Monday, April 16, 2007

Van Gogh Loved to Sew

Sewing is an archaic way of making clothes. Even when Vincent van Gogh was around, in the 19th century, sewing machines were used as a practical way of manufacturing items to be worn. With this in mind, Lauren Soth, in her article “Van Gogh’s Images of Women Sowing” still asserts that van Gogh painted women manually sewing because he had values that “led him to choose such traditional subjects as seemed illustrative of them.” Who really knows what van Gogh’s values were? Using just some of van Gogh’s common motifs in his paintings and his love life as evidence of his distain for the mechanical world is founded in some ways, but not in others. Focusing, instead, on his own words about life will lead the viewer to a clearer perception of the artist, his ideals, and the reasons behind his choice of subject.

“To me it is as clear as day that one must feel what one draws.” Because van Gogh depicted his life with his artwork, Soth uses van Gogh's quote saying that his works consisted of manual labor and nothing technological. Yet the lack of technological labor becomes questionable especially when his work evolved around the Industrial Revolution. His negligence of technological innovations confused many educated individuals. Surely van Gogh encountered technical mechanisms; therefore, one cannot assume that he ignored the sewing machines near him. Van Gogh painted things relevant to life such as women sewing clothes evident in his piece entitle "Women Sewing". However, one cannot assert that he detested sewing machines and valued traditions, when instead he just liked the image of a seamstress. Van Gogh just drew as he felt, not truly as he believed. To believe and to feel two evoke two dissimilar emotions.

Van Gogh, like Soth points out, did try to paint in the likeness of his life, but it was not his true life and instead what he wished it to be. In the “Woman Sewing,” the subject most probably being his lover and also prostitute called Sien, Soth determines that this woman must have sewn his clothes by hand; however, given the time period, that idea cannot be. The clothing style of this period () was much more likely to have been sewn mechanically because of the invention of the sewing machine. The garbs were intricately woven and fashioned, something a simple seamstress would be incapable of doing by hand. Soth goes on to quote van Gogh as saying, in regards to Sien, “she is incapable of doing what she ought to do,” as a clear indication that van Gogh believed she should be at home sewing instead of whoring herself out, which could be the case. But, in the context, Soth asserts van Gogh proclaimed that women should sew and do nothing to earn their wages. He did end up leaving her, but not because of her wage earning power, but because she was indeed a prostitute. His painting reflected not his life, but some sort of ideal that did not directly correlate with his surroundings. In particular, “Woman Sewing,” van Gogh is determined to paint the seamstress “as a dark silhouette against the window” which could be indicative of a longing for escape from manual labor that a sewing machine and other industries might provide if the seamstress ventures into the light of the outdoors. If interpreted this way, the seamstress and van Gogh himself are rejecting traditional ways and instead yearn for change.

When van Gogh left Holland, he no longer painted with the seamstress motif. Soth believes it was because of his emotional ties to Sien and the seaming world, which is valid given the eventual departure of Sien and the fact that his family rejected the promiscuous life of Sien, pleading with him to abandon her. Yet it is also plausible to assume he found other things to paint. Van Gogh simply realized it was idealistic to believe that women would solely sew his clothes and do nothing else, therefore he stopped painting this image once he left Holland, where perhaps more women were willing to sew. The fact that he never returned to Holland meant he was no longer concerning himself with the manufacturing of clothing in a homely sense and instead focused on broader issues, such as farming and real every day life that was not just his ideal.

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