“I have a more or less irresistible passion for books, and constantly need to instruct myself, to study, if you will, just as I need to eat my bread.” (letter 133)
Vincent van Gogh was an artist with a great love of literature. Man was shaped by literature and history, and Van Gogh was himself in search of humanity, of which he set out to be a painter-chronicler in the mould of Millet or Michelet, the historian and author who painted with words. Van Gogh did not decide to become an artist until 1880, but his love of books dated from earlier.1
Little is known about his earliest reading. As a child he went to the village school at Zundert, but around the age of 12 he was transferred to a private school to prepare for his secondary education. Between 1866 and 1868 he attended the Hogere Burger (secondary) School in Tilburg, but even here his contact with literature would have amounted to little more than learning poetry by rote as part of the language curriculum, which consisted of five hours a week each in French and English, and three hours each in German and Dutch.2 Vincent did well academically, but within two years he was taken away from school, and at the age of 15 he started work at the Goupil art gallery in The Hague. Here he got on very well with H.G. Tersteeg, manager of the gallery, who moved in literary circles and was extremely well-read, particularly in English. Vincent also became friendly with the Van Stockum family, who were prominent in the book trade and publishing.3 Contacts such as these undoubtedly whetted his interest in literature, and enabled him to learn about foreign books before they were reviewed in the press. As the seat of government of the Netherlands, The Hague had a large corps diplomatique, so foreign literature would have been a regular topic of conversion. This is confirmed by a remark of Theo’s in a letter to Carolien van Stockum-Haanebeek: ‘In Holland people are so well posted on everything that is published.’ He said in connection with Pierre Loti’s Pêcheur d’Islande, of which he enclosed a copy (letter T1a).
LETTERS AND POEMS In 1872 Vincent started up a regular correspondence with his brother Theo and several other people, and from then on the development of his artistic taste can be followed step by step. In 1873 he was transferred to Goupil’s London branch (the start of a sojourn of three and a half years abroad), where he inevitably became better acquainted with English literature and art, and the same process was repeated when he later moved to Paris. In 1873 he discovered Keats, whom he described as ‘the darling of the painters here [in London]’, although he rightly assumed that he was not so well known back in Holland.4 His enthusiasm for Keats was such that he copied out several of his poems—a common practice at the time (letter 10a).
It was not long before the name of Jules Michelet began cropping up in the letters, and from then on he was to be Van Gogh’s constant guide, especially where women or love were concerned. He also admired Michelet’s historical writings, which probably accounts for his particular interest in the French Revolution.
Van Gogh often made connections between paintings and literary passages, and his interest in magazine illustrations was not entirely due to his ambition to become an illustrator himself (see Louis van Tilborgh, ‘A kind of Bible’, pp. 88 in The Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh / ed. By E. van Uitert and M. Hoyle). From the very beginning he prized authors who could ‘paint with words’, and in fact he was reading with the eye of an artist before he even became one.
In addition to poems, novels and historical works, Vincent read about art out of professional interest. When Theo started on his own career as an art dealer, Vincent advised him to do the same, warning him not to overlook periodicals like the Gazette des Beaux-Arts. Throughout his life he continued reading about artists, exhibitions and art history. It was not only as a reader that he largely mapped out his own course of study, but as an artist as well.
Theo evidently followed his brother’s advice on literature, and they were soon exchanging books on art (letter 14). Nor did it stop there, for in February 1875 Vincent wrote that he had filled a commonplace book for Theo with poems that he particularly liked. This was one of several such albums (letters 22, 49), some of which have survived.5 Although the idea of being an artist was still far from his mind, he did draw a small landscape of the countryside near London on the title-page of Edmond Roche’s Poésies, from which he copied out a poem for Theo (fig. 1). Significantly, it was a poem dedicated to the painter Corot (letter 25). This exchange of poems continued for a long time (letter 357), and was by no means one-sided. Theo, for instance, sent him Friedrich Rückert’s ‘Um Mitternacht’, which reminded Vincent of ‘La nuit de décembre’ by Alfred de Musset (letter 32) – a poem which he probably discovered as a result of Michelet’s glowing account in his book L’Oiseau, which was another of Vincent’s favourites. De Musset’s poem must have made a very deep impression on him, for more than 13 years later he quoted from it in a letter from Arles, associating it with Delacroix’s portrait of Alfred Bruyas in the museum at Montpellier (letter 564). The poet tells of a black-clad companion who so resembles him that he could be his brother. The mysterious figure turns out to be loneliness, who has been with him in moments of great sadness ever since he was a child. This is yet another example of the way in which Van Gogh fused ideas from literature and painting. At the same time it demonstrates that a poem which is only mentioned once in the letters might nevertheless have had a profound effect upon him.
