The Art Newspaper



Authorities in bid to save derelict Van Gogh house

The plan is to restore the property and open it to visitors
The house in Wasmes where Van Gogh stayed is falling into disrepair

The house where Van Gogh lodged in the Borinage, where he was an evangelist among the coalminers, is falling down. Legal measures are being taken by the local authority to compulsorily purchase the dilapidated building. The plan is to restore it and open it to visitors from 2015, the year when the neighbouring city of Mons will be European Capital of Culture.

Van Gogh went to the village of Wasmes, in the Borinage in western Belgium, in December 1878. He initially lodged with a farmer, Jean-Baptiste Denis, who lived in Rue du Petit-Wasmes, now 221 Rue Wilson. The Dutchman, who was then 25, had virtually no money, and he lived a life of abject poverty, sometimes even giving away his clothes to the poor.

Van Gogh had already begun to draw, and six drawings from the Borinage survive. However, most of his work from this period was lost, including sketches of Denis’ family made during his seven-month stay.

The modest Denis house, which has a commemorative plaque, has been unoccupied for around two decades and is now dilapidated, with its windows boarded up. The rear extension has lost part of its roof, and is now in danger of collapsing.

The municipality of Colfontaine, which covers Wasmes, has begun legal proceedings to purchase the building under a compulsory order, on the grounds it is not being cared for. This process should take around six months, unless the owner appeals. The plan is to open the house as a visitor centre (the other house where Van Gogh later moved to in the Borinage, in Cuesmes, is open to visitors).

The Denis house is on the brow of a hill, overlooking what is now the ruins of the Marcasse colliery. Van Gogh once spent six hours down in the mine, guided by a miner who had worked there for 33 years. Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo: “This mine has a bad name because many die in it… It’s a sombre place, and at first sight everything around it has something dismal and deathly about it.” Van Gogh descended 700 m, penetrating “the most hidden corners of that underworld”.

After two years as a failed preacher, Van Gogh left the Borinage for Brussels to “pick up my pencil... and get back to drawing”.