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Vincent van Gogh, the painter who loved to read: La Tribune India

By on November 21, 2021 0

BN Goswamy

I… made a more or less serious study of the books within my reach, like the “Bible” and “The French Revolution” by Michelet, then last winter Shakespeare and a little Victor Hugo and

Dickens and Beecher Stowe and recently, Aeschylus and then various less classical writers, some great minor masters.

– Vincent van Gogh in a letter to his brother Theo

… you would be wrong if you kept thinking that I became less passionate about, say, Rembrandt or Millet or Delacroix or whoever or whatever, because it’s the other way around, but there are a lot of things different that are worth believing and loving, you see – there is something of Rembrandt in Shakespeare, something of Correggio or Sarto in Michelet and something of Delacroix in Victor Hugo…

– Vincent van Gogh in another letter to Theo

Sketch with a sculpture and two books

There were many occasions during my almost annual visits to Zurich where we – my wife and I – would visit each other and see Georgette Boner, the sister of the much better known Alice. Georgette, a theater professional, lived in an eminently but deliciously disorganized apartment and it was not uncommon for us to see unusual pieces lying around – furniture, paintings, crockery among others -. One of the things that always caught our attention was a Van Gogh painting, never hung on the wall but sometimes sitting on the dining table, sometimes behind a sofa, sometimes leaning against a half-open door. It didn’t look too much like Van Gogh’s usual works – richly colored, full of those characteristic traits that almost define his art – nor on a theme you could easily recognize as his own: he was showing a shelf with a number of books on it. Some standing, others lying flat, without legible titles on them: simple roughly sketched colored plaques. On one visit, however, we did not see the painting with the library; it had been taken by an auction house to which Georgette had sold it.

Stacks of French novels

at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

The unusual subject – at least unknown to us – had always intrigued us, as we, in our ignorance, did not associate Van Gogh, leading his hopelessly lonely and fractured life, with a lot of reading. It wasn’t until recently that I learned from an essay by Steven Naifeh how wrong we were. Because apparently this great painter was passionately fond of reading, and to paint him a subject like a library must have come to him almost naturally. From his life, we learn that from his “early childhood” Vincent was in love with reading. In the simple house of his father, who was a pastor, daily reading aloud was routine, something that “set his family apart from the sea of ​​rural illiteracy that surrounded them.” His parents read to him and their other children almost daily; the older ones also read to the younger ones. In his father’s presbytery, reading aloud was used to “console the sick and distract the worried”. Long after the children dispersed, we learn, they continued to exchange books and book recommendations “as if no book is really read until everyone has read it.”

Portrait of Vincent van Gogh

Considering that his father was a pastor, the Bible was considered “the best of books”, but on the libraries were also works by Schiller and Shakespeare in Dutch translation, Molière and Alexandre Dumas in French. Some writers were in disgrace: Goethe was “too disturbing”; Balzac and Zola had “great minds but impure souls”; Victor Hugo was unacceptable because of his “celebration of godlessness and criminality” – as simple as that. Growing up, Vincent developed a special affection for Victor Hugo and Zola, which, apart from other things, irritated his father a lot. There were arguments, sometimes bitter arguments, between the son and the father over these matters. On his father’s death, however, Vincent painted – in remembrance or in homage – the Family Bible, a “magnificent tome with copper-reinforced corners and double brass clasps” which he placed on a table, opened its clasps and made it from very close. But almost as a provocative reminder of the differences with her father, he placed next to her a little French novel, “La Joie de Vivre” by Zola.

Books in an oval frame. All the works, with the exception of his portrait, are
by Vincent van Gogh

Eager to learn, he read, read, read. Privately, he had developed a theory: that “some countries produced the greatest artists in specific art forms”; thus the Greeks in sculpture, the Germans in music and the French in literature. He would continue to recommend books to his siblings. “This Emile Zola is a glorious writer,” he wrote one day to Theo. “Read as much of him as you can. As he read he kept absorbing the images that great writers created in their works with words. Behind one of his most famous creations, “The Starry Night”, for example, hides somewhere his reading of Maupassant’s words: “I love the night of a passion… I love her as his mistress, with a deep, instinctive, invincible love. .. And the stars! The stars up there, the unknown stars thrown at random into an immensity… ”

Or, maybe it was Zola’s description of a midsummer night as “powdered with the sparkling dust of almost invisible stars… Behind those thousands of stars, thousands more appeared,… a continuous bloom. , a shower of sparks of stale embers, countless worlds glowing with the calm fire of precious stones ”.

It is not easy to understand how creative minds work, what processes are there, hidden from the eye and beyond it. But a faint glimpse is seen here, I believe. As the author of the essay on Van Gogh’s Love for Books, which I have quoted, puts it, in Vincent there was “a spontaneous interweaving of personal concerns and artistic calculations, of private demons and passions. creators, favorite paintings and favorite novels … “

In Vincent’s own words to Theo: “Zola creates, but does not hold up a mirror to things, he creates wonderfully, but creates, poetizes.

This is what he himself did in his own work: “poetizing” – both views and thoughts.


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