There is something beautiful about the simplicity of the Dutch countryside. I think it has a lot to do with the water that runs through it all. The different seasons bring different colours but there’s always a vibrancy that comes from the sun reflecting off the canals and lakes.
The natural environment here in the Netherlands inspired the early paintings of Vincent Van Gogh. Although he would eventually leave his homeland for France and paint his most famous works there, it was his time studying the Dutch landscapes that set him on the course of mastery.
In 1883, Van Gogh took himself away from the city to spend time in the countryside. He headed for Drenthe, one of the northern provinces of the Netherlands. He caught a boat along a canal until the end and, when he could go no further, decided to stay there. The town was called Nieuw Amsterdam and he rented a room in an inn for two months. These days, this building is the only house in the Netherlands that Van Gogh lived in that is accessible to the public.
I arrive at the Van Gogh House in the afternoon and it’s easy to spot on the main road. The entrance is in the adjacent building and there is a small modern museum explaining more about the life of Van Gogh and the works he created while he was here.
Each visitor to the house gets a personal tour of the building. It is small and doesn’t take long but it’s a nice opportunity to ask questions of the volunteer guides, who are experts on the history of the artist. The old common room of the inn is now a restaurant. Upstairs, Van Gogh’s room has been preserved and looks just how it would have in 1883, complete with a straw bed and a desk for painting and writing.
Van Gogh wrote a lot of letters during his time here in Nieuw Amsterdam – perhaps he was bored with no friends around. In one letter to his brother, Theo, he described what he saw in the countryside of Drenthe.
“In the evening this heath often has effects that the English would describe as weird and quaint. The spiky silhouettes of Don Quixote-like mills or strange hulks of drawbridges are profiled against the teeming evening sky. In the evening a village like that is sometimes really snug, with the light from the little windows reflected in the water or in mud and puddles.”
Around the town there are several markers of locations that the artist painted or drew while he was here. They’re all an easy walk from the Van Gogh House so I set out to find them.
The first is directly in front of the old inn and it’s likely Van Gogh painted it from his room or from the downstairs area. It is of an old bridge over the canal, which has now been demolished and replaced with a much more modern version.
Just down a side road is an old house that was included in a drawing Van Gogh did of peasant life. The overall scene isn’t recognisable now, more than a century later, but this particular building is easy to identify.
Another ten minutes down the road and there is a spot on the canal that hasn’t changed much over the years. Van Gogh captured a moment where a woman was alighting from a boat here. It’s quiet when I get to the spot and I don’t imagine many people – if any – would travel by boat along this part now. With little urban development here, though, it’s the easiest place to imagine looking through the eyes of the artist himself.
While a visit to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam can give you a broad appreciation of the whole lifespan of his career, there’s something special and intimate about seeing Nieuw Amsterdam. This is just a small part of his life – about two months – and it’s not represented in any masterpieces. But when you hear the silence of the heath and see the brooding skies overhead for yourself, it’s possible to understand a bit more about the moods and motivations of this great Dutch artist.
- Nieuw Amsterdam is on the train line between Zwolle and Emmen and the Van Gogh House is just a few minutes walk from the station.
- The Van Gogh House is open between 1300 and 1700 from Tuesday to Sunday. There is no need to make a reservation unless you are travelling in a large group.
- There are lots of cycle paths in the area and it’s easy to ride between the different villages to see more of the countryside.
- The nearby city of Emmen has a large zoo which is very popular with families
My highlight was sitting in the Van Gogh House with the volunteers, discussing the life of the artist over a cup of coffee. They are experts on the subject and were able to give a wonderful insight.