TO EDIFY THE MIND Van Gogh began buying and borrowing books from an early age, and he also received them as presents, although it seems that the choice was not always to his liking. One odd little vignette dates from his days as an assistant at Goupil’s in The Hague, where Tersteeg and others had introduced him to the world of foreign literature. One day an acquaintance saw him sitting by an open fire, ‘calmly consigning to the flames every page of a devotional book which he had received on New Year’s Eve from his father, who was a clergyman’ (letter A9). Vincent was continually at loggerheads with his father about his choice of reading, but nowhere does he express any great objections to piety, merely to unedifying literature.
In 1875, when Vincent was working at Goupil’s Paris gallery, his love of literature clashed with his love of God, so much so that he told Theo: ‘I am going to get rid of all my books by Michelet, et., etc., I urge you to do the same.’ Three weeks later he repeated his advice (letters 39, 43). This preceded a bout of intense religiosity in which poems were replaced by hymns, and modern authors by the Bible. He was also fascinated by Thomas à Kempis’s Imitatio Christi, and went into raptures about Bunyan’s The pilgrim’s progress, to mention just two of his favourite books (letters 80, 82). However, his reading was not exclusively religious, and the letters speak of a continuing interest in art books and poetry, including works by Longfellow. Even at this early date he was also drawing inspiration from George Eliot, particularly from her Scenes of clerical life (1857). He had already read Adam Bede (1859), which made Eliot’s name and had a success rivalling that of Uncle Tom’s cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.6 To Vincent’s way of thinking all these books belonged to the category of pious sensitivity and social protest. He took a similar religious direction after he was dismissed from Goupil’s in 1876. He returned to England, where he tried to earn a living as a schoolmaster, and also wrote a sermon. This was followed by a period working in a bookshop in Dordrecht, near Rotterdam, where according to an eyewitness he occasionally neglected his duties in order to translate the Bible into French, German and English. Finally, at the age of 24, he moved to Amsterdam to prepare for study at the Theological Seminary. Although he read history in addition to pious works, he told his teacher that he needed nothing more than the Bible, The pilgrim’s progress, and the Imitatio Christi (letter 122a).
Nevertheless, his old love of literature and history remained, for it was based on an educational ideal which he still treasured. Above all he was fascinated by the great figures of history as described by Thomas Carlyle in his On heroes, hero-worship, and the heroic in history of 1841. According to Carlyle, great men are examples to us all, they are ‘the soul of the whole world’s history’, and a consolation. Their company is beneficial, or to use Carlyle’s fittingly Christian metaphor, the hero is ‘the living light-fountain’.7 He classified his heroes as divinities, prophets, poets, priests, men of letters, and kings. As examples of the latter group he took Cromwell and Napoleon, and from there passed to a discussion of the French Revolution, which Van Gogh knew a great deal about. Following the example of Carlyle and other authors, the French Revolution was linked with the reforms of Luther. Carlyle spoke of it as a terrible revelation, ‘if not divine, then diabolic’.8 Vincent van Gogh, as a Protestant, humanitarian Christian, would not at first have disagreed, although the writings of the less conservative Michelet would certainly have acted as a corrective.
A PAINTER READS Van Gogh’s abortive attempt to be an evangelist in the Borinage mining region brought on a profound spiritual crisis, and he came to realise what literature and history really meant to him. In his despair he sought consolation, and wrote: ‘I studied, more or less seriously, the books I had within reach, like the Bible, La Révolution française by Michelet, and last winter Shakespeare and a little Victor Hugo, and Dickens, and Beecher Stowe, and lately Aeschylus, and then several others, less classical, more like great minor masters’ (letter 133). The link with panting was ever-present. ‘There is something of Rembrandt in Shakespeare, of Correggio in Michelet, and of Delacroix in Victor Hugo,’ he wrote in the same long letter from the Borinage, in which he took stock of his life. God is present in all masterpieces: ‘One man wrote or told it in a book, another in a painting.’ Seen in this light, there was nothing strange about his passage from Preacher to painter, which was supported by his reading. In the autumn of 1880, just before he left to study at the Brussels art academy, he summed up his position as follows: ‘In Millet, in Jules Breton, in Jozef Israels too, this precious pearl, the human soul, is even more in evidence – Expressed in a nobler, worthier tone, more evangelically, if I can put it that way’ (letter 136).
