In early 1880, Vincent took a pivotal trip to Courierres, during which he did a lot of drawing and walking. He wrote to Theo that he had realized that this was a "molting time" for him, and that "with evangelists it is the same as with artists," implying that art was the door he had finally discovered, at age twenty-seven, to understand his own personal brand of spiritual communion with the world (L 133, July 1880). In October 1880, Vincent suddenly moved to Brussels to study the formal aspects of anatomical and perspective drawing. In Brussels he met a younger Dutch painter named Anton van Rappard and worked in his studio, and they soon became friends. Living in a cheap hotel, money was tight, despite monthly allowances from his father and from Theo. He considered studying at the Belgian Academie des Beaux-Arts, and he even enrolled, but apparently he never matriculated. Vincent became restless, desiring to move back to the country to continue drawing peasant life, his favorite subject then, or to Paris, where Theo was living, but his financial situation forced him to move back to his parents' home in Etten in April 1881.

Van Gogh's career as an artist began in earnest in Etten, where he was able to try his hand at portraiture, using his favorite sister Wil, who was visiting, as a model. He visited The Hague in the fall of 1881 to ask his old supervisor at Goupil for advice and to seek the counsel of his cousin, the painter Anton Mauve, a member of The Hague School of Realist painters. Mauve and Vincent got along well, and Mauve believed in Vincent's potential as an artist, provoking Vincent to write happily to Theo that "what seemed to be impossible before is gradually becoming possible now.... Diggers, sowers, plowers, male and female are what I must draw continually. I have to observe and draw everything that belongs to country life.... I no longer stand helpless before nature as I used to" (L 150, Sept. 1881). In Etten he did exactly that, copying Millet's pictures of workers, and making his own drawings (in pencil, charcoal, chalk, pen and ink, and sometimes watercolors) of peasant life from reality as well as studies from paintings and photographs. Some of his more finished works from the Etten period include Portrait of an Elderly Gentleman, July 1881, and Farmer Sitting by the Fireplace, Reading, October 1881–however, much work from this period has been lost. Van Rappard visited Vincent briefly in Etten, and Vincent showed him the progress he had made in his country sketches.

In the summer of 1881, Vincent fell in love again, this time with his cousin Kee Vos, who was staying in Etten. He pursued her ardently, not discouraged by her numerous refusals, and in December traveled to Amsterdam to see her and to make a plea to her parents for marriage. It did not go well. However, after leaving Amsterdam heartbroken again, he visited Mauve in The Hague and worked in his studio for a few weeks, eventually deciding that he should move there permanently.

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