Oud Holland

Review of: 'Popular art and the avant-garde' (2020)

MARCH 2021

Review of: Vincent Alessi, Popular art and the avant-garde: Vincent van Gogh’s collection of newspaper and magazine prints, Melbourne [Monash University Publishing] 2020

On 4 February 1883, Vincent van Gogh wrote to his friend Anthon van Rappard, about his love for English illustrated magazines; he especially admired The Illustrated London News and The Graphic. Living in London for years (1873-1875); every week Van Gogh would go to the publishers’ shop windows, to view the latest issues:

“More than ten years ago I used to go every week to the display case of the printer of The Graphic and London News in London to see the weekly publications. The impressions I gained there on the spot were so strong that the drawings have remained clear and bright in my mind, despite everything that has since gone through my head. And now it sometimes seems to me as if nothing lies between those old days and now – at any rate, my old enthusiasm for them is now greater rather than less than it was originally."1

Even though Van Gogh first got to know the illustrated magazines a decade earlier, their black-and-white images seem to have left a lingering impression, which would stay with him for the rest of his life. The art historian Vincent Alessi clearly analyses, in his recent book Popular art and the avant-garde: Vincent van Gogh’s collection of newspaper and magazine prints, the importance of such illustrated magazines upon the life and work of Van Gogh. This well-organised and highly readable book presents the topic in five chapters: ‘The rise of the popular print’, ‘Van Gogh in England’, ‘Van Gogh’s collection of popular prints’, ‘Van Gogh as a draftsman’ and ‘The influence of black-and-white illustrations on Van Gogh the artist’. London was the capital of the illustrated press in the lifetime of Van Gogh, and the nineteenth century saw the emergence of numerous types of publications that incorporated printed images, such as almanacs, illustrated catalogues and illustrated (art) journals. Thanks also to new means of paper production; the graphic innovation of wood engraving – and hundreds of capable draughtsmen, engravers and publishers – illustrated magazines became a very popular format. There were magazines covering a range of subjects concerned with general news and commentary, amusement, satire and academic subjects, up to highly specialised trade and professional journals. These illustrated magazines formed an integrated part of the fascinating nineteenth-century visual culture concerning art and (photo-)graphic reproduction.2

The Penny Magazine (published between 1832-1845) paved the way for the development of the illustrated periodical in the nineteenth century. The objective of The Penny Magazine was – in a nutshell – to provide ‘useful knowledge for everyone’, all richly illustrated. The Penny Magazine achieved a circulation of more than 100,000, whereas The Illustrated London News began with 26,000 copies of the first issue, on 14 May 1842 – and eventually reached 60,000 within a year. Specialised art journals probably did not achieve such figures; an English magazine, The Art Journal, had 15,000 subscribers in 1860. The actual number of readers is far more interesting than the print run numbers, however, for we can be certain that readership would have been several times the number of copies printed. Illustrated periodicals were internationally distributed to libraries and reading rooms and an immense number of readers of social middle classes, or ‘the reading public’, got their hands on these magazines – including Vincent van Gogh.It was probably relatively easy for art lovers to obtain such publications, as, according to the publisher; finding The Penny Magazine was as easy as finding the nearest bookshop.

In his book, Alessi focuses specifically on The Illustrated London News and The Graphic – both of which Van Gogh had a particular fascination for. The first offered a richly illustrated view of the world, reporting about wars, the latest inventions and discoveries, world-exhibitions and royalty. The second was full of realistic scenes of daily life: veterans at the Chelsea Hospital, orphans at their meal in the orphanage and miners working underground – for instance. The Graphic distinguished itself from other magazines by its extra care for the quality of its black-and-white image reproductions.The best draughtsmen and engravers were hired to produce images. Especially those folio-size prints were works of art in themselves. The Illustrated London News tried to show its readers the latest developments of the world; The Graphic attempted to show the best images. Standing in front of the publisher’s window – also known as the ‘poor man’s gallery’ – Van Gogh admired them all, appreciating the black-and-white prints as affordable art.

