After a violent quarrel with his parents on Christmas day 1881, van Gogh moved to The Hague in January 1882. He was able to rent a studio, and he took lessons in drawing and painting technique with his cousin Anton Mauve, inspiring him to begin painting as well as drawing, when he could afford it. His subjects were still primarily country people, the poor, and workers, but his techniques for rendering light effects and shadow improved dramatically under Mauve's direction and the example of his beloved Millet. Vincent began to find his own style.

Vincent's success led to a small commission from an interested art dealer for some drawings. In an attempt to find models to make the figure studies that Mauve recommended, the destitute van Gogh took in a pregnant prostitute named Sien Hoornik as well as her younger sister and her mother. The most important result of this partnership was the drawing Sorrow, from April 1882. A nude study of Sien hunched and crouching with her head in her folded arms, this drawing (which is famous today in its later incarnation as a lithograph) was van Gogh's first important work (he himself called it "the best figure I have drawn yet" [L 186]), and its brutally honest, unwavering line is early evidence of the strong graphic quality and heavy, modeled line of his mature style. He sent the drawing to Theo, who was unhappy with how Vincent had treated their parents. However, he succeeded only in angering his family and friends more when he allowed Sien and her daughter to live in his studio with him in May. His announcement of his intention to marry her so that their mutual "unhappiness is changed to joy" (L 204), outraged his family and turned Mauve against him.

That summer, Theo gave him money for oil paints, and Vincent excitedly discovered "the power of color" (L 225), working outdoors as much as possible and painting portraits of the residents in an old age home (in a series he called the "orphan men"). Around this time he was also treated for a venereal disease in a hospital, after which he started learning lithography. In early 1883, Vincent drew and painted workers and fishermen in The Hague, developing his stylized, caricatured style of portraiture in an attempt to "express a sincere human feeling" (L 309), "to create drawings that touch people" (L 218). That spring, working outdoors, he completed Peat Diggers in the Dunes, an important early work in his canon of workers and peasants, along with the oil paintings The State Lottery Office and Women Miners. At the end of the summer of 1883, van Gogh became depressed and suicidal, worried about the progression of his work and his legacy and his domestic problems with Sien, and in September 1883, he moved back to the country to Drenthe, on the suggestion of van Rappard.

Drenthe inspired Vincent to further explore country landscapes and to return to peasant portraiture, but he had difficulty finding a steady place to live or a studio. He moved from Hoogeveen to Nieuw Amsterdam, but quickly ran out of painting and drawing materials, and out of loneliness and lack of supplies, in January 1884 he was forced to move to his parents' new home in Nuenen. Despite the miserable weather, the solitude, and ill preparation, his three month stay in Drenthe did produce fine landscape paintings in oil like the geometrically simplified and expressively Realist Farms and Drawbridge in Nieuw Amsterdam. Vincent's paint handling had improved, but he still had not settled into a distinctive style and had not yet made his tremendous and influential advances in color. He was uncomfortable staying with his parents in Nuenen, but did manage a series of pieces about local weavers with whom he had become fascinated and he painted landscapes like Lane of Poplars.

In the spring of 1884, Vincent made two important changes: he agreed on a contract consignment arrangement with Theo, wherein he would send Theo his work in exchange for a monthly stipend, with the understanding that Theo would try to sell the work for profit; and in May he moved into a studio in the local Catholic presbytery. That summer both van Rappard and Theo visited him in his new home, and he was commissioned (for a very low salary) to design murals for the dining room of an amateur painter named Antoon Hermans–the catch was that Hermans would execute the painting himself, basing the murals on photographs of Vincent's drawings. Vincent began teaching students in the fall of 1884, but without pay–he did befriend a student named Anton Kerssemakers, which helped distract him from an incident involving a local woman with whom he was intimately involved and who attempted suicide.

Vincent spent the beginning of 1885 working on portrait studies of peasants, particularly their heads and hands. This project represents an important development in his style. The forceful, distorted, and near-grotesque series of Peasant Woman, Head pieces are the best-known result of this disciplined experiment, which led soon to his early masterpiece in oil paint, The Potato Eaters. With this painting he achieved the earliest articulation of his style and an indication of his eventual vocabulary of heavy, patterned, short, gestural, and thick brushwork, palpably defined, modeled lines, and expressive and bold stylization and distortion. However, this work's color and Baroque, dramatic lighting is borrowed from the Dutch masters–Vincent had still not discovered his personal language of vivid color. In March 1885, Vincent's father suddenly died, and the reception of lithographic work (including copies of The Potato Eaters) that he sent to friends, artists, and critics (through Theo's efforts) was discouraging.

After a period painting still life in Nuenen and a trip to Amsterdam to see the work of the old Dutch masters, a frustrated and dispirited Vincent moved to Antwerp in November 1885 to study at the academy. He spent the rest of the year trying to raise money as an illustrator, by painting and selling Antwerp street scenes and portraits, but he failed in his efforts, and, destitute, he produced darkly comical figure and anatomical studies like Skull with Burning Cigarette. He did become interested in Japanese prints while in Antwerp, which later became an extremely powerful influence in his work, and he was exposed to Manet and the work of some of the Impressionists. In January 1886, Vincent enrolled at the academy hoping to expand his understanding of figure drawing, but he discovered that nude models were rarely used there, so he began spending all his money renting models and drawing studies like Female Nude, influenced by Delacroix, Goya, Velazquez, as well as Japanese art.

After two months of renting models instead of buying food, Vincent was living in poverty and sick. He wrote Theo that he was in the middle of an "an absolute breakdown" (L 449, Feb. 1886), and that he disagreed with his teachers and fellow students about pretty much everything. He claimed that all the work at the academy was intellectual, devoid of emotion and "dead" (L 452); his teachers thought differently and demanded that he re-enroll in the elementary class. Totally disillusioned with academic training and its emphasis on "natural laws" over emotion and on contour over color and modeling, he unexpectedly left Antwerp for Paris, where Theo was living, arriving in March 1886, after only two months at the academy.

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