Lot 343
  • 343

Vincent van Gogh

300,000 - 500,000 GBP
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  • Vincent van Gogh
  • Old man praying
  • pencil and brush and ink on paper
  • 66.1 by 52.9cm., 26 by 20 7/8 in.


Gallery Oldenzeel, Rotterdam (possibly)
W. H. C. Bolleurs, Rotterdam
Galerie Otto Wacker, Berlin
Franz von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Berlin-Grunewald (acquired from the above in 1927)
Acquired from the above by the family of the present owner circa 1960


Berlin, Galerie Otto Wacker, Vincent van Gogh, Erste grosse Ausstellung seiner Zeichnungen, 1927, no. 98


Jacob Baart de la Faille, The Works of Vincent van Gogh, His Paintings and Drawings, Amsterdam, 1970, no. F1027, illustrated p. 380
Jan Hulsker, The Complete Van Gogh, Paintings, Drawings, Sketches, Revised and Enlarged Edition of the Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam, 1996, no. 354, illustrated p. 85
Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten & Nienke Bakker (eds.), The Letters, The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition, 1881-1883, London, 2009, vol. II, illustrated p. 326


Executed on cream wove paper, not laid down and t-hinged to the mount in two places along the upper edge. The upper and right edges are unevenly cut. There are artist's pin holes to both upper corners and to the centre of the upper and right edges. There is a repaired tear to the lower part of the left edge (approx. 3cm. long) and another to the upper part of the right edge (approx. 2cm. long). There is a faint horizontal crease across the centre of the sheet and a few further faint creases in places. There are light fixative stains along the right edge, inherent to the artist's process. This work is in very good condition.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Strikingly executed in a monochrome palette Old man praying is Van Gogh at his most psychologically poignant and authentic, and his expressive working is evident, even at this early point in his career, of the artist’s daring manipulation and mastery of his medium. Depicted insistently close to the picture plane, the sitter is portrayed with dramatically lit face and hands, Van Gogh’s subject kneels to pray at the most humble of altars. The result is an unflinchingly intimate and expressive portrait of an ordinary man in a moment of quiet solitude with faith. 

Executed in late April 1883, when the artist was living in The Hague, Old man praying is a powerful example of Van Gogh’s early portraiture, undoubtedly among the most celebrated aspects of his œuvre. Having had difficulty finding models in his early career, Van Gogh found locals willing to pose for him regularly in The Hague and their everyday work and domestic activities became an important source of inspiration for the artist. Van Gogh sought to depict peasants as if he were an insider. Writing to his brother Theo, the famed Paris-based art dealer, Van Gogh remarked that 'peasants painted by city dwellers inevitably reminded one of the Paris suburbs,' and said that he preferred to live among peasants and share their sober lives (letter 400).  On 30th April 1883, Vincent wrote to report that he had been ‘working on a figure of a woman gathering peat on the heath and a kneeling figure of a man’—almost certainly referring to the present work (letter 338).

These expressive portraits of local people, often imbued with an exaggerated sense of isolation, reflect Van Gogh’s own personal sense of solitude during this time. His letters reveal his anguished mental state and he wrote often to implore his brother to visit. Old man praying reflects this loneliness: the heavy, stoical posture of this subject—which is undoubtedly one of the most psychologically affecting of this series—reflects the melancholy of individual human struggle. The thick application of ink and charcoal in broad, deliberate strokes perfectly expresses the hardship of this man’s daily life. These works were a projection of the artist's own internal struggles, a way for him to express his nervous introversion and solitude. According to Jan Hulsker, Van Gogh's intense focus on the studies of these subjects' heads and hands furthermore marks a key transition for the artist. He writes: 'In most of the portraits mentioned here the characterization of the heads is very well done, but what is most noteworthy is that he did things entirely his own way. He was not trying to achieve a romantic idealization of the subjects, but to render them forcefully and realistically, a striving that in a few months would culminate in his famous painting of the Potato Eaters' (J. Hulsker, op. cit., pp. 142 & 144).