Plan realized by Monique Van den Berg (Rotterdam - NL)
Marcasse and Vincent Van Gogh
Letter from Vincent to Theo van Gogh. Petit-Wasmes,
between Tuesday, 1and Wednesday, 16 April 1879.
Wasmes, April 1879
My dear Theo,
It’s time that you hear something from me again. I heard from home that you were in Etten for
a couple of days and that you were travelling for the firm. I sincerely hope that your trip went
These days you’ll no doubt be in the dunes and in Scheveningen now and then. Here it’s also
attractive in the country in the spring; here and there are places where one could imagine
oneself in the dunes, because of the hills.
I went on a very interesting excursion not long ago; the fact is, I spent 6 hours in a mine.
In one of the oldest and most dangerous mines in the area no less, called Marcasse. This mine
has a bad name because many die in it, whether going down or coming up, or by suffocation
or gas exploding, or because of water in the ground, or because of old passageways caving in
and so on. It’s a sombre place, and at first sight everything around it has something dismal
and deathly about it. The workers there are usually people, emaciated and pale owing to fever,
who look exhausted and haggard, weather-beaten and prematurely old, the women generally
sallow and withered. All around the mine are poor miners’ dwellings with a couple of dead
trees, completely black from the smoke, and thorn-hedges, dung-heaps and rubbish dumps,
mountains of unusable coal &c. Maris would make a beautiful painting of it.
Later I’ll try and make a sketch of it to give you an idea of it.
Had a good guide, a man who has already worked there for 33 years, a friendly and patient
man who explained everything clearly and tried to make it understandable.
We went down together, 700 metres deep this time, and went into the most hidden corners of
The maintenages or gradins (cells where the miners work) that are farthest removed from the
exit are called ‘des caches’ (hidden places, places where one searches). This mine has 5
levels, 3 of which, the uppermost ones, are exhausted and abandoned, one no longer works in
them because there’s no more coal. If anyone were to try and make a painting of the
maintenages, that would be something new and something unheard-of or rather never-beforeseen.
Imagine a series of cells in a rather narrow and low passageway, supported by rough
timber-work. In each of the cells is a worker in a coarse linen suit, dingy and soiled as a
chimney-sweep, chipping away at the coal by the dim light of a small lamp. In some of the
cells the worker stands upright, in others (‘seams worked lying down’) he lies flat on the
The arrangement is more or less like the cells in a beehive, or like a dark, sombre passageway
in an underground prison, or like a series of small looms, or actually they look like a row of
ovens such as one sees among the peasants, or like the separate tombs in a vault. The
passageways themselves are like the large chimneys of the Brabant farmsteads.
In some, water leaks in everywhere and the light of the miner’s lamp creates a peculiar effect
and reflects as in a cave full of stalactites. Some of the miners work in the maintenages,
others load the loosened coal into small wagons that are transported along rails resembling a
tramway. It’s mostly children who do this, both boys and girls. There’s also a stable there, 700
metres below ground, with around 7 old horses that transport larger amounts, bringing them to
the so-called accrochage, that being the place where they’re hauled up. Other workers are
busy restoring the antiquated passageways to prevent them from caving in, or are making new
passageways in the coal seam. Just as sailors on land are homesick for the sea, despite all the
dangers and difficulties that threaten them, so the mine-worker would rather be below ground
The villages here have something forsaken and still and extinct about them, because life goes
on underground instead of above. One could be here for years, but unless one has been down
in the mines one has no clear picture of what goes on here.
The people here are very uneducated and ignorant, and most of them can’t read, yet they’re
shrewd and nimble in their difficult work, courageous, of rather small build but squareshouldered,
with sombre, deep-set eyes. They’re skilled at many things and work amazingly
hard. Very nervous dispositions, I mean not weak but sensitive. Have a festering and deeprooted
hatred and an innate distrust of anyone who tries to boss them around. With charcoalburners
one must have a charcoal-burner’s nature and character, and no pretensions,
pridefulness or imperiousness, otherwise one can’t get on with them and could never win their
Did I tell you at the time about the miner who was badly burned by a gas explosion? Thank
God he has now recovered and goes out and about and is beginning to take long walks as
practice, his hands are still weak and it will be some time before he’s able to use them for his
work, yet he has been saved. But since then there have been quite a few cases of typhus and
virulent fever, including what is known as ‘foolish fever’, which causes one to have bad
dreams such as nightmares and delirium. So there are again many sickly and bedridden
people, lying emaciated on their beds, weak and miserable.
