Van Gogh does not seek to idealize his models. He wants to show the peasants as they really are and depict the reality of their harsh existence. With powerful brushstrokes he emphasizes their coarse build, thick lips and tired eyes. ‘They remind one of the earth, sometimes appear to have been modelled out of it’, he writes to Theo.

Sharp contours

Van Gogh wants to ‘try to learn to render a head with character’. Nevertheless, his primary aim is to improve his technique. In Head of a man he experiments with the incidence of light. The contours of the man’s face and hair stand out sharply against the background. The light comes from behind the man on the right and just catches his neck, the rim of his ear and a part of his cheek.

The head first

Van Gogh paints this male head smoothly and opaque, wet-on-wet, in a dark palette. In the contours, where the colours flow into each other, it is apparent that, as usual, he paints the head first and then the background.