Although not yet announced, Christie’s will offer Van Gogh’s Woman Sewing (October-November 1881) in a London sale on 7 March. The estimate is £2m-£3m, a modest sum for his work, but reflecting the fact that it was painted when he was just setting out to become an artist.
The large watercolour and gouache painting, 60cm high, depicts a middle-aged woman sewing by the light of a window. She works on a white shirt, which appears to be reasonably smart, rather than an ordinary farmer’s garment. It might even be one of Van Gogh’s own shirts, which he lent to a local model to use.
On 15 October 1881 Van Gogh wrote to his artist friend Anthon van Rappard, asking whether he could get a copy of “The Song of the Shirt”, a poem by the English writer Thomas Hood: “I’d like to ask you to write it down for me.” Van Rappard was then about to visit Van Gogh.
A few days later Van Rappard made the 100-kilometre journey from Utrecht to Etten, the village in the south of the Netherlands where Van Gogh was living with his parents. The two men spent a few days together, when they discussed the technique of watercolour. Later that autumn Van Gogh carried on honing his skills as a watercolourist.
Woman Sewing was at least partly inspired by “The Song of the Shirt”. In his poem Hood wrote about a toiling seamstress: “With fingers weary and worn/With eyelids heavy and red/A woman sat in unwomanly rags/ Plying her needle and thread… She sang the ‘Song of the Shirt’.” Van Gogh had probably read the poem when he was living in England in 1873-76 and he is likely to have known the illustrated edition of Hood’s poetry with images by Gustave Doré.
Van Gogh’s model in Woman Sewing could have been sitting in her own home or in his makeshift studio, which was an outhouse of the parsonage where his family lived. She has one foot raised on a small stool, scissors and a large spool of thread on the ground.
Although the woman remains unidentified, Etten historian Cor Kerstens believes it is most likely that she was Dien de Graaf, a seamstress and hat maker who lived in the village, in Oude Bredaseweg. Van Gogh knew her well, since her husband Alexander was the sexton of the local Protestant church, where Vincent’s father was the pastor. Dien would have been 42 when the watercolour was painted.
The view from the window is intriguing, depicting a house, which appears to be a middle-class home. The building may not have been one actually visible from the window, but if not it could well have been based on a sketch of a house elsewhere in the village. The scene certainly represents winter, since the sole tree is bare.
Van Gogh painted five other watercolours of women sewing. By this time he was using local models, paying them around 25 cents a day. On 12 October he had written to Van Rappard, just before the visit of his friend: “It’s also beautiful here in the winter, and we surely could do something, if not outdoors then working from a model in the house of some peasant or other. I’ve been drawing a lot from the model lately.”
Although the early provenance of the Woman Sewing watercolour coming up for sale is not entirely clear, it may have been with a Rotterdam dealer in 1904. It could earlier have been among 40 Van Gogh paintings and numerous works on paper which were abandoned and later all sold as waste for a total of one guilder (then around US 50 cents).
By 1937 Woman Sewing belonged the Dutch musicologist Anthony van Hoboken. He also owned a number of important Van Gogh oil paintings. In 1951 the watercolour was bought by the Swiss biochemist Arthur Stoll and his wife Martha. It was later auctioned in Bern in 2008, when it fetched the equivalent of £1.4m and went to the current owner, a European.
There will soon be a chance to see it in London for a few days before the 7 March Christie’s sale.