Revisiting Van Gogh

Tilburg Sunset Triptych (2023) 54 x 36

Inspired by the recent birth of my first grandson, I painted a triptych of a sunset behind his home in Tilburg, The Netherlands. Since my son moved there in 2016, I’d visited twice before; but, of course, this time the baby was the star attraction. Nevertheless, as usual, my visual senses were colored by thoughts about Vincent van Gogh, who lived nearby when he was a teenager. Perhaps he had once stood in that exact spot sketching the forest and fields. In this article, I will share more about Van Gogh’s connection to the region, my discovery of a hidden gem, a painting experiment I attempted when I returned home, and a brief update on my 2023 projects.

Van Gogh’s Years in Tilburg

Van Gogh’s unhappy childhood was a precursor to a life marred by mental illness and his suspected suicide at age 37. Starting off with one foot in the grave, he received the same name as a stillborn brother who died the previous year. Vincent’s family lived in Zundert, about a half-hour drive from my son’s house. Homeschooled and encouraged by his mother to draw, he was a serious, yet difficult child who got sent away to a boarding school at eleven. He begged to return home, but instead, two years later went to middle school at Willhem II College in Tilburg. I’ve walked by the campus!

From the age of thirteen until days shy of his fifteenth birthday, Vincent’s time there was also miserable. However, one teacher nourished his affinity for art. Constant Cornelius Huijsmans had been a successful artist in Paris, and he emphasized painting nature and common objects over learning technique. According to a 1990 Dutch citation (van Giersbergen) in a Wikipedia article about Huijsmans, only one Van Gogh drawing exists from his Tilburg years. However, I couldn’t find any such image online or in comprehensive print catalogues, nor did a copy of it appear in the original article. After two years, Van Gogh moved further north to intern as an art dealer in The Hague, where his pursuit to be a painter began in earnest.

When in Tilburg, I go for walks and bike rides looking for scenes that would have appealed to Vincent, hoping to come up with some compositions for me to paint. Here are a couple from earlier years:

Actually, my daughter-in-law and her family are from a town near Nuenen, where Van Gogh later lived and did about 200 paintings. My The Netherlands webpage includes several from that area.

Galleries filled with Van Gogh Paintings

In the past, I’d spent many hours at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, but this time I went to the remote Kröller-Müller Museum, which has the world’s (and country’s!) second largest collection of Van Gogh paintings. Conceived by Helene Kröller-Müller to be a house museum, it is hidden away in the middle of a 14,000-acre national park, all of which she donated to the Dutch state in 1935. Included are more than 11,500 works by major Impressionist and Modern artists and an amazing 75-acre sculpture garden. However, the Van Goghs are the centerpiece, including 91 of his paintings and 180 drawings, which she purchased with a “virtually unlimited budget” between 1907 and 1922. On one buying trip to Paris in April of 1912, Helene spent 115,000 guilders (worth over $1 million in today’s currency) on 15 Van Gogh canvases and 2 harbor views by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. (Kröller-Müller) Today, those are certainly worth more than a half-billion dollars; and, the value of her entire donation of buildings, land, and art is incalculable.

Without huge crowds, I was able to get inches away from masterpieces and carefully study and photograph them. Here I am looking at how his brushstrokes in “The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, at Night” are thick and sometimes include various tints in the same stroke:

On another canvas, I made a fascinating discovery. A week or two before going to the museum, I read a New York Times article (Solomon) about sand and pebbles being found in Van Gogh paintings. The biggest particle was a quarter inch in diameter. The conservator theorized that the canvases must have fallen on the ground, but in “The Lullaby: Madame Augustine Roulin” (below) something caught my eye. The gemstone in Madame Roulin’s ring appeared to me to be a painted pebble. I could tell that it was raised differently than his usual impasto applications. Although I could find nothing about this in Van Gogh literature, including his letters, I believe I have stumbled on to something. What do you think?

