How Vincent van Gogh’s Favorite Works of French Literature Influenced His Art and Identity

From The Literary Hub:

Vincent van Gogh loved writers as much as he