Rediscovered Stories: Work, Warmth, and the Straw Hat of Vincent van Gogh

by Catherine D’Andrea

“What one wears on the outside reflects what goes on in the heart.”
—Anna and Dorus van Gogh (parents of Vincent)

Hats provide protection against the elements and express our sense of style. Hats, caps in particular, can also signify our interests and associations: athletic, academic, professional, and commercial, among others.1

With a few exceptions, rules of etiquette pertaining to hats have eased in the Western hemisphere. But in nineteenth-century Europe, class distinctions were clearly defined, social mobility was limited, and hats were worn by nearly everyone.1 They served as an important indicator of a man’s rank in society. Renowned artist Vincent van Gogh painted several self-portraits in which he wears a straw hat common to the working class.1

Vincent was born in 1853 in the Netherlands, near the Belgian border. He described his youth as “gloomy and cold and sterile.”2 Though “smart and well-prepared,” Vincent was unhappy at school and quit at the age of 15.2 He worked at an art dealership owned by his uncle, but was eventually fired.3 He was also unsuccessful in his subsequent pursuit of work in the ministry. At this time, however, Vincent was sent to a mining town in southern Belgium, where he lived among people of extreme poverty who inspired him with their simple way of life.4 This influence became evident in his work as an artist, which he undertook when he was 27 years old.

Vincent spoke four languages and was educated, yet saw nobility in the labor of illiterate peasants. Though his art commands millions of dollars now, Vincent was financially dependent upon his family. He received little recognition during his own lifetime and only sold one painting in the amount of 400 francs. He died at the age of 37 from a gunshot wound.4, 5

Vincent van Gogh faced devastating romantic rejections, career failures, depression, and poverty. Painting self-portraits saved him money on the cost of a model, but they were also a means to express biography in art, an idea of the nineteenth century that Vincent believed important.2 Like a loyal fan wearing a cap to reflect support for his team, he presents himself in a straw hat to convey solidarity with the poor. Their struggles mirrored his own.

In museums around the world, displayed prominently or in back corners, the beauty Vincent saw in adversity lives on through his work. In a note to an art critic, Vincent’s brother, Theo, wrote, “You have read these pictures, and by doing so you very clearly saw the man.”

“Think of all the field that were turned down by short sighted people, but through the sower’s hard work finally produced good fruit.”

—Dorus van Gogh (father of Vincent van Gogh)

References

1. Crane, Diana, “The Social Meaning of Hats and T-shirts,” University of Chicago Press Website, accessed Dec. 4, 2015, http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/117987.html. Originally published in Crane, Diana, Fashion and Its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

2. Naifeh, Steven, and Gregory White Smith, Van Gogh: The Life (New York: Random House, 2011), p. 33.

3. Bell, Julian, Van Gogh: A Power Seething (New Harvest, 2015), p. 12.

4. “Vincent van Gogh,” biography.com, accessed Dec. 4, 2015, http://www.biography.com/people/vincent-van-gogh-9515695#early-life.

5. “NCIS: Provence: The Van Gogh Mystery,” Vanity Fair, November 7, 2014http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2014/12/vincent-van-gogh-murder-mystery.



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