If you want a glimpse of Vincent van Gogh while he was still a theology student, and of Amsterdam in the 1870s, this exhibit at the City Archives will enlighten you. The delight of exploring the Eastern Docks where van Gogh lived with his uncle in the Navy is portrayed in some of Vincent’s letters to his faithful brother Theo. Vincent is a vivid writer who gives a real sense of the bustle on the docks, especially when the floods of workers left the yards for the day, and of the smells and sights of great vessels being built and repaired.
Indoors, van Gogh was exposed mostly to naval heroes and religious art, some of which he loved and writes movingly about. He bought many prints cheaply from his favorite Jewish bookseller, and spent a lot of time in the Jewish Quarter, as well as visiting the nearby Rijksmuseum, then located in the Trippenhuis. These artistic interests were in addition to his making the tour of the major churches in Amsterdam, and contrasting the styles of various Protestant preachers.
To pursue his studies, Van Gogh was tutored in Latin and Greek by Dr. M.B. Mendes da Costa, a Portuguese Jewish scholar who lived next to the great synagogue. He wrote about seeing the future painter crossing the Jonas Daniel Meijerplein, sometimes with a little bouquet of snowdrops he had picked at a graveyard where he often walked. “These are for you,” van Gogh said, “because you do so much for me.” After van Gogh’s death, Dr. da Costa wrote a moving reminiscence here. For me as a student of Jewish Amsterdam, it was especially fascinating to see stereoscopic views of the fishmonger, the Waterlooplein market, and the old market as they were, and to be shown again how integral the Jewish community was to the city.
Back to Amsterdam After Heartbreak
After a misbegotten love affair with a woman who refused to marry him, van Gogh left Amsterdam for good — except for a return to view the newly built Rijksmuseum. He went with a friend who left him in front of Rembrandt’s Jewish Bride for several hours, then returned to find the painter in exactly the same position, reporting that he’d give ten years of his life to stay right there for a fortnight with a crust of bread.