The Witch of Dongen
An artists' village in the 19th century
Featuring paintings and drawings from the collections of the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum and the Mauritshuis
In collaboration with the Van Gogh House in Zundert we organize the first major exhibition of ‘the painters of Dongen’ in which drawings and paintings from the 19th century are brought together. Together these works tell the fascinating story of one of the earliest Dutch artists’ villages.
Artists discover Dongen
In the 19th century, artists such as August Allebé, Jozef Israëls, Max Liebermann, Albert Neuhuys, Suze Robertson and Jan Veth began visiting Dongen in Brabant. Amongst the inland dunes, farmlands and dark forests, they discovered traditional farms and their inhabitants.
These artists are driven by nostalgia and nationalism. As a result of the separation from Belgium (1830) and the uncertainties modern times bring, they long for the Golden Age. Visiting Dongen has the effect of time travel on them. They can experience the ‘Old Holland’ of their illustrious forebears for themselves.
One of the people to discover Dongen is Constant Huijsmans, art teacher at the Royal Military Academy in Breda. One of his paintings depicts soldiers encamped at Dongen. His colleague Willem Hendrik Schmidt from Delft is highly enthusiastic about these scenes. In the summer, Schmidt and his pupils, including later artist Christoffel Bisschop, visit Dongen to work in nature.
Vincent van Gogh
Gradually, the village becomes well known amongst artists from the wider area. They stay at Mrs. Muskens’ Inn for a shorter or longer periods. They draw and paint farm interiors and residents, family meals of potatoes, farmers’ wives in traditional costumes, and craftspeople such as home weavers, shoemakers and lacemakers.
Their work becomes particularly popular in a short time and is a source of inspiration for other painters. Vincent van Gogh borrows the theme of his The Potato Eaters from one of Jozef Israëls Dongen paintings: Peasant Family at Mealtime. In an 1882 letter to his brother Theo, Vincent explains that he is deeply impressed by the atmosphere, the poverty and the emotion that the image conveys. The Van Gogh Museum has loaned this masterpiece by Jozef Israëls to Stedelijk Museum Breda especially for this exhibition.
The Witch of Dongen
An old peasant woman, Pietje Verhoef, became a beloved model for the artists. They often portray her: bent over her handiwork, at the spinning wheel, carrying a bunch of twigs, as a fortune teller or as a sorceress. As a result, ‘the witch of Dongen’ grows into a fairy-tale-like figure that embodies their longing for ‘old Holland’.
The museum has invited contemporary artists to respond to themes from this exhibition, in the Dongen Revisited group show.
Image: August Allebé, Peasant girl at the well, 1869, oil on panel, Vereniging Vrienden Stedelijk Museum Breda
August Allebé is the first to portray her. Katholieke Illustratie magazine writes about this in 1905: ‘Sitting there, she resembles an old witch from a fairy tale, with her ominous floppy hat over a wrinkled face, in which a pair of bright eyes flicker, and the toothless mumbling mouth, recessed below a protruding Roman nose, appears to mutter mysterious magic formulas. The kettle with water for coffee beside her is reminiscent of the infamous witches’ cauldron, in which dangerous potions boil and bubble, and the sleeping cat becomes a frightening familiar, which we believe to be inseparable from witches.’