Spinster of Dongen by Max Liebermann 1880
Collection of Vereniging Vrienden Stedelijk Museum Breda

Rather intriguing, isn’t it: Dongen’s Witch. Actually, it is an exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum Breda. It reveals the importance of Dongen, a poor village and its surrounding rural landscape for 19th century artists.

Once artists discovered the area and village, Dongen became one of the first Dutch artist-colonies. It became a kind of Dutch version of Barbizon, offering plenty inspiration; though some artists suffered flights of fancy. A visitor joining me before an exhibited landscape whispered: “Dongen? We don’t have such mountains here”.

Artists who spent time here, or visited on a yearly basis, include famous ones. Not just  August Allebé, but also Jozef Israëls, Max Liebermann, Suze Robertson. Their works inspired others like Vincent van Gogh, as well as modern artists.

Here are portraits, interiors and landscapes; drawings and paintings. Not all are from the museum’s own collection. There are loans from important museums like the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum, the Amsterdam Van Gogh Museum, Mauritshuis and the Vincent van Gogh-home (Zundert) collaborated as well.

The witch? She was a poor old woman who earned extra money by working as painter’s model. On seeing a painting including her, in a 19th century exhibition, an art critic called her “The Witch from Dongen”. Visitors to the present exhibition spot her behind a spinning-wheel, as a lace-maker, carrying kindles and in other poses. 

The rural area not just offered cheap models. Some paintings of farmhouses include local superstition. Near doors, ancient signs are painted. They were supposed to ward of evil. One wonders what van Gogh’s dad would have made of these.  

One of the most fascinating stories in this exhibition explains the influence of a few works by  Jozef Israëls He painted poor Dongen families praying, before tucking in to a meal of potatoes. Van Gogh found these images so moving, they directly inspired his famous “Potato Eaters”.

Other artists who spent time working in Dongen, were teachers. There is a photo of a class with drawing teacher in front of a school building. What makes this such an interesting photo: among the boys stands a young Vincent van Gogh.

Worth a visit? A word of warning! This exhibition not only consists of real works of art. Plenty of walls show posters! You may be like one of the visitors I overheard stating “I don’t mind all those posters.”

I strongly object to this! Why pay for a museum-ticket, to be shown numerous posters stapled to walls? Do visitors head for the Louvre, to admire a poster of the Mona Lisa stapled some wall? Do visitors pay for a ticket to the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum, to admire Rembrandt’s Night Watch, as blown-up wall-paper?

If you don’t mind: this is just one of several exhibitions at the Stedelijk Museum Breda. The town itself is well worth a visit too, with a historic center offering an interesting range of shops and pubs.   Kate    27th November 2019

De Heks van Dongen runs at Stedelijk Museum Breda until 26th January