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Vincent's Library

Books and Their Depiction in the Works of Van Gogh

By David Brooks

I wish all people had what I am gradually beginning to acquire: the power to read a book in a short time without difficulty, and to keep a strong impression of it. In reading books, as in looking at paintings, one must admire what is beautiful with assurance--without doubt, without hesitation.

Vincent van Gogh
Letter 148
Early August, 1881

Vincent van Gogh had a profound passion for art. In fact, one can go so far as to say that Van Gogh was a man of extreme passions in virtually every aspect of his life: his art, his relationships and the pleasures that he sought.

One of these passions was a life long love of reading. Vincent van Gogh was a voracious reader and, through his letters, reveals his eclectic preferences of literature and poetry1. Van Gogh wrote of his "irresistible passion for books" (Letter 133) and found fulfillment in both a Shakespeare history as well as a Hugo epic. Van Gogh held great admiration for contemporary writers such as Zola and de Maupassant, but his tastes also encompassed more surprising choices: whether it was Uncle Tom's Cabin or the The Gospel according to St. Matthew, Dickens' A Christmas Carol or a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale.

Given his great love for books and reading, it's not surprising that Vincent van Gogh would choose to paint books several times throughout his career as an artist. While it's true that Van Gogh was often desperate for subjects to paint (and a stack of books required no sitting fee and was no doubt more cooperative than an old weaver or young school boy), it's understandable why books would prove to be such a frequent motif throughout Van Gogh's career.

The books (and book readers) depicted in Van Gogh's oeuvre are shown below in chronological order. This illustrates Van Gogh's progression as an artist and the varying styles he used in his portrayal of books within his art.

Van Gogh sought insight and inspiration through books. By the same token, Van Gogh's painting and drawings of books shed insight on the span of his career and on the subtle messages that the specific books depicted carry with them.

The Paintings

Still Life with Bible

Still Life with Bible was not only Vincent van Gogh's first painting of a book, but it was also one of his first great works--painted just six months after The Potato Eaters.

This painting is one of the most critiqued and analyzed of Van Gogh's complete works. And understandably so. Vincent van Gogh spent years in the pursuit of a life in the clergy and had maintained a passionate attraction toward religion. Still Life with Bible marks an interesting point in Van Gogh's career--not only because it remains one of his best executed early paintings, but also because it provides stark insights into the artist's feelings of religion and of the turmoil within his own family.

Van Gogh's father, Theodorus, was a Protestant minister and as the artist's religious convictions faltered throughout the early 1880s, so too did his relationship with his father deteriorate. Vincent van Gogh's own failure as a minister as well as the ongoing problems in his personal relationships left him more and more cynical about religion. By the mid-1880s he had all but abandoned the conventional religious environment he had been raised in, condemning it as stifling and hypocritical. Vincent had no hesitation in transferring these condemnations to his father and this lead to several heated arguments.

Vincent's father died in March of 1885 and in October his son would paint Still Life with Bible. The work remains one of the most ripe of Van Gogh's in terms of symbolic import. The Bible is obviously the focal point of the work, but the prominent display of the small book in the right foreground is clearly of interest. The book, Emile Zola's La Joie de Vivre (1884), can be interpreted as the artist's comment on modern literature as an alternative to--or equal of--the Bible.

But many other interpretations present themselves. Critics have called the painting everything from a rejection of traditional religion to an expression of " . . . the continuity of his religious values. Having abandoned the institutional Church, he was seeking a new form, a modern context in which to express these values in a more meaningful way."2

Even the Bible itself in the painting presents various possibilities of interpretation. The Bible is open to a passage in the Book of Isaiah:

He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised and we esteemed him not. Surely, he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes, we are healed.

Isaiah 53:3-5

The passage could be called an apt description of the suffering protagonist, Pauline, of Zola's novel, but perhaps Van Gogh had himself--and his struggles--in mind when he chose this specific passage.

Whatever message the painting conveys, it remains one of the most powerful works of Van Gogh's career.

Still Life with Three Books

Throughout his two years in Paris Vincent van Gogh painted dozens of still life works. Many of these works he considered "studies"--works he produced as a means of refining his ever improving skills as an artist.

