2015 marks the 125th anniversary of Van Gogh’s death, and his work has never been as vibrant as it is today. When he arrived in the Mons region at the age of 25, his destiny was to become a pastor for the working class. But two years spent in the heart of the mining community gave him all the tools he needed to become an artist.

The birth of an artist

Vincent Van Gogh’s arrival in the Borinage began with a 6-month stint as an evangelist right in the heart of the mining community in Wasmes. Keen to become a pastor, he chose the Mons region after reading an article about it in a geography book to be close to miners and help them deal with their gruelling living conditions. Refusing to limit himself to his role as an evangelist, he dedicated his day-to-day life to the families of the miners, going so far as to live in extreme poverty. He gave his wages, furniture and clothes to the most destitute. Van Gogh took things too far and upset people. Judged by the Protestant Church to be unfit to be a pastor, he was driven towards his destiny to become an artist. 

Naturalism at the heart of his career

From his time in the Borinage, he always remembered the landscapes and people he met here in a region he described as picturesque. Some of his letters written in the south of France a few years later talked about his memories of this “faraway land where it all began”. The harshness of peasant life, the climate and the conditions of the mining community influenced his work. In Van Gogh’s sketches, we see the first hints of “naturalism”, a movement that was just starting to develop at the end of the 19th century. This artist with such a strong character spent a very turbulent period of his life here, cutting himself off from his family and driving him to complete idleness. From this misery, he found his inspiration and his passion for art.

Van Gogh routes to explore the Borinage

There are still traces of his time here between 1878 and 1880. He lived in Colfontaine, Wasmes and then Cuesmes, and two of his homes now tell the story of his time here, along with the famous Marcasse mineshafts where his trip down 700 metres with the miners had a profound effect on him. A handful of paintings and drawings, but more importantly dozens of letters help us understand this exceptional artist and his inspiration a bit better. As well as exhibitions, works of art and films telling the story of his life, the Van Gogh routes give you the chance to walk in his footsteps in a typical mining region, marked by the legacy of the mines.