1 person

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