After he arrived in the Borinage, the businessman Benjamin Vanderhaegen helped Vincent to obtain accommodation with the farmer Jean Baptiste Denis and his wife, Estere Fiévez, in Petit-Wasmes. Vincent was by then working as a lay preacher for the Belgian evangelism committee. The rent was a low 30 francs a month because Vincent taught the couple’s children in the evenings. In his free time, he drew maps of Palestine, hoping to sell them to schools and catechism classes. According to accounts, Vincent made drawings of the Denis family, including portraits of Mrs Denis; the grandmother milking cows, making soup and grinding coffee; and the grandfather harnessing the horses. Vincent gave the drawings to the family, but they probably tore them up later.
Vincent permitted himself no luxuries, gave all his clothing away to the sick and ate the simplest food possible. Finding his boarding house too comfortable, he rented a small house to live in instead. His parents so opposed the move that Mr Van Gogh travelled to the Borinage to attempt to change Vincent's mind. He succeeded; in a letter of March 1879, Vincent wrote to his brother Theo:
“Have rented a small house where I’d really like to live entirely on my own, but which now serves only as a workplace or study, because Pa thinks it better that I board with Denis, and I do too. I have prints on the wall there and all sorts of things.”
Vincent lived with the Denises through August 1879. After the Belgian evangelism committee failed to renew his contract, he departed for Cuesmes. Vincent retained affection for the family; in a letter to his friend the artist Eugène Boch in 1888, he wrote: