Van Gogh begins painting heads in November 1884. A few months later he writes to his brother that he is ‘hard at work’: ‘I paint during the day and draw in the evening. I’ve already painted at least 30 or so this way, and drawn as many’. This head of an elderly Brabant woman illustrates that he is making progress thanks to his tireless industry.

Frontal view

Van Gogh usually paints his models from the side, but this woman is looking straight at us. He fashions the wrinkles of her face in paint, as it were, and uses various shades of green for the background, hat and shawl. By so doing, he tries to give form and depth to her face. The sharp shadow lines along the nose and in the left corner of the mouth give the head its lifelike appearance.


Van Gogh’s interaction with the models causes irritation among the ‘reverend gentlemen of the priesthood’. They inform him that he ‘shouldn’t be too familiar’ with ‘people of lower station’. Meanwhile they warn the peasants ‘with threats’ that they should not allow themselves to be painted by him. Van Gogh remains undeterred. They ‘should stick to their own province of more abstract things’.