Left: Cover of Popular Art and the Avant-Garde: Vincent van Gogh’s collection of newspaper and magazine prints.

Middle: fig. 1 Vincent Van Gogh, Girl in a wood, 1882, oil on paper on canvas, 37 x 58.8 cm., Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, inv. 107.592.

Right: fig. 2 Vincent Van Gogh, The rock of Montmajour with pine trees, pencil, pen, reed pen and brush and ink, on paper, 49.1 x 61.0 cm., Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, inv. d0344V1962.

Van Gogh began collecting wood-engravings while living in The Hague. In a letter dated 9 January 1882, he enthusiastically wrote to his brother Theo:

“I received a great bargain on some splendid woodcuts from The Graphic, some of them prints not of the clichés but of the blocks themselves. Just what I have been wanting for years. The drawings by Herkomer, Frank Holl, Walker and others. I bought them from Blok, the Jewish bookseller, and chose the best from an enormous pile of Graphics and London News for five guilders. Some of them are superb, including the houseless and homeless by Fildes (poor people waiting outside a night shelter) and two large Herkomers and many small ones, and the Irish emigrants by Frank Holl and the ‘Old gate’ by Walker […] In short, it’s exactly the stuff I need.”5

Both magazines were available in The Hague. For a modest amount of money, Van Gogh collected magazines with illustrations by his favourite artists, to build up his own collection.

Alessi reconstructs Van Gogh’s collection of wood-engravings from popular illustrated magazines, such as: Harper’s Weekly, L’Illustration, Le Monde Illustré, La Vie Moderne, De Hollandsche Illustratie and the Katholieke Illustratie – but prints from The Illustrated London News and The Graphic dominated this collection. Most of his prints date from the years around 1872, 1874 and 1880 – although he had bought them years later at the second-hand dealer Blok in The Hague. Alessi analysed Van Gogh’s purchases of The Illustrated London News, identifying six periods in which he acquired the prints: January 1882-October 1882, January-February 1883 and then in four shorter periods; May 1883, July 1883, February 1884 and September 1884. In this way, Van Gogh assembled an extensive collection of wood-engravings, in a relatively short amount of time; he ended his collecting as impulsively as he started it. Today, some 1,400 prints from his collection have survived and are kept in the collection of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.6

Van Gogh decorated his home with prints, but he kept the vast majority of his collection in several albums, and stored his prints in 18 portfolios, classified according to subject: (Irish character types, landscapes, miners, factories, fishermen), artist (Doré, Barnard, Lancon, Fildes and Green) or size (large pages from The Graphic, The Illustrated London News, Harper’s Weekly, L’Illustration, etc.).He also kept separate albums devoted to portraiture, including the series, Heads of the people by Hubert Herkomer, which was published in The Graphic. This classification system clearly indicates the categories that he had in mind while looking at his prints. He showed a special interest in illustrations of workers from the social lower classes such as farmers, miners, weavers, fishermen or factory workers; professors, doctors and royalty, are rare within his collection. From his own specific religious point of view; he was concerned with the socio-economic lower classes of society. In addition to the subjects of his prints, he also admired the technique and graphic quality of specific printmakers – such as the wood engravers Fred Barnard and Charles Green.

Van Gogh considered his collection, ‘a kind of bible’ for artistic inspiration, providing sentimental subjects, innovative compositions and graphic examples of tones of light and dark. His collection seemed to be a conversation piece that he mentioned in his contacts with his brother Theo, who he also encouraged to collect prints: “If you can afford it – if I can, I’ll do it too – subscribe to this year’s Katholieke Illustratie, which has Doré’s prints of London – the wharves on the Thames, Westminster, Whitechapel, the Underground railway &c. &c.”Van Gogh also referred to his prints, in his letters to his friend Anthon van Rappard:

“I’ve found another two woodcuts for you, one by Miss Edwards and one by Green. The latter is particularly fine: a painter working on a shop sign while people watch, in the age of Louis XVI. I must also have a good Rochussen in duplicate somewhere. I believe that you could have a much finer collection than mine if you put your mind to it, or perhaps you do already; I have never seen all of yours together, only the small Dürers and Holbeins and the Du Mauriers and a few others. If you come across anything interesting in that line, let me know.”9

His letters also indicate his habit of exchanging prints with Anthon van Rappard and other artists.

Van Gogh highly appreciated the wood engravers and identified himself with them, in the hopes of becoming one himself – as Alessi describes.10 He even asked Theo about suitable subjects to publish in illustrated magazines: “If you can find out about it, you must tell me what kind of drawings one might be able to sell to the illustrated magazines. It seems to me they could use pen drawings of types of the people, and I would like so much to start working on them, in order to make something suitable for reproduction.”11 In September 1882, he wrote to Theo that: “I would be really pleased if sooner or later, after even more or even less effort, I could supply drawings for illustrated magazines. One might follow from the other. The point is to keep on working.”12 Van Gogh made compositions with illustrated magazines in mind, like his well-known drawing, At Eternity’s Gate – though he didn’t succeed at becoming a professional draughtsman himself. Nevertheless, he largely owed his autodidacticism in drawing, his own ideas concerning religious sentimental subjects and his understanding of composition and use of tone – to studying his collection of prints from illustrated magazines.

Alessi closely investigates the influence of Van Gogh’s wood-engravings from illustrated magazines in his drawings and paintings. During his Dutch period (1881-1885), his early painting, Girl in a wood of 1882 (fig. 1), was directly inspired by black-and-white prints.13 After he left for Antwerp and Paris, his black-and-white engravings seemed to be exchanged for the more colourful Japanese prints. However, as Alessi argues, Van Gogh always kept his illustrations in the back of his mind. Gauguin’s empty chair can be related to a print by Luke Fildes, while his numerous portraits reflect his favourite series, Heads of the people, from The Graphic. Interestingly, Alessi also refers to the influence of the concept of a series in Van Gogh’s oeuvre. His early drawings of The Hague and its surroundings, his paintings of weavers and his drawings of Montmajour and environments (fig. 2), were all inspired by this concept of series, as Alessi explains.14 These compositions were conceived by him and artistically shaped as a series of related works. During his stay in Auvers, for his treatment by Doctor Gachet, Van Gogh was inspired by the doctor’s etching press. He would later write to Theo about his idea to produce a series of his own etchings, after some of his paintings, to be published as an album.15

The influence of the popular wood engravings from illustrated magazines, in relation to Van Gogh’s life and work, is an intriguing subject, which Alessi describes in detail. During the last 50 years, the topic developed a history of its own within Van Gogh studies. Ronald Pickvance’s exhibition ‘English influence on Vincent van Gogh’, from 1974, introduced this aspect of his life and works to a wider audience; in 1987, Julian Treuherz presented it at the exhibition ‘Hard times: Social realism in Victorian Art’; and Hans Luijten later reflected on the role of wood-engravings in Van Gogh’s personal musée imaginaire, at the 2003 exhibition ‘De Keuze van Vincent. Van Goghs Musée imaginaire’.16 More recently, the 2019 exhibition ‘Van Gogh and Britain’, at the Tate Modern in London, also included this aspect of Van Gogh’s work.17 Considering the tradition of research into this subject is, no longer ‘the best kept secret’ in Van Gogh studies – as the art historian Albert Boime, once stated;18 Alessi’s book is a noteworthy addition to the field, presenting not so much a new body of research, but rather, an interesting deepening of this fascinating and essential aspect to understanding Van Gogh’s life and work. It describes clearly and in context, Van Gogh’s multifaceted interest in illustrated magazines. He shows how he viewed his prints, collected them and the inspiration they offered him. The prints also inspired him to have a future as a professional printmaker for illustrated magazines. When that perspective was lost, they turned out to be of great importance for his own development as an artist. His prints stimulated his technique and composition, and enabled him to order his ideas and to communicate about them with his fellow artists.

