When Vincent van Gogh moved in 1878 to the coal mining district of the Borinage, centred on Mons in southern Belgium, the last thing on his mind was artistic inspiration. Aged 25, he had been sacked for incompetence from a string of jobs — picture dealer, teacher, clergyman — and believed he had finally found his vocation: as itinerant preacher to the poorest of the poor. From his middle-class Dutch home, he arrived well-dressed and fed but soon gave away all his money, then his clothes, and exchanged comfortable lodgings for a filthy hut.

Now more impoverished than those he was supposed to help, he baffled the miners and, speaking French refined in Paris, never properly learnt their Walloon patois. Within a year, the Flemish Evangelical society dismissed him. It was at this point of discouragement that his brother Theo suggested he might, instead, become an artist. So Van Gogh stayed on in the Borinage until 1880 and made the labourers there his subject.

Mons, this year’s European Capital of Culture, remains a scarred landscape: flat and grey, with remnants of defunct industry and slag heaps alongside unfinished regeneration projects. But in Van Gogh in the Borinage: The Birth of an Artist, launched this week, its Beaux Arts Museum has devised a show of perfect local resonance yet international significance. The first in a series of exhibitions across Europe marking the 125th anniversary of Van Gogh’s death, it does more than add to our understanding of the artist’s development. Including rare, unexpected drawings, paintings and original letters loaned by museums worldwide, it demonstrates — from the first, defiantly sturdy charcoal sketches of workers’ cottages, “Magros House” and “Zandmennik House” of 1879, from the National Gallery Washington, to the worker illuminated by a fiery sunset in “The End of the Day” (1889) from Japan’s Menard museum — how motifs and sympathies adopted in the Borinage shaped Van Gogh’s entire oeuvre. Without the disillusioned evangelist there would never have been the prophet of modern art.

Van Gogh was no natural draughtsman but his emotional engagement with the Borinage is immediately felt. The opening letter here to his brother Theo, in surprisingly neat, disciplined handwriting, includes a drawing of a parade, “Miners in the Snow at Dawn”, which is as clumsy and awkward as its slow-moving, downtrodden subjects. Six months later, in the depiction of workers in the fields, “The Bearers of the Burden”, the gain in volume and depth, and the rush of energy in the rapid pen marks, is notable.

Van Gogh originally chose southern Belgium because he read in a geography book of “a type peculiar in the Borinage: daylight hardly exists for him. He works with great difficulty by the light of a lamp whose illumination is pale and feeble . . . his body bent double, [he] is sometimes forced to crawl.”

As pastor, then as artist, Van Gogh empathised with this struggling character; working to depict the squat lumpen figures and their cramped conditions in wan wintry light: the smudgy watercolour “Woman Carrying Bags of Coal in the Snow”; an old man crouched in a hovel in “Worn Out”; a bony, dirty-white pit horse outlined in quick, decisive strokes in “Old Nag”. He evolved a language that, he told Theo in 1882, came because “nature has told me something . . . and I have to put it down in shorthand. There may be words that cannot be deciphered, there may be mistakes or gaps; but there is something of what that wood or beach or figure has told me . . . not the tame or conventional language derived from a studied manner or system.”

The sketches of the miners were forerunners of the potato-coloured oil likenesses of Dutch workers, their faces concentrated, furrowed, in deep shadow — “Portrait of a Peasant”, “Loom with Weaver”, “Man Winding Yarn” — of the mid-1880s. And, from his early drawings, the exteriors of the modest Borinage cottages, representing for Van Gogh shelter and survival, similarly remained the model for his dark, tonal paintings of farmhouses such as “Cottage with Peasant Woman Digging” (1885) and, later, for the unstable but radiant dwellings with their roofs in vibrant green and orange in “Farmhouse” and “Street in Auvers-sur-Oise” (1890).

Steeped in Borinage daily life, “I often feel homesick for the country of paintings”, Van Gogh told Theo, and thus he began a programme of copying the masters. Jean-François Millet was his enduring focus and a stunning section here juxtaposes Van Gogh’s painstaking pencil versions from 1880 of “The Digger”, “The Reaper” and “The Sower” with freer renderings of the same motifs in black chalk from 1885, and then the sunburst, desperate canvases when, losing his reason in the Saint-Rémy asylum, he found consolation by returning to Millet’s heroic workers.

Van Gogh called these forcefully expressive yet poignantly delicate paintings “interpretations in colour”. The monumental twin figures in “The Diggers” are silhouetted like cutouts, lit by a fierce sun scorching the hard ground; beyond them the sky is a tenderly nuanced passage of pinks and azure touched with white highlights. “The Sower” is showcased here alongside Paul le Rat’s 1873 etching of Millet’s image. Van Gogh has squared up the etching like a graph, then in his painting transformed the subtle monochrome gradations into exquisite modulations of blue-grey, which seem to glow, back-lit by a pale sun, lending the gnarled, solitary figure marching across the canvas an air at once sombre and ecstatic.

It is a truism that modernism proffered art as a religion for a secular age but, for Van Gogh, colour really did carry the spiritual charge that he had first brought to the Borinage as a preacher and eventually transmuted, in a scream of chromatic brilliance, to painting. The sower and the reaper had always been metaphors, too, for a life in art: Van Gogh wrote in 1882 that “one harvests one’s studies just the way a farmer harvests his crops” — into paintings. By 1889, though, the frenetic figure with a sickle bent in thick impasto slashes of grass in “The Reaper”, among the rapturous late works concluding this show, had become a symbol of transcendence.

“For I see in this reaper — a vague figure fighting like a devil in the midst of the heat to get to the end of his task: I see in him the image of death,” Van Gogh wrote to Theo. “So it is the opposite of the sower I tried to do before. But there’s nothing sad in this death, it goes its way in broad daylight with a sun flooding everything with a light of pure gold.”

‘Van Gogh in the Borinage: The Birth of an Artist’, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Mons, to May 17, www.bam.mons.be

Slideshow photographs: Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo; Ateneum Museum, Finland; Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

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