Van Gogh did five nearly identical versions of this portrait. In a letter to his brother on February 22, 1889, Vincent wrote about giving the third canvas to Madame Roulin. “She had a good eye and took the best, only I am doing it again at the moment and I do not want it to be inferior.” (de la Faille) This later version is likely the one I saw. The most obvious differences—in looking at photos of the paintings—are the arrangement of flowers in the background and position of her hands. He also sent a copy to Paul Gaugin (Art Institute) as an act of reconciliation after their famously tempestuous relationship ended. As is widely known, a few months earlier, he threatened Gaugin with a razor blade and later that day used it to slice off part of his own ear. 

Trying to Paint Like Van Gogh

Once I got home to Carlsbad, I tried an experiment. I had noticed that in tiny places where Van Gogh had not fully covered a canvas, an off-white undercoat is visible (see circles). The sole Claude Monet painting on display had a similar ground:

However, my compositions are usually undercoated with a bright rusty-orange. I was intrigued by how the same palette of colors would appear on two different backgrounds. Further, I wanted to paint in the style of Van Gogh. I selected one of my photographs from Tilburg (not an adorable three-month old boy!) that seemed like a scene Vincent might have chosen. When I started, the paint on the white ground (first two below) seemed much lighter than on the orange:

I tried to embody Vincent’s manic energy with heavy, rapid slashes and curls. The colors were similar to some I’d seen him use, such as the turquoise in the sky and vague, dark blue outlines around the cows, which are drawn more precisely than the landscape—much like he treated focal points. Once my paintings were finished, very little undercoat shone through, though the one with the white ground (below left) is marginally brighter. On the other hand, I like the way orange specks provide a subliminal unity to the other picture (below right). Now I’m motivated to try grey and beige grounds and will report back with results in the future. Regardless, I proved to myself that I’m no Vincent van Gogh!

Brief Update

Besides going down the Van Gogh rabbit hole, I’ve been busy on four other 2023 projects. Two are local exhibit proposals, one is to teach a Fall class on “Impressionist Painting for Beginners,” and I’ve been in contact with a medical clinic about decorating their new offices. Although I’ve been painting in anticipation of these projects happening, nothing is set; so, stay tuned for further developments!


Art Institute of Chicago, collection:

de la Faille, J.B., The Works of Vincent Van Gogh His Paintings and Drawings, Reynal & Company, Amsterdam, 1970.

Kröller-Müller Museum pamphlets, website, and wall text provided the statistics. [The specific information about the 1912 buying spree can be found at:]

Solomon, Deborah, Van Gogh and the Consolation of Trees, New York Times, May 11, 2023;

van Giersbergen, Wilma, De kunst is geheel en al bijzaak, de moeizame carrière van C.C. Huijsmans (1810-1886), tekenmeester in Brabant, Amsterdam, 2003, p. 5. [from a Wikipedia page about Huijsmans;]


  1. Laurel on June 29, 2023 at 9:14 am

    Amazing! Love this!

  2. Pamela Whitfield on June 27, 2023 at 10:33 pm

    I am so glad to read of your update. The trip to see your grandson sounds just amazing. He will treasure the painting you did of the sunset behind his house when you made your first visit to see him. “When I was an infant, my grandparents …” There’s a cool story in his future.

    I love Van Gogh’s style and look forward to seeing how Van Gogh influences your journey.

    You are on to something about the gem in the ring!

    • Leigh Cohn on June 28, 2023 at 11:09 am

      Thanks, Pam. However, unlike when Van Gogh painted “Almond Blossoms” for the birth of his nephew, I won’t be giving this triptych to my grandson. He inspired it—and a “Cherry Blossoms” that I’m currently painting—but I plan on eventually giving these away elsewhere.

  3. Karen krulevitch on June 27, 2023 at 3:12 pm

    Hi Leigh, this is all fascinating. I’m glad you got to get so up close and personal with his work on this last trip. Best of luck with future painting adventures.
    Karen k in sb

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