Still Life with Three Books can be considered one such study, although it's noteworthy in terms of its interesting use of colour--muted yellows and golds set against the sharp contrast of the red book in the background. Even more striking is the shape of this particular painting: an oval. Many of Van Gogh's contemporaries were experimenting with art work that broke from the traditional rectangular shape, but Vincent rarely followed their example. Of the nearly 900 paintings Van Gogh produced during his ten years as an artist only three works adopted the oval shape: Still Life with Three Books and:

The three books depicted in this simple but effective painting are: Emile Zola's Au Bonheur des Dames, Jean Richepin's Braves Gens; Edmond de Groncourt's La Fille Elisa. Van Gogh was a great admirer of Zola's works and mentions them dozens of times throughout his letters. Although he praises Richepin, Van Gogh never mentions Braves Gens specifically. Of La Fille Elisa, however, Van Gogh felt great admiration:

"If, on the other hand, one wants the truth, life as it is, then there are, for instance, de Goncourt in Germinie Lacerteux, La Fille Elisa, Zola in La Joie de Vivre and L'Assommoire, and so many other masterpieces, all portraying life as we feel it themselves, thus satisfying our need for being told the truth." (Letter W1)

Still Life with French Novels and a Rose

The painting Still Life with French Novels and a Rose and its companion piece Still Life: French Novels (below) pose some interesting challenges.

There's no question that Still Life with French Novels and a Rose dates from Van Gogh's Paris period. The striped orange and green wallpaper in the background clearly matches that found in the other two Paris paintings Flowerpot with Chives and Still Life with Decanter and Lemons on a Plate. Furthermore, the perspective and composition of this painting is comparable to a number of the other still life studies that Van Gogh produced late in his Paris period (Still Life with Basket of Apples, for example).

Van Gogh was living with his brother, Theo, in Paris and, as a result, contemporary records of Vincent's own impressions of this work are difficult to ascertain (since much of this information can be gleaned from the letters and Vincent had no reason to write any to Theo while they were living together). Vincent did, however, write about this painting in later letters--even going so far as to choose a specific name for it: Romans Parisiens--something Van Gogh rarely did.

In Letter 555, for example, Vincent mentions " . . . the 'Romans Parisiens' with the yellow, pink and green covers . . . ." Clearly Vincent is referring to this painting and not Still Life: French Novels below since the yellow, pink and green book covers, so obvious in this painting, are missing from the later version.

So the dating of Still Life with French Novels and a Rose presents few problems, but some puzzles still remain when comparing it to its counterpart Still Life with French Novels below.

Still Life with Plaster Statuette, a Rose and Two Novels

Still Life with Plaster Statuette, a Rose and Two Novels is one of the more interesting works of Van Gogh's Paris period. The painting is both an homage to Van Gogh's past experience and, stylistically, a look forward to the future.

The plaster statuette in the painting is a clear reference to the many studies Van Gogh created while attending Cormon's studio shortly after arriving in Paris. In an effort to refine his technique Van Gogh painted a series of statuettes: in classical poses, torsos, a horse, etc. The specific statuette seen in Still Life with Plaster Statuette, a Rose and Two Novels can be found in another Van Gogh work: the drawing Plaster Statuette (Type C) which dates from spring, 1886.

The reappearance of the same statuette in this painting shows that Van Gogh owned the plaster cast and continued to refer to it during his later Paris period. Van Gogh owned a number of the casts from his time at Cormon's studio and they're now effectively displayed in the Van Gogh Museum alongside the paintings they inspired. Still Life with Plaster Statuette, a Rose and Two Novels is clearly an artistic allusion to Van Gogh's first months in Paris. Ultimately Van Gogh rejected the methods espoused by Cormon and withdrew from his classes feeling frustrated. By choosing to paint the statuette once again, almost two years later, Van Gogh may be commenting on a renewed confidence in his own talents as an artist.

The painting also anticipates the further refinements in style that Van Gogh would pursue in the south of France. In terms of its composition, the painting is executed with an assuredness that characterized Van Gogh's progress as an artist throughout his two years in Paris. The high vantage point and bold use of colours anticipate Van Gogh's further artistic development in the months leading up to his move to Arles. The bold use of colour, in this case specifically the yellow and the blue, would soon be a recurring motif in Van Gogh's Arles and St. Rémy works (The Yellow House and Noon: Rest from Work, for example).

Also noteworthy in this composition are the books that Van Gogh displays alongside the statuette: Guy de Maupassant's Bel Ami and Edmond and Jules de Goncourt's Germinie Lacerteux.