When Van Gogh was studying drawing at Brussels, and later at his parents’ home in Etten, books featured less prominently in his letters. Important events included a visit to his uncle Vincent at Princenhage, who had both a large art collection and a well-stocked library, and it was here that Van Gogh discovered Charlotte Brontë’s novel Shirley (1849), which he devoured in three days, ‘though it is quite a voluminous book’. He went on to muse about the nature of books and reading: ‘In reading books, as in looking at pictures, one must admire what is beautiful without doubts, without hesitation, with assurance. I am gradually rearranging all my books; I have read too much not to carry on systematically trying to get at least an idea about modern literature’ (letter 148). He also wanted to learn more about history. He summed up his current position and outlined a plan of campaign, which he then proceeded to put into practice at Etten, Princenhage and The Hague. The leading authors, in his eyes, were Michelet, Beecher Stowe, Charlotte Brontë, Carlyle and George Eliot (letter 148). From Etten he began a correspondence with the painter Anthon van Rappard, whom he had met in Brussels. In his very first letter he thanked Van Rappard for returning a copy of Gavarni by the De Goncourt brothers. The two young artists were to share their interest in draughtsmen and illustrators for some time to come. They exchanged prints, and discussed the latest issues of magazines like The Graphic, The Illustrated London News, L’Illustration and Le Monde Illustré. Van Gogh also asked his friend to keep an eye out for a particular poem by Thomas Hood, and to copy it out for him if he came across it. For a long time he continued this practice of collecting poems that appealed to him (letters R41, R42, 253). Van Rappard was an indispensable correspondent who helped to relieve the isolation that came from living in the depths of Brabant. ‘A fellow traveller’, is how Vincent described him (letter R6). His parents were unable to share in their son’s literary tastes. They read Goethe’s Faust in the translation by the Reverent Ten Kate, ‘for now that a clergyman has translated it, it cannot be so very immoral’, wrote Vincent, adding a string of question marks after the world ‘immoral’ (letter 164). He himself had been reading ‘a few men whom I discovered by accident’ in order to look at things in a broader, milder and more loving way, in the hope that he would thus get to know life better.
FRENCH NATURALISM In The Hague Vincent discovered more enlightened spirits in artists like Anton Mauve and Théophile de Bock. The main source of enlightenment in this Hague period was Emile Zola, previously known from only a few scattered fragments, but whom he now discovered as an author. Une Page d’amour was the book that decided him to read everything Zola had ever written (letter 212). In the summer of 1883 he told Theo that ‘De Bock has also taken to Zola, and had also reading Daudet’s Nabab’. He also asked his brother whether he knew Germinie Lacerteux by Jules and Edmond de Goncourt, which he was trying to get hold of because ‘it is supposed to be very good, in the manner of Zola’ (letter 298).
Another of Vincent’s friends in The Hague was George Breitner, to whom he lent Michelet’s L’Amour and from whom he borrowed Soeur Philomène by the De Goncourts (letter 301). The Hague was a heady city, as the artist Philippe Zilcken later recorded: ‘My teachers and friends, De Marissen, Breitner, De Zwart, Isaac Israels, Bauer, and almost all the young artists, read Zola and Salammbô passionately, and Manette Salomon could be found lying around the studio sofas.’9 Although Vincent is missing from this roll-call, he would certainly have been of their number. His repertoire, though, was not quite the same, and he had different ideas on the relationship between literature and painting. For instance, he criticised Mauve when he condemned contemporary English painting as ‘literary art’, for according to Van Gogh artists like Dickens and Eliot, Charlotte Brontë and Balzac were actually amazingly “plastic” (letter R8). No writer was ‘so much a painter and draughtsman’ as Charles Dickens.10 ‘I admire everything that Dickens wrote, but I have reread these two “children’s tales” [A Christmas carol and The haunted man and the ghost’s bargain] nearly every year since I was a boy, and each time they are as fresh as ever’ (letter R30). It was a custom which he was to observe until Arles, if not longer (letters 582, 583). So he remained faithful to his old favourites, among them Victor Hugo, and was not impressed by the scepticism of his colleagues in The Hague.11 He realised that his views of writers and painters were rather sentimental and old-fashioned, but he was interested in greatness as defined by Carlyle. As he wrote, somewhat sorrowfully, to Van Rappard: ‘the days of Balzac and Dickens, the days of Gavarni and Millet, they were hard to find today’ (letter R13). He owned almost all Dickens’s works in French translation, and regarded Zola as a second Balzac, which was a common attitude at the time.12 In this way he linked the present and the past, and he continued to do so all his life. From Arles he advised his sister to read the French naturalists, whom he so admired himself, and indeed at the time he was rereading the works of Balzac (letter W13). In the asylum at Saint-Rémy he reverted to Shakespeare’s histories, and although there is no mention of books in his final letters from Auvers, they were not absent from his life. In his Portrait of Dr Gachet (F 753) he included two novels by the De Goncourts: Manette Salomon, which, as Zilcken recorded, was to be found on the sofa of every artist’s studio in The Hague, and Germinie Lacerteux. In this way he was displaying his admiration for the author brothers in particular and, more generally, for French naturalism as the art of truth. He only regretted that it was so bitter. There was nothing to laugh about in De Goncourt or Zola, and laughter was something Vincent often needed. In that respect his hero was Pangloss from Voltaire’s Candide of 1759 (letter 590). This tutor in ‘metaphysico-theologico-cosmology’ ingeniously demonstrated that all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds. In Vincent’s letters Pangloss was later joined by Tartarin de Tarascon, the half Don Quixote and half Sanch Panza created by Alphonse Daudet (letter 531).
