Van Gogh's Literary Sources
'I am a man of passions ... To mention just one by way of example, I have a more or less irresistible passion for books and the constant desire to improve myself, to study, if you like, just as I have a need to eat bread. You will understand that.'
Vincent van Gogh to Theo, Cuesmes, Borinage (Belgium), circa 22-24 June 1880, letter 154/133 .
Vincent van Gogh was a passionate reader, and his letters to his brother Theo and fellow artists Anthon van Rappard and Emile Bernard are full of references to books. Literature was one of the principal sources of Van Gogh's intellectual and artistic development. He learned about life in the books he read, sought explanations or confirmation for the choices he made and sometimes even found solace. He also used books as study material, and as a source of inspiration for his own work.
In order to fully understand Van Gogh's work it is important to research the literary sources that inspired him. The Van Gogh Museum has studied Vincent van Gogh's correspondence for many years. His letters contain over 800 references to literary works by more than 150 authors. A bibliography compiled from these references has been used to reconstruct Vincent's book collection. The books and journals he mentions in his correspondence can be consulted in the Van Gogh Museum library. The following are a selection from these sources.
Jules Michelet, L'amour, Paris 1858
"Not I, but Father Michelet says to all young men like you and me:
"Il faut qu'une femme souffle sur toi pour que tu sois homme. Elle a soufflé sur moi mon chèr! Comment-ça? Puisque par trois fois elle m'a répondu 'jamais'. Voilà, mon cher, une de leurs manières de souffler sur un monstre et voilà le monstre qui se transforme en homme! Pour l'amour d'elle! Elle et non point une autre! As-tu compris, mon cher"
Vincent van Gogh to Theo, Etten 8 or 9 November 1881, letter 179/155.
Van Gogh loved to read books with which he could identify, Jules Michelet was one of his favourite authors. There are frequent references in his letters to 'Father Michelet', as Vincent called him, especially in connection with affairs of the heart. In 1881, for example, Vincent fell passionately in love with his cousin Kee Vos. She wanted nothing to do with him, however, and rejected his hand. But the young artist persisted in his love and endeavoured to press his suit with carefully chosen passages from Michelet's L'Amour.
The Graphic, 12 February 1876, illustration W.B. Murray, Market gardening - a winter's journey to Covent Garden
"A collection of sheets like these becomes in my opinion a kind of Bible to an artist, in which he reads from time to time to get in a devotional mood.'
Vincent van Gogh to Anton van Rappard, The Hague c. 10 February 1883, letter 313/R25.
As a young artist Van Gogh became fascinated by illustrations in British and French journals, which provided him with both study material and a source of inspiration. The Van Gogh Museum manages a collection of over 1,500 prints assembled by Vincent and Theo. The majority of these come from The Graphic, The Illustrated London News, Punch and L'Illustration. Vincent particularly liked British illustrations, mainly on account of their social realism.
In October 1883 Van Gogh travelled through Drenthe by barge. On 3 October he sent Theo a pictorial account of his journey, inspired by illustrated reportages in The Graphic. The sketches in his letter reflect Vincent's ambition to become an illustrator.
Sketch in letter 395/330 to Theo,
Drenthe ca. 3 oktober 1883
In October 1883 Van Gogh travelled through Drenthe by barge. On 3 October he sent Theo a pictorial account of his journey, inspired by illustrated reportages in The Graphic.
The Dutch Authorised Bible
This Bible, originally owned by Vincent's father, the Reverend Theodorus van Gogh, is a nineteenth-century reprint of the States Bible, or Dutch Authorised Bible, published in 1714 by Jacob and Pieter Keur.
In 1885 Van Gogh depicted this volume in his Still life with Bible. A crack in the spine still causes the book to fall open at Isaiah 53, precisely the page at which the Bible lies open in the painting. During the 1980s Vincent's father's Bible was found at the Remonstrant Congregation in Leiden. Its provenance was established by the handwritten note at the front: 'Ths. van Gogh latterly minister at Nuenen 1885'.
Emile Zola, La joie de vivre, Paris 1884
"If, on the other hand, one wants the truth, life as it is, for example, De Goncourt in Germinie Lacerteux, La Fille Elisa, Zola in La joie de vivre and l'Assommoir, and so many other masterpieces, all portraying life as we ourselves feel it, thus satisfying the need that we have, that one tells us the truth.'
Vincent van Gogh to his sister Wil, end of October 1887, letter 576/W1.
Vincent also depicted a cheap unbound edition of Emile Zola's La joie de vivre in his Still life with Bible. This novel is less lighthearted than the title might suggest, as it describes the life of a bigoted, middle-class family who cheat an orphaned cousin out of her inheritance. In the painting, the naturalist novel represents modern literature, juxtaposed with the text of the Bible that Van Gogh considered outdated.