Van Gogh was a great admirer of Maupassant and would write about Bel Ami on a number of occasions in his letters. In Letter W1 Vincent called the book "a masterpiece", although almost two years later he wrote to Theo "there are some not-too-serious things which I like very much, such as a book like Bel Ami." (Letter 590). A "light masterpiece", however, isn't necessarily a contradiction in terms. Still Life with Plaster Statuette, a Rose and Two Novels is no doubt an admirable work, but in composition and style it's certainly not as dour as some of his earlier paintings. Van Gogh may have included Bel Ami as a means of suggesting a joyfulness rarely found in his works preceding his Paris period.

Interestingly, a passage within Bel Ami may very well have served as an inspiration for one of Van Gogh's most famous paintings: The Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum. In Letter W7 Van Gogh writes to his sister, Wilhelmina, about this well known painting: "So far you have not told me whether you have read Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant, and what in general you think of his talent now. I say this because the beginning of Bel Ami happens to be a description of a starlight night in Paris with the brightly lighted cafés of the Boulevard, and this is approximately the same subject I just painted."

Of Germinie Lacerteux Van Gogh mentioned it in a letter to Theo seven years before painting Still Life with Plaster Statuette, a Rose and Two Novels (Letter 298). Clearly the novel remained a great favourite of Vincent's--he would again mention it fondly after his breakdown, and subsequent hospitalization in Arles: "I have sent for a few more books so as to have a few sound ideas in my head. I have reread Uncle Tom's Cabin, you know Beecher Stowe's book on slavery, Dickens's Christmas books and I have given Germinie Lacerteux to M. Salles. (Letter 582)

Dr. Jan Hulsker speaks admiringly of Still Life with Plaster Statuette, a Rose and Two Novels, although he still interprets its content as:

". . . . something of an enigma, although his depiction of the French Naturalist novels may have been intended to reflect one of the most important influences on Vincent's intellectual development in his Paris years, while the bunch of flowers and the figure are symbolic of the new trends in his painting."3

Blossoming Almond Branch in a Glass with a Book

This small and pleasant work is one of the first studies that Van Gogh produced after arriving in Arles in early 1888. Vincent sent the painting to his sister, Wil, as a birthday present: "It is my own duty to congratulate you on your birthday; as I should very much like to give you something of my work that will please you, I have set aside a little study of a book for you . . . ." (Letter W3)

The single book is conveyed via thick brushstrokes and a vibrant pink colour. Of all the paintings in which Vincent depicted books, however, this is probably the most understated in terms of the book itself. Notably Vincent painted a second version of the work, Blossoming Almond Branch in a Glass--this time without the book.

Still Life: French Novels

This painting, unlike its companion work Still Life with French Novels and a Rose (above), presents a number of difficulties in terms of pinpointing its date and origin.

The 1970 De la Faille catalogue raisonné of Van Gogh's works dates this painting to the same period as Still Life with French Novels and a Rose above: Paris in autumn of 1887. In the three decades to follow, however, alternate possibilities have been suggested. For example, Jan Hulsker, author of his own catalogue raisonné of Van Gogh's works (last edition: 1996), writes:

"Some experts regard [this painting] as a study for the Paris painting, but in my opinion the flat colors suggest a date in 1888. Moreover, Vincent speaks of the picture of the French novels in connection with the Bedroom in Letter 555 of October 17, 1888."4
Hulsker's logic is somewhat puzzling, however. Vincent does indeed mention the painting Still Life with French Novels and a Rose in Letter 555 ("This bedroom is something like the still life of the 'Romans Parisiens' with the yellow, pink and green covers, you remember it. But I think the workmanship is more virile and simple. No stippling, no hatching, nothing, only flat colours in harmony."), but the reference appears to be separate and independent from the painting in question: Still Life: French Novels. Perhaps Hulsker equates the "flat" composition of this painting with the "flat" colours that he envisioned for his Bedroom painting. But such a connection is somewhat tenuous.

Having said that, Hulsker's suggestion that the flat colours date the painting to Van Gogh's Arles period warrants further exploration. As mentioned above, Still Life with French Novels and a Rose presents a more traditional perspective which can be found in a number of Van Gogh's other Paris still lifes. Similarly, the far more tilted perspective in Still Life: French Novels can be equated with a similarly skewed perspective found in a number of Van Gogh's other Arles works: The Seated Zouave and The Night Cafe in the Place Lamartine in Arles, for example. Taking into account Hulsker's comments and the stark difference in perspective and composition an Arles date does seem more likely.

