Vincent van Gogh
_Head of a peasant_ 1884
AGNSW collection

Vincent van Gogh

Head of a peasant

1884

Paintings by this Dutch-born artist have sold for record-breaking prices at auction and his name is now one of the most famous in the art world, but when Vincent van Gogh was alive his rare talent was not fully appreciated.

Today he is renowned for his vibrant striking colours and intense, expressionistic style, like his iconic Sunflower series of the late 1880s. Many of these works were painted in the warm, sunny climate of the south of France, where he lived for a time.

This portrait of a peasant is an earlier work, when his style was quite different. The colours are darker and the paint applied coarsely. But it marks an important step in his career. It is part of a series of more than 40 studies of peasants' heads, which he painted one winter while living in the rural French village of Nuenen. These studies led to him producing, in 1885, his first large-scale painting with multiple figures - The potato eaters - which is now in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and widely considered to be his first great work. The paintings from this period reflect his socialist sympathies. He would continue to believe in what might be called humble, rather than bourgeois, art.

Largely self-taught, Van Gogh did several jobs before taking up art as a career in his late 20s. In just a decade he produced almost 1000 paintings and over 1000 works on paper, but he had sold barely any of them by the time he took his own life aged 37. For many people, he still represents the idea of the tortured, driven genius.

oil on canvas, 39.4 x 30.2 cm, Art Gallery of NSW Foundation purchase 1990, 211.1990