“So often,” Van Gogh wrote, “a visit to a bookshop has cheered me and reminded me that there are good things in the world.” This statement only further endeared one of my favorite painters to me. When we think of Van Gogh, avid reader doesn’t necessarily come to mind. And, yet, reading was as much a part of his creative and spiritual life as painting. In one of his letters, he wrote, “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.” From the time he was a child, Vincent bought and borrowed books, as well as loved getting them as presents. His choice of reading, novels, however disturbed his pious father, who objected to his son’s love of literature.
At one point, to please his religious father, Van Gogh got rid of his novels and focused solely on reading the Bible and religious works, but found himself drawn back to fiction through works like John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Self-discovery, for all of us, is done through a variety of medium and experiences. Van Gogh plumbed the depths of himself through his art. His art reflects who he is, what he found important and how he saw beauty and poetry in the daily world around him, such as workers in a field. Just as in his painting, Van Gogh used literature to discover himself and let them shape and reflect him. When he was a seminary student, he read lots of religious and theological works; one of his favorites being Thomas à Kempis’s Imitatio Christi. During his time in Paris, he devoured French novels by the likes of Emile Zola.
Like his art, Van Gogh preferred novels that dealt with the common, working man and with every day live. His favorite authors were Charles Dickens, George Eliot (especially Adam Bede), Charlotte Brontë, Shakespeare, Emile Zola (mentioned 100 mentions of him in Van Gogh’s letters. 40 of those to a particular book) and Victor Hugo. “I am reading Les Misérables by Victor Hugo,” he wrote to his brother Theo, “It is good to read such a book again, for the very reason of keeping some sentiments and ideas alive, especially that love for humanity, and the faith in, and consciousness of, something higher.”
Van Gogh could devour voluminous books in a matter of days, as he did with Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley. Spending hours lost in a book was more than just a mere past time but shaped how he saw the world. In writing about reading Les Misérables, Van Gogh said, ” I was absorbed in the book for a few hours this afternoon, and then came into the studio about the time the sun was setting. From the window I looked down on a wide dark foreground . . . Behind it a gray silhouette of the city, with the round roof of the station, and spires, and chimneys; and right above it, almost at the horizon, the red sun. It was exactly like a page of Hugo.” Reading this novel impacted how Van Gogh saw the very world around him, which is exactly what great literature is meant to do. Like Van Gogh’s paintings, novels can focus our attention and cause us to take notice of things we might ordinarily overlook.
“It is with the reading of books the same as with looking at pictures; one must, without doubt, without hesitations, with assurance, admire what is beautiful.”
Throughout his letters to his brother Theo, Vincent is constantly suggesting books his older brother should read, such as Pierre Loti’s Pêcheur d’Islande. Theo often took his brother’s advice and were soon exchanging books. He also did this with his younger sister Wilhelmina, writing to her about the American poet, Walt Whitman:
“Have you read the American poems by Whitman? [his italics] I am sure Theo has them, and I strongly advise you to read them, because to begin with they are really fine, and the English speak about them a good deal. He sees in the future, and even in the present, a world of healthy, carnal love, strong and frank— of friendship— of work— under the great starlit vault of heaven a something which after all one can only call God— and eternity in its place above this world. At first it makes you smile, it is all so candid and pure; but it sets you thinking for the same reason. The “Prayer of Columbus” is very beautiful.”
In fact, it was a part of Whitman’s Song of Myself inspired Van Gogh’s painting of Starry Night.
“Poetry surrounds us everywhere,” Van Gogh wrote, “but putting it on paper is, alas, not so easy as looking at it.”
Van Gogh read and reread his favorite works, such as novels by Honoré de Balzac and Charles Dickens. With the latter, he wrote, “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.”
Literature often shows up in his paintings. In his Portrait of Dr. Gachet, Van Gogh even painted two novels by the De Goncourts: Manette Salomon (a novel said to be found on the sofa of every artist’s studio in The Hague) and Germinie Lacerteux.
Like any bibliophile, Van Gogh collected so many books that he lamented, “I am gradually rearranging all my books. I have read too much not to carry or systemically trying to get at least an idea about modern literature . . .” He had so many books that he could not recall which ones he had and hadn’t read. There’s a Japanese word for this: tsundoku (the acquiring of reading materials in one’s home without reading them).
Writers the painter did not care for: E.T.A. Hoffmann, Edgar Allen Poe and the poet Charles Baudelaire. It’s not surprising, since, for the most part, he preferred naturalist writers.
To read his letters, one discovers Van Gogh’s passion for literature, something that absorbed him and he absorbed in his own work, including books (including many with legible titles) in his paintings, portraits and still life. Books, like art, were a part of who he was and shaped not only how he saw the world, but how he painted it.