But questions still remain. For example, there's no doubt that the two works Still Life with French Novels and a Rose and Still Life: French Novels are companion pieces--the layout of the books is almost identical. But if the Arles attribution for the latter work is correct, then how could Van Gogh have so precisely matched the original layout of the Paris work without using the painting itself in order to make a copy? In The Magazine of Art (1950) J. Seznec supports the autumn 1888 dating of Still Life: French Novels and goes on to suggest that it was a copy painted from memory. There's no question that Van Gogh had a remarkable eye for detail, but is it possible that he would have been able to so accurately match the layout of the books--novel for novel, pile for pile--from memory?

It's possible that Van Gogh had a drawing of the Paris painting to copy from, but there is no evidence to confirm this. The puzzle remains: the style and composition of Still Life: French Novels does indeed suggest Van Gogh's Arles period, but the very accuracy of the content of the work leaves this perplexing issue unresolved.

Still Life: Vase with Oleanders and Books

Throughout his career Vincent van Gogh produced dozens of paintings depicting vases with flowers. The painting here, Still Life: Vase with Oleanders and Books, is very similar in composition to other works Van Gogh produced around the same time: Still Life: Vase with Oleanders and Still Life: Vase with Zinnias, for example. In fact, all of these works were produced in the same weeks as many of Van Gogh's famous sunflower paintings.

Unlike the other flower and vase works, however, Still Life: Vase with Oleanders and Books includes a book in its composition. In fact, this would be Van Gogh's last paintings, with the exception of portraits, to depict a book. Fittingly, Van Gogh concludes the theme of books as he began it: by choosing Zola's La Joie de Vivre as his subject. Zola's book figures prominently in the powerful painting Still Life with Bible (above) and its presentation here clearly shows that it remained an important influence on Van Gogh throughout his career as an artist. It's possible that Van Gogh had been thinking of Still Life with Bible when he painted this work three years later. With that in mind, the viewer can appreciate the continuity of the Zola book and consider these two paintings as "bookends" in their own right.

Book Readers

For the ten years spanning his career as an artist, Vincent van Gogh not only choose books as his subjects; he also chose to draw and paint book readers.

It's fair to say that, unlike the seven paintings shown above, the books in these works play a more ancillary role--second to that, of course, of the portrait's subject. A portrait in which the sitter is depicted with books is, in fact, an old and traditional convention and one which Van Gogh was pleased to employ himself. His early drawings show a closer relationship between the book and the reader than his later portraits would.

Farmer Sitting at the Fireside, Reading

This watercolour which Van Gogh produced in 1881 is one of the artist's earliest portraits and one of the very first to depict the figure in an activity other than manual labour (see also Peasant Sitting by the Fireplace). The style is typical of the flat and somewhat cartoonish quality that characterize Van Gogh's earliest works.

The portrayal of the subject in a chair is a frequent motif for Van Gogh: one which recurs in two of the drawings below and indeed throughout Van Gogh's ten years as an artist.

Man, Standing, Reading a Book

This drawing remains one of the more difficult of Van Gogh's to analyze since it's been missing for decades and brings with it an almost non-existent provenance. The De la Faille catalogue raisonné suggests that the Muller auction house may have dealt with the drawing at some point5, but the current location of the work remains a mystery.

Van Gogh may be discussing this drawing in Letter 253 when he writes "I have two new drawings now, one of a man reading his Bible, and the other of a man saying grace before his dinner, which is on the table . . . . In one there is a view of the snowy fields through the window." Both the De la Faille6 and the latest Van Gogh Museum catalogue7 suggest that Man, Standing, Reading a Book may be the drawing Van Gogh is referring to and that the "snowy fields" he mentions are, in fact, the black field in the upper left corner of the drawing. For some reason Van Gogh may have been unsatisfied with the result and decided to salvage the drawing simply by brushing over the perceived imperfection with a dark wash.

Orphan Man with Cap, Sitting, Reading a Book

The subject in this drawing, and the two below, is Adrianus Zuyderland, an old man living in The Hague.5 Van Gogh is often called an "Expressionist" artist in that his works convey an emotional impact more powerful than many of his contemporaries. This is strongly evident in these early drawings of the old man reading. In Letter 253 Van Gogh himself describes these works as "old fashioned sentiment", but defends the work's emotional impact when he continues: "And if it has any sentiment or expression, it is because I feel it myself."

The book depicted in this drawing is almost certainly the Bible.

Man, Sitting, Reading a Book

This drawing is very similar in composition to the one above. Although the perspective is different, the sitter (Zuyderland) and the book (the Bible) are the same. More interesting is a comparison of the change in style between the three drawings from The Hague with that of the early watercolour shown above. Clearly over the course of two years Vincent van Gogh's skills as an artist had progressed substantially. The three drawings show a heightened skill in line and detail that the watercolour lacks. Furthermore, the viewer of the three drawings can envision the living subject of the drawings, whereas the sitter in the first work remains a mere representation of the reader.