In one house everyone is sick with fever, and they have little or no help, which means that
there the sick are taking care of the sick. ‘Here it is the sick who nurse the sick,’ said the
woman, just as it is the poor who befriend the poor.
Have you seen anything beautiful recently? I’m eagerly longing for a letter from you.
Has Israëls been working a lot lately, and Maris and Mauve?
A couple of nights ago a foal was born in the stable here, a nice small creature that was quick
to stand firmly on its feet. The workers keep a lot of goats here, and there are young ones in
the houses everywhere, just like the rabbits commonly to be found in the workers’ houses.
Must go out and visit the sick, so have to finish now, let me hear from you soon, to give a sign
of life, should you have the time.
Give my regards to your housemates, and to Mauve when you get the chance, I wish you the
very best, and believe me ever, with a handshake in thought,
Your loving brother
Going down in a mine is an unpleasant business, in a kind of basket or cage like a bucket in a
well, but then a well 500-700 metres deep, so that down there, looking upward, the daylight
appears to be about as big as a star in the sky. One has a feeling similar to one’s first time on a
ship at sea, but worse, though fortunately it doesn’t last long. The workers get used to it, but
even so, they never shake off an unconquerable feeling of horror and dread that stays with
them, not without reason or unjustifiably. Once down there, however, it isn’t so bad, and the
effort is richly rewarded by what one sees.
Vincent van Gogh
c/o Jean-Baptiste Denis
rue du Petit-Wasmes
Wasmes (Borinage, Hainaut)
The Marcasse colliery belonged to the « Compagnie des Charbonnages Belges », which
exploited a total of 11 pits. The mine closed on October 24th, 1954.
(Source : « Cartes postales anciennes du Borinage », collection of Marcel Capouillez)
Present owners of Marcasse
Mr. & Mrs. Barberio – Gravis
E : firstname.lastname@example.org
Web : http://riccanad.blogspace.be/308353/ASBL-Marcasse-sa-Memoire-
Photo Theo Meedendorp (Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam)
What future for Marcasse ?
A small group of 5 motivated (and a little crazy...) persons have been working hard on the new future of the former Marcasse coal mine in Wasmes (Borinage). They are Carmen Azevedo (Brussels), Paul BErckmans (Antwerp), Paul Boutsen (Genk), Monique Vandenberg (Rotterdam) and Filip Depuydt (Frameries).
Please find the Masterplan and an additional note for our Marcasse renovation plan via the following links.
Masterplan document (in french) :
Masterplan - Note additionnelle (en français):
Masterplan - bijkomende Nota (in het Nederlands) :
Masterplan - additional Note (in english) :
Vous le savez , les asiatiques sont très intéressés par le peintre VanGogh et son passage dans le Borinage. La preuve encore, le 10 septembre après midi, puisqu'un groupe de japonais visitait le site de Marcasse. L'occasion de faire le point sur les projets de sauvegarde et de développement du site que défend une poignée de passionnés.
Ce dimanche, à Wasmes, on commémorait la mémoire des victimes de la catastrophe de Marcasse. Les proches des mineurs disparus ont assisté à une célébration à la Chapelle St François d'Assises. Ensuite, ils se sont rendus sur le site de l'ancien charbonnage. L'hommage est toujours aussi important pour les familles des victimes, même 60 ans après le drame
See report :
The Marcasse Masterplan Team
Carmen Azevedo - Archicaz (Brussels)
- Paul Boutsen - Het Vervolg / Transit Lab (Genk)
- Paul Berckmans - Labour Sociologist (Antwerp)
- Filip Depuydt - Borigines / Grand-Hornu (Frameries)
- Monique Vandenbergh - Droomplaats (Rotterdam)
Paul Boutsen, Carmen, Monique and Paul Berckmans "in action"