Hubert von Herkomer and Vincent van Gogh

30 Mar

A final post about Herkomer, prompted by advanced publicity relating to the exhibition on van Gogh that is to be held in Tate Britain next year.

Herkomer’s ‘Social Realism’ pictures, reproduced in The Graphic, a magazine edited by William Luston Thomas, had a lasting influence on van Gogh who wrote to his brother Theo, that ‘the highest and noblest expressions of art were that of the English’. Van Gogh mentioned Herkomer in his letters to Theo regularly between 1881(when he was twenty-eight) and 1885.

I hoped that this influence would be mentioned in the Tate exhibition and was pleased to hear from the Curator of the van Gogh exhibition, Dr. Carol Jacobi, that she has a long-standing interest in Herkomer and that his importance to van Gogh will be a component of the show and the catalogue.

Herkomer, a few years older than van Gogh, was already an established artist at the time van Gogh wrote to Theo. The Last Muster (which received spontaneous applause when it was shown to the Hanging Committee of the Royal Academy), was internationally admired and had won the Medal of Honour in the Paris International Festival of 1878. Van Gogh also admired Herkomer’s painting of Bavarian peasant life (reproduced in L’Art which he would have seen) as well as paintings illustrating the deprivation and loneliness of old women in the workhouses of London.

Although van Gogh was in London for a few years in the 1870s he did not meet Herkomer, but he regularly went to look at new illustrations posted in the windows of the Graphic and Illustrated London News offices. Later (when in the Hague), he collected a complete series of twenty – one volumes of the Graphic running from 1870 to 1880.

He not only admired Herkomer’s work, which he considered showed both ‘soul’ and a sympathy for his fellow man, but he also admired the man himself . Herkomer’s accounts of the grinding poverty he and his parents endured when, in search of a better life, they emigrated from Germany to America and then to England, and his determination in overcoming these difficulties at the beginning of his career sounded a responsive cord in van Gogh, himself beset with so many career and personal frustrations.

Herkomer, in contrast to van Gogh, was to become a hugely wealthy man, mainly because of his portrait painting (which he defended as ‘Contemporary History’), but he remained a source of admiration to van Gogh, who as late as 1888 was still creating images that reflected the Graphic series – his admiration for the Herkomer’s expressionist ‘soul’ can be said to have remained with him throughout his life.

I am sure this Tate Britain exhibition will be a great success.

4 Responses to “Hubert von Herkomer and Vincent van Gogh”

  1. Anne Strathie March 31, 2018 at 10:36 am #

    Fascinating story, thank you Isobel. Hope that this won’t be your last posting on Herkomer – or that you’re going to be writing more about him elsewhere! Anne

  2. isobelpwilliams March 31, 2018 at 11:02 am #

    Certainly, like everything else, the more you know about a subject the more interesting the subject becomes.
    I will have to consider any further developments!

  3. Yvana April 3, 2018 at 10:28 am #

    I didn’t know about Herkomer – fascinating. Especially as the portrait reminded me of Van Gogh’s famous ‘Potato eaters’. You can see the same inner energy resulting in a slightly exaggerated character that somehow is all the more truthful.

  4. isobelpwilliams April 3, 2018 at 11:32 pm #

    I am really glad that Herkomer will be acknowledged in the van Gogh exhibition next year. Lasting fame is impossible to predict and emphasis and styles in painting change, but I feel that Herkomer’s long-term reputation was most damaged by his German connections — throughout his life, but particularly in the years leading up to WW1.
    His unpopularity is illustrated by the fact that Royal Academicians questioned his British citizenship (he had to post his naturalisation papers), he failed in his bid to be President of the Watercolour Society (having been Deputy for some years) and that his remarkable house in Bushey, “Lululaund”, fell into disrepair after the first world war, (Herkomer having died in 1914). The house was finally demolished before WW2 – I understand the stones were used in the construction of the runway for American planes in Bovingdon in Hertfordshire. This destroyed not only Herkomer’s hopes of a lasting monument to his family, but also the only house in Britain designed by the famous Boston architect,
    H.H. Richardson, who designed Trinity Church In Boston, Massachusetts.

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