Van Gogh himself wrote:

". . . I made a drawing of an old man sitting reading, with the light falling on his bald head, on his hand and the book. And the second one, the bandaged head of an injured man. The model who sat for this really had a head injury and a bandage over his left eye . . . .

Now when I compare these two heads with the others I have done, there is a great difference in the power of effect."

(Letter 256)

Clearly Van Gogh was quite conscious of his progress--progress that is even more apparent in the paintings below.
L'Arlesienne: Madame Ginoux with Books

L'Arlesienne: Madame Ginoux with Books is the first of the three portraits in which Van Gogh depicts the sitter with books. As mentioned above, it was a standard convention for an artist to paint his or her sitter with books. In this particular painting (unlike the second Ginoux and the Gachet portrait below) the books are incidental and don't add any new underlying meaning to the work. In fact, Van Gogh painted a companion portrait of this work: L'Arlesienne: Madame Ginoux with Gloves and Umbrella. The composition is the same and the style is very similar, but the books in the latter work have been replaced with an umbrella. It's possible that Van Gogh considered the version with the umbrella to be the superior since he mentions it in his letters at least six times, but never writes about L'Arlesienne: Madame Ginoux with Books. Furthermore, the books--again, unlike those in the Ginoux and Gachet portraits below--are generic representations of books with no detail or visible titles.

The "Arlesienne" in this painting was Madame Marie Ginoux (1848-1911) who, with her husband Joseph-Michel, ran the Café de la Gare at 30 Place Lamartine where Van Gogh roomed from May to mid-September, 1888. Vincent had few friends in Arles, but the Ginouxs were fond of the artist and he would produce six other portraits of Madame Ginoux:

Woman Reading a Novel

Vincent van Gogh frequently used letter sketches to give the recipient of his letter a better idea of what he was working on. In this particular case, he sketched the work The Novel Reader (below). This work is Van Gogh's only letter sketch showing a figure reading a book.

The Novel Reader

Unlike the Ginoux and Gachet portraits The Novel Reader is Van Gogh's only painting to actually depict a sitter reading a book. Vincent called this painting "Une Liseuse de Romans" (Letter W9) and its sensitive depiction of the young woman reading the novels belies the turbulent month in which it was painted: December, 1888. Not long after painting The Novel Reader Van Gogh would suffer a mental breakdown and severed part of his left ear.

The Novel Reader conveys a feeling of tranquil contemplation. Not only is the figure seen quietly reading, but she's doing so in the peaceful sanctuary of a library or reading room. The painting is certainly not one of Van Gogh's more detailed or stylistically advanced, but it is successful in its simple but effective portrayal of the reader. The woman's face is a mere study, composed of a minimum of lines, but Van Gogh was masterful at presenting sensitive and compassionate figures by using a reserved but powerful technique (Sien, Sitting on a Basket, with a Girl and Marguerite Gachet in the Garden, for example).

L'Arlesienne (Madame Ginoux)

Here again, Van Gogh depicts Madame Marie Ginoux. The style, however, is strikingly different than the portrait above. No doubt this is due in part to this work being painted more than a year after L'Arlesienne: Madame Ginoux with Books. More notably, it was done during Van Gogh's internment in the mental asylum at St. Rémy. During his two years at the asylum Van Gogh would often return to studies of his earlier works or some of the religious themes he had avoided for years. In choosing to paint Madame Ginoux again, Vincent clearly shows his fondness--not only for the work, but its subject as well.

Interestingly, while the books undeniably form the secondary focus of the painting (after the sitter), Van Gogh chose in this portrait and in the Gachet portrait below to paint in detail the actual titles of the books themselves: Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin on top with Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol beneath.

Vincent wrote fondly about both books dozens of times throughout his hundreds of letters. In terms of Uncle Tom's Cabin Van Gogh may have had its underlying themes in mind as he reflected on his lack of acceptance in Arles and how much he valued the few friends he had there:

"I often read in Uncle Tom's Cabin these days. There is still so much slavery in the world, and in this remarkably wonderful book that important question is treated with so much wisdom, so much love, and such zeal and interest in the true welfare of the poor oppressed that one comes back to it again and again, always finding something new . . . .