The extent to which Van Gogh embraced the naturalist philosophy clearly emerges from an anecdote related by Paul Gauguin. In Paris Van Gogh sold a still life for five francs, and although he was poverty-stricken he gave the money away to a prostitute who was even worse off, and then fled, his stomach empty, ashamed of his act of charity. Gauguin explained Van Gogh’s behaviour by saying that, as a well-read man, he had been reminded of Edmond de Goncourt’s La Fille Elisa. Although Gauguin very probably made this story up, it does illustrate Van Gogh’s ability to get into the skin of a fictional figure, and it was by no means an isolated example of such behaviour.13
Vincent remained faithful to the naturalism propagated by authors like the De Goncourts, Zola and others, whom he first came across in The Hague around 1882. One important factor in all this, especially when he was living at Nuenen, was his father, who had already criticised his son’s choice of reading. Van Gogh tellingly symbolised their relationship in a sombre still life painted just after his father’s death. The massive, open Bible, which belonged to his father, is contrasted with Zola’s La Joie de vivre, which was the son’s choice. The painting is both a barbed momento mori and a declaration of faith in the modern age.
In Antwerp Van Gogh reread Edmond de Goncourt’s novella Chérie (1884), and particularly approved of the foreword about the fickleness of the public, and about the diary which Edmond kept with his brother Jules, ‘the confession of two lives indivisible in pleasure, toil, trouble’. Vincent also read Zola’s L’Oeuvre as soon as it began appearing in serialised form. He did his best to keep up with the latest developments in French literature, relying on press reviews and news relayed to him by Theo in Paris. When he himself arrived in the French capital he impressed Theo’s friend and future brother-in-law, Andries Bonger, with the breadth of his reading. In 1881 Conrad Busken Huet, a prominent Dutch critic living in Paris, had described Bonger as ‘a clever fellow who reads Lessing, Sainte-Beuve and Shelley’,14 which would certainly indicate that Bonger’s opinion was worth having.
RECOMMENDED READING Vincent’s letters to his sister Wil are the best source for the literary views which he held during his French period. Wil was younger than Vincent, and showed an interest in his work, and he in turn patiently explained what he was striving for in his art. He also acted as her literary adviser, urging her to read the French naturalistic authors. This was distinctly unusual, for Zola was not considered a suitable writer to recommend to ladies. That widespread prudishness is also reflected in a letter from Theo to Carolien van Stockum-Haanebeek, with whom both brothers had been on friendly terms when they lived in The Hague. In 1887 Theo described the view from his Montmartre apartment, and added a reference to Zola: ‘I think it a pity that so many fine things have been written which one can hardly discuss, or at least not with ladies. Zola, Guy de Maupassant and others will undoubtedly go on belonging to the forbidden fruits for a long time to come’ (letter T1a). One author who was considered sufficiently decorous was Pierre Loti, whom Vincent read avidly.
