One of Van Gogh’s first watercolors was Coalmine in the Borinage, completed sometime between July-August of 1879. In January of 1879, Van Gogh had taken a temporary post as a missionary lay preacher in Petit Wasmes and Cuesmes, villages in the coal mining district of Borinage, Belgium. Van Gogh was completely committed to helping the miners, even to the extent that he shared their hardships and lived in squalor like a pauper. Church authorities thought him too zealous and discontinued his mission for “undermining the dignity of the priesthood.”
It was around this time that Van Gogh took a special interest in ordinary working people and the scenes surrounding him. He also realized that he felt a calling to be an artist.
“Not long ago I made a very interesting expedition, spending six hours in a mine. It was Marcasse, one of the oldest and most dangerous mines in the neighbourhood. It has a bad reputation because many perish in it, either going down or coming up, or through poisoned air, firedamp explosion, water seepage, cave-ins, etc. It is a gloomy spot, and at first everything around looks dreary and desolate.
Most of the miners are thin and pale from fever; they look tired and emaciated, weather-beaten and aged before their time. On the whole the women are faded and worn. Around the mine are poor miners’ huts, a few dead trees black from smoke, thorn hedges, dunghills, ash dumps, heaps of useless coal, etc. Mans could make a wonderful picture of it.
I had a good guide, a man who has already worked there for thirty-three years; kind and patient, he explained everything well and tried to make it clear to me.
So together we went down 700 meters and explored the most hidden corners of that underworld. The maintenages or gredins [cells where the miners work] which are situated farthest from the exit are called des caches [hiding places, places where men search].
People here are very ignorant and untaught – most of them cannot read – but at the same time they are intelligent and quick at their difficult work; brave and frank, they are short but square-shouldered, with melancholy deep-set eyes. They are skillful at many things, and work terribly hard. They have a nervous temperament – I do not mean weak) but very sensitive. They have an innate, deep-rooted hatred and a strong mistrust of anyone who is domineering. With miners one must have a miner’s character and temperament, and no pretentious pride or mastery) or one will never get along with them or gain their confidence.”