. . . in Uncle Tom's Cabin especially, the artist has put things in a new light; in this book, though it is becoming an old book already--that is, written years ago--all things have become new. The sentiment in it is so fine, so elaborate, so masterly. It is written with so much love, so much seriousness, so faithfully. It is humble and simple, but at the same time so truly sublime, so noble and refined."

(Letter 130)

Van Gogh's choice of these specific books may reflect the affection he felt for Madame Ginoux herself.

Portrait of Doctor Gachet

With the exception of the self-portraits and perhaps the paintings featuring the Roulin family, this work (and its companion) are probably Van Gogh's best known portraits.

The Gachet portrait shown here has something in common with each of the two Ginoux portraits shown above. Like L'Arlesienne: Madame Ginoux with Books this portrait of Gachet has a companion painting that replaces the books with another object, in this case: a sprig of foxglove. And as was the case for L'Arlesienne (Madame Ginoux), Van Gogh also chose to paint Portrait of Doctor Gachet in enough detail to show the actual titles of the two books on the table--in this case Edmond and Jules de Goncourt's Germinie Lacerteux and Manette Salomon.

This is the second painting in which Van Gogh included Germinie Lacerteux--the first was Still Life with Plaster Statuette, a Rose and Two Novels (above). Its inclusion here may be a pointed statement about Van Gogh's perception of Gachet himself. Van Gogh called Doctor Gachet "sicker than I am, I think, or shall we say just as much" (Letter 648) and of this painting he commented that the subject reflected "the heart-broken expression of our time" (Letter 643). It's interesting to note that Van Gogh speaks of melancholy specifically in Germinie Lacerteux. In Letter W14 Vincent writes to his sister, Wil, about a small drawing he was sending " . . . but there is in it the grayish white countenance, the lost, vague look of a person exhausted by anxiety and weeping and waking, rather in the manner of Germinie Lacerteux."

As for Manette Salomon Van Gogh wrote:

"Something odd occurs to me--in Manette Salomon there is a discussion of modern art, and some artist or other, talking of 'what will last,' says that what will last is 'the landscape painters'--that view has already been proved true to some extent, for Corot, Daubigny, Dupré, Rousseau, and Millet do endure as landscape painters . . . ."

(Letter 604)

Doctor Gachet was a great enthusiast of modern art and had even taken Paul Cézanne into his care a number of years earlier. In L'Arlesienne (Madame Ginoux) Van Gogh may have deliberately chosen books to reflect the humanity and compassion of the sitter. In this particular painting the choice of Germinie Lacerteux and Manette Salomon may carry suggestions of Gachet's deep unhappiness coupled with his keen appreciation of art.

Vincent van Gogh loved books. In Letter 133 he wrote:

Try to grasp the essence of what the great artists, the serious masters, say in their masterpieces, and you will again find God in them. One man has written or said it in a book, another in a painting. Just read the Bible and the Gospel, that will start you thinking, thinking about many things, thinking about everything, well then, think about many things, think about everything, that will lift your thoughts above the humdrum despite yourself. We know how to read, so let us read!

Van Gogh held writers in painters in equal regard when it came to true artistic talent and the ability, through their art, to enrich the world around them. Throughout his life Vincent van Gogh was an outcast in many respects. His brother, Theo, was an ongoing source of consolation, but so too were the books that Vincent valued so dearly. Even during his great moments of loneliness and despair--when true friends were few and far between--books would be Van Gogh's constant companion.

And so just as Van Gogh revered the authors and poets that would bring him such comfort and profound happiness, Vincent, in turn, honoured the books--and the men and women who wrote them--through his art.

  1. Fieke Pabst and Evert van Uitert, "A literary life, with a list of books and periodicals read by Van Gogh", pages 68-90.
  2. Kathleen Powers Erikson, At Eternity's Gate: A Spiritual Vision of Vincent van Gogh, p. 95.
  3. Jan Hulsker, The New Complete Van Gogh: Paintings, Drawings, Sketches, pp. 298-300.
  4. Ibid, p. 367.
  5. J.B. De la Faille, The Works of Vincent van Gogh: His Paintings and Drawings, p. 671.
  6. Ibid, p. 576.
  7. Sjraar van Heugten, Volume One: Drawings--The Early Years, 1880-1883, p. 141.
  8. Ibid.

Now, if you can forgive someone for immersing himself in pictures, perhaps you will also grant that the love of books is as sacred as that of Rembrandt, indeed, I believe that the two complement each other.

Vincent van Gogh
Letter 133
July, 1880

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