Vincent was not bothered about decorum when he advised his ‘dear sister’ on her reading, and after all it was Wil who had started up the correspondence when she sent him a ‘little piece about plants and rain’. Although Vincent did nothing to encourage her literary aspirations, his letters to her do speak of a lively exchange. On one occasion, for instance, he confessed that he had reread Uncle Tom’s cabin with ‘the closest attention’, for the simple reason that it was a book written by a woman while she was preparing soup for her children (letter W1). One the other hand, he cited Voltaire’s Doctor Pangloss and Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet as figures who appealed to men, and wondered whether women would understand them, evidently believing that their irony and humour would be too rational and objective for the feminine mind.15
Uncle Tom’s cabin is the uppermost of the two books on the table in front of the Arlésienne (fig. 2). The other is an old friend, Dickens’s Christmas carol. The pensive female figure is not painted directly from life, but was borrowed from a drawing of Gauguin’s. Another of Van Gogh’s attempts to distil Gauguin’s spirit is in the painting of a woman reading (fig. 3). Quite apart from the stylistic resemblance, the theme is also similar, and it can safely be assumed that the woman has not picked up Candide or Bouvard et Pécuchet, even if the book is the kind of contemporary French novel with its distinctive yellow jacket which so often appears in Van Gogh’s paintings. The reader is seated in a library like the ‘Lecture Française’ (letter 562).
One project that was never realised was a triptych of a bookshop flanked by paintings of a wheatfield and an olive grove. It was intended to illustrate a traditional metaphor in which the fruits of the spirit were likened to the fruits of nature.16
Vincent was a tireless reader and letter-writer, or as one eye-witness in Nuenen described him, a ‘colossal man of letters’.17 Gauguin later wrote: ‘Daudet, De Goncourt, the Bible, they all fried this Dutch brain’.18 That was certainly true of the period when the two artists were working together in Arles. One of Van Gogh’s main reasons for reading Daudet, apart from the fact that he loved the figure of Tartarin, was that several of the stories are set in the south of France.
LIKES AND DISLIKES Daudet was one of the naturalistic writers whom Van Gogh had enjoyed ever since his days in The Hague, but the author whose name appears most frequently in the letters is Emile Zola. There are approximately 100 mentions, 40 of them without any reference to a specific book. Zola was an author who suited his taste, just as Michelet and, to a lesser extent, Dickens had done in the past. Balzac, the ‘forerunner’ of the naturalists, and of Zola in particular, also occupied an important position in Vincent’s pantheon. In the south of France he conceived the idea of rereading Balzac’s entire oeuvre, and he partially succeeded in carrying out the plan. He must have been quit young when he first read Balzac, although it is not recorded in the correspondence, which only began in 1872. Another of his early favourites seems to have been Victor Hugo, but once again we are somewhat in the dark about what he read, and when. This is also true of other writers, particularly poets, and should warn us against relying on the letters alone when assessing Van Gogh as a reader. Some writers held so little appeal for him that they barely rate a mention. Two cases in point are E.T.A. Hoffman and Edgar Allan Poe, who appear twice and three times only, with a gap of years in between. From The Hague he wrote that he only enjoyed their work ‘at times’, and from a passing reference in one of the Arles letters it can be deduced that he distrusted the excessive fantasy in their work (letters 299, 518).
Given this objection it is hardly surprising that he had little time for their great champion in France, Charles Baudelaire, or for the Symbolist writers who picked up his torch. Vincent was aware of the new decadent and Symbolist movements in literature from newspapers and literary journals, but he had no liking for them. Huysmans, another naturalistic writer, also features in the letters, but there is no mention of A Rebours (1884), the novel in which he struck out in a different direction to that of his teacher Zola, although Van Gogh must have known of it. His views probably coincided closely with those of the extremely moderate critic Ferdinand Brunetière, who wrote for the Revue des Deux Mondes, which Vincent used to read.19
The letters contain only a passing mention of Multatuli (the pseudonym of Eduard Douwes Dekker), the most important modern Dutch author, whose Max Havelaar (1860) was a scathing attack on the Dutch administration of the East Indies, while Conrad Busken Huet does not figure at all.20 Even the innovative contributors to the Dutch periodical, the Nieuwe Gids, are passed over in silence, with the exception of Frederik van Eeden. They must have been discussed among the Dutch community in Paris, and Vincent certainly knew about them, however sketchily.
Van Gogh’s reading may have been patchy on occasion, but that does not detract from the fact that he is one of the few artists whose evolving literary taste can be traced step by step. The breadth of his reading was perhaps not so exceptional, but what was unusual was the passion with which he absorbed literature, making it a very real part of himself, and employing it in the conception of some of his works. He went so far as to include books with legible titles in portraits and still lifes, but there is not one self-portrait with books. However closely literature and art were entwined in his soul, he never confused the two.