Still Life with Bible, 1885

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

  • Oil on Canvas, 65.7 x 78.5 cm
  • Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)
  • F 117


At first glance, this canvas – with its books and extinguished candle – seems to recall 17th-century still lifes. At that time, such objects were considered symbols of mortality and the transcience of knowledge, wealth and other earthly things, which were usually seen in contrast to the eternal nature of the Christian faith. In this work, Van Gogh both elaborates on this tradition and gives it his own, highly personal interpretation.

More information about "Still Life with Bible"

Black

In a letter to Theo, Vincent described this work as ‘still life of an open, hence an off-white Bible, bound in leather, against a black background with a yellow-brown foreground, with an additional note of lemon yellow.’ Van Gogh appears to have wanted to prove to his brother that black could be used to good effect in painting, a question they had discussed at great length in their correspondence.

Theo found the colors mixed with black in his brother’s paintings too dark and somber. He encouraged him to use brighter, lighter tones, like those of the Impressionists. But Vincent justified his practice by reminding Theo that 17th-century masters such as Frans Hals had used a great deal of black in their works. Later, in Paris, he admitted to Theo that he now found his earlier, dark palette old-fashioned, and he adapted his coloration to newer norms.

Symbolism

The objects depicted seem to allude to Van Gogh’s relationship with his father, Revered Theodorus Van Gogh, who died suddenly in March 1885. The Dutch Authorized Bible had belonged to him, and was a symbol of his rather conventional faith and strict way of life. The book is open at Isaiah 53, a passage which proclaims the arrival of the Messiah, but also states that He will remain unrecognized.
Next to the Bible is a copy of La joie de vivre, a novel by the contemporary French author Emile Zola. At this time, Van Gogh was fascinated by the works of Zola and other French naturalists, seeing in them a kind of ‘bible for modern life.’  By contrasting these two books, Van Gogh might have wanted to show his critical stance towards his father.

The extinguished candle, as in 17th-century paintings, may be a symbol of death. In this context it could also represent Van Gogh’s ideas about traditional Christianity and its diminishing influence. The meaning of this painting thus remains somewhat enigmatic.

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