The incomparable Vincent van Gogh depicts one of the most historic windmills in the Hague, the Laak Windmill, in this incredibly detailed watercolor. This rare work is one of the very few the artist created during a crossroads in his life as he weighed pursuing life in the Church against his flourishing passion for art. One of only two watercolors van Gogh composed of windmills, this outstanding painting is a masterpiece of the technical prowess and artistic spirit of a man who would come to change the face of art forever.
The Laak Windmill was built in 1699 on the shores of Laakhaven. Windmills such as this were one of the iconic fixtures of the Dutch landscape, and van Gogh would return to sketch and paint them throughout his career. This particular painting, however, sets itself apart as a testament to his technical ability. This painting showcases an awe-inspiring level of precision rarely seen in watercolor. His neatly outlined forms and the division of his canvas with the carefully delineated fence that juts through the scene speak to his uncanny skill for composition. It is in these same details, however, that we can identify the precursors for van Gogh's subsequent styles of painting. The careful outline of forms would become essential to his later approaches to painting, and his unusual vantage point-choosing to eliminate what is arguably the most iconic portion of the windmill, its circulating blades-speaks to van Gogh's revolutionary artistic vision. Finally, this composition espouses the emotive quality to van Gogh's works, as he has done so well to capture the misty atmosphere that the viewer can almost sense the residual dampness in the air, lingering from the storm clouds passing overhead on a rainy Netherlandish afternoon.
Only one other watercolor of windmills is known to exist in van Gogh's body of work, entitled Windmills at Dortrecht, painted in 1881. A comparison of the two reveals the immediate superiority of Le Moulinboth in composition and color. While van Gogh returned to depictions of windmills later in his career, these later works arguably lack the veracity and power of this opulent watercolor.
Van Gogh's uniquely Realist approach to painting, combined with his refined palette, arose from the influence of study with his cousin Anton Mauve, one of the preeminent artists of the Hague School. A proponent of the Realist tradition, Mauve capitalized on scenes of peasants and landscapes, all captured in relatively earthen, subdued hues. Van Gogh had become entranced with Mauve's approach for some time, and Mauve in turn encouraged the budding artist, even sending van Gogh his first kit of painting supplies. In 1880, van Gogh was at a crossroads. His interest in pursuing a life in the church was waning while his fascination with art grew, leaving the young man to question where his future would head. He wrote in June that he wished "to try to understand the real significance of what the great artists, the serious masters, tell us in their masterpieces . . . one man wrote or told it in a book; another in a picture." Ironically, in an amazingly short period of time, van Gogh would become a great artist himself, as echoed in Le Moulin, painted between 1881 and 1882.
Van Gogh took great stock in his time spent training with Mauve but, as van Gogh recounts in his letters, their relationship began to deteriorate by late spring of 1882. This composition, painted shortly after their parting ways, reflects van Gogh's lamentations on the loss of his tutor. His impeccable attention to draftsmanship and detail pays homage to Mauve. With this connection in mind, one could read the two male figures who appear in conversation at the right of the composition as a symbolic representation of his relationship with his cousin.