Edmond de Goncourt, Chérie, Paris 1884
"Have you already read that preface to Chérie by De Goncourt? The amount of work those fellows have achieved is enormous when one thinks of it. It is such a splendid idea, that working and thinking together. And every day I find proof of the proposition that the main reason for much misery amongst artists lies in their discord, in their lack of cooperation, in their being not good, but false, to each other. And if we were more sensible in that respect, I do not doubt for an instant that within a year's time we should make headway, and be happier.'
Vincent van Gogh to Theo, Antwerp, 14 February 1886, letter 564/453.
Edmond de Goncourt's novel Chérie, in which the artist has signed his name on the title page in red pencil, was of singular importance to Van Gogh. Particularly the foreword in which Edmond de Goncourt describes his close relationship with his brother Jules. Van Gogh's letters show that he was struck by the parallels between the De Goncourt brothers' relationship and his own relationship with his brother Theo. He regarded this as a fine model on which to base future collaboration with Theo. At the time Van Gogh wrote the letter quoted above, he was making plans to go to Paris and live with Theo, who was working there for Goupil art dealers. In March 1886 he put his plan into action and left for Paris.
Title page of Paris Illustré "Le Japon' vol. 4, May 1886, no. 45-46
This issue of the French magazine Paris Illustré is devoted entirely to Japan. The text by Tadamasa Hayashi, a Japanese author who lived in Paris, describes the history of Japan, its climate, customs, education, religion, visual arts and the character of its people. Van Gogh had become acquainted with Japanese prints in Antwerp. This cover illustration provided him with inspiration for his painting of The Courtesan. The illustration, after a print by Kesai Eisen, is a mirror image of the original woodcut.
Alphonse Daudet, Tartarin de Tarascon, Paris 1887
"For the moment I am still lying low and keeping very quiet, for first I must recover from a stomach disorder that has befallen me, but after that I shall have to make a lot of noise, as I want to share the glory of the immortal Tartarin de Tarascon.'
Vincent van Gogh to artist Emile Bernard, Arles c. 19 April 1888, letter 601/B4.
When Van Gogh moved to Arles in southern France in February 1888, his taste shifted to lighter reading. He particularly enjoyed the work of Alphonse Daudet who came from the region. Among the books he read was Tartarin de Tarascon, Daudet's satire on the southern French mentality. This humorous work cheered Van Gogh and gave him renewed strength.
Pierre Loti (pseudonym of Louis Marie Julien Viaud), Madame Chrysanthème, Paris 1888
In Arles Van Gogh read Pierre Loti's Madame Chrysanthème, a novel about Japanese customs and traditions. He probably knew the illustrated edition, with prints after drawings and watercolours by Rossi and Myrbach. The title page, showing a young Japanese woman, may have inspired Vincent to paint his portrait of a young Provencal woman entitled La Mousmé (National Gallery of Art, Washington). A mousmé is a girl or young woman. Van Gogh may also have drawn inspiration from Loti's book, which features several Japanese priests or bonze, for his own depiction of himself in his Self Portrait as a bonze (Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, MA).
Van Gogh's literary sources are available for consultation in the museum library, with the exception of the Rev. Th. van Gogh's Dutch Authorised Bible and Vincent's own copy of Chérie.
Search for literary sources by keyword 'Literature (read by Van Gogh)'
Leo Jansen, "Literatuur als leidraad: Vincent van Gogh als lezer", Literatuur. Magazine over Nederlandse letterkunde vol. 20 (2003) no. 1, pp. 20-26.
Hans Luijten, "Scharrelen in de houtsneden - Vincent van Gogh en de prentkunst", De keuze van Vincent. Van Goghs Musée imaginaire, Amsterdam 2003, pp. 99-112.
Fieke Pabst and Evert van Uitert, "A literary life, with a list of books and periodicals read by Van Gogh", The Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam 1987, pp. 68-84.
Judy Sund, True to temperament: Van Gogh and French naturalist literature, Cambridge 1992.
Louis van Tilborgh, "A kind of Bible': the collection of prints and illustrations", The Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam 1987, pp. 38-44.
Wouter van der Veen, "Een bevlogen lezer - Van Gogh en de literatuur", De keuze van Vincent. Van Goghs Musée imaginaire, Amsterdam 2003, pp. 49-60.
Wouter van der Veen, "From Michelet to Gauguin: Van Gogh's literary mind", Van Gogh Museum Journal 2003, pp. 88-97.