Between February and April 1890 Van Gogh suffered a severe relapse. Depressed and unable to bring himself to write, he was still able to paint and draw a little during this time, and he later wrote to Theo that he had made a few small canvases "from memory ... reminisces of the North". Among these was Two Peasant Women Digging in a Snow-Covered Field at Sunset. Hulsker believes that this small group of paintings formed the nucleus of many drawings and study sheets depicting landscapes and figures that Van Gogh worked on during this time. He comments that this short period was the only time that Van Gogh's illness had a significant effect on his work. Van Gogh asked his mother and his brother to send him drawings and rough work he had done in the early 1880s so he could work on new paintings from his old sketches. Belonging to this period is Sorrowing Old Man ("At Eternity's Gate"), a colour study Hulsker describes as "another unmistakable remembrance of times long past". His late paintings show an artist at the height of his abilities, according to the art critic Robert Hughes, "longing for concision and grace".
In January 1879 he took up a post as a missionary at Petit-Wasmes in the coal-mining district of Borinage in Belgium. To show support for his impoverished congregation, he gave up his comfortable lodgings at a bakery to a homeless person, and moved to a small hut where he slept on straw. His squalid living conditions did not endear him to church authorities, who dismissed him for "undermining the dignity of the priesthood". He then walked the 75 kilometres (47 mi) to Brussels, returned briefly to Cuesmes in the Borinage, but gave in to pressure from his parents to return home to Etten. He stayed there until around March 1880,[note 3] which caused concern and frustration for his parents. His father was especially frustrated and advised that his son should be committed to the lunatic asylum at Geel.[note 4]
Van Gogh moved to Paris in March 1886 where he shared Theo's rue Laval apartment in Montmartre, and studied at Fernand Cormon's studio. In June the brothers took a larger flat at 54 rue Lepic. In Paris, Vincent painted portraits of friends and acquaintances, still life paintings, views of Le Moulin de la Galette, scenes in Montmartre, Asnières and along the Seine. In 1885 in Antwerp he had become interested in Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints, and had used them to decorate the walls of his studio; while in Paris he collected hundreds of them. He tried his hand at Japonaiserie, tracing a figure from a reproduction on the cover of the magazine Paris Illustre, The Courtesan or Oiran (1887), after Keisai Eisen, which he then graphically enlarged in a painting.
Gogh, Vincent van: L'Arlésienne: Madame Joseph-Michel Ginoux (née Marie Julien, 1848–1911)L'Arlésienne: Madame Joseph-Michel Ginoux (née Marie Julien, 1848–1911), oil on canvas by Vincent van Gogh, 1888–89; in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. 91.4 × 73.7 cm.Photograph by dmadeo. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, bequest of Sam A. Lewisohn, 1951 (51.112.3)
In 1892 Émile Bernard organised a small solo show of Van Gogh's paintings in Paris, and Julien Tanguy exhibited his Van Gogh paintings with several consigned from Johanna van Gogh-Bonger. In April 1894 the Durand-Rue Gallery in Paris agreed to take 10 paintings on consignment from Van Gogh's estate. In 1896, the Fauvist painter Henri Matisse, then an unknown art student, visited John Peter Russell on Belle Île off Brittany. Russell had been a close friend of Van Gogh; he introduced Matisse to the Dutchman's work, and gave him a Van Gogh drawing. Influenced by Van Gogh, Matisse abandoned his earth-coloured palette for bright colours.