In 1885, Van Gogh visited the province of Drenthe for three months, staying in Hoogeveen. While there, he explored the countryside still untouched by progress found in larger towns and cities. The Cottages is a study
of farm cottages and an outbuilding that Van Gogh found on one of his treks. The dark cottage is set against the evening sky. Here he was greatly impressed by the working poor, but unable to find models for his character studies.
Inspired by the work of Jean-François Millet and others working in the 'peasant' genre, Van Gogh became interested in representing peasant life in his art. To depict the essence and spirit of their life, he for a time lived as they lived, he was in the fields as they were, enduring the weather for long hours as they were. To do so was not something taught in art schools, he wrote, a reflection of his frustrated by traditionalists who focused on technique more than the essence of the subject matter.
So thoroughly engaged in living the peasant lifestyle, his appearance and manner of speech began to change. This alienated some of his friends and family, but was a cost, he believed, necessary for his artistic development.