In the early-1880s, the variety of the subjects covered by these periodicals was constantly enriched with new publications in England, France, Germany and the Netherlands. In 1883, the year wherein Van Gogh conveyed his fascination for illustrated magazines to his friend Van Rappard, and was searching for The Illustrated London News and The Graphic, in Londontwo Dutch historians, the friends Adriaan Daniel de Vries and Nicolaas de Roever, established a new magazine, in the Netherlands. It was to be devoted to the arts of Old Masters, consisting of art-historical, and literary essays, all beautifully illustrated with, for instance, decorative drop caps and even images. It was entitled: Oud Holland.19 However, in 1883, Van Gogh was captivated by The Illustrated London News and The Graphic. One wonders what he would have thought of Oud Holland; regardless, today it remains the oldest continually published periodical about art history, in the world.

Robert Verhoogt


1 Br. 1990: 309 | CL: R20 Vincent van Gogh to Anthon van Rappard, The Hague, on or about Sunday, 4 February 1883. See, the online edition of the Van Gogh letters: http://vangoghletters.org/vg/.

2 R. Verhoogt, Art in reproduction: Nineteenth-century prints after Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Jozef Israëls and Ary Scheffer, Amsterdam 2007, pp. 223-240.

3 P. Gay, Pleasure wars: The bourgeois experience Victoria to Freud, London 1998, p. 55.

4 V. Alessi, Popular art and the avant-garde: Vincent van Gogh’s collection of newspaper and magazine prints, Melbourne 2020, p. 15.

5 199 Br. 1990: 198 | CL: 169 Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, The Hague, Sunday, 8 or Monday, 9 January 1882.

6 V. Alessi 2020 (note 4), pp. 45-47.

7 235 Br. 1990: 235 | CL: 205 Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, The Hague, Saturday, 3 June 1882.

8 101 Br. 1990: 101 | CL: 84 Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, Dordrecht, Sunday, 21 January 1877.

9 232 Br. 1990: 231 | CL: R8 Vincent van Gogh to Anthon van Rappard, The Hague, Sunday, 28 May 1882.

10 V. Alessi 2020, pp.93-130.

11 204 Br. 1990: 203 | CL: 174 Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, The Hague, Monday, 13 February 1882.

12 264 Br. 1990: 265 | CL: 231 Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, The Hague, Sunday, 17 September 1882.

13 Alessi 2020, p.154. See also: J. Ten Berge, T. Meedendorp, A. Vergeest, R. Verhoogt (et al.), The paintings of Vincent van Gogh in the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo 2003, pp. 30-33.

14 V. Alessi 2020, pp. 188-189.

15 V. Alessi 2020, pp. 131-195.

16 Both exhibitions were held at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

17 R. Pickvance, English influences on Vincent van Gogh Nottingham, London 1974-1975. J. Treuherz, Hard times: Social realism in Victorian art, Manchester/Amsterdam/New Haven 1987. L. van Tilborgh, ‘“A kind of Bible”: The collection of prints and illustrations’, in The Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh. M. Hoyle and E. van Uitert (eds.), Amsterdam 1987, pp. 38-44. H. Luijten, ‘Scharrelen in de houtsneden – Vincent van Gogh en de prentkunst’, in De keuze van Vincent: Van Goghs Musée imaginaire. C. Stolwijk, S. Van Heugten, L. Jansen, A. Blühm, (eds.), Amsterdam/Antwerp 2003. C. Jacobi (ed.), Van Gogh and Britain, London 2019.

18 V. Alessi 2020, p.93.

19 Reproductions of artworks (and especially those in colour) in the journal would increasingly appear during the course of the twentieth century. For a review of the first issues of Oud Holland, see: J. I. van Doorninck, ‘Oud Holland’, De gids 48 (1884), pp. 162-174. See also, online: https://www.dbnl.org/tekst/_gid001188401_01/_gid001188401_01_0009.php.

Robert Verhoogt, 'Review of: Popular art and the avant-garde: Vincent van Gogh’s collection of newspaper and magazine prints', Oud Holland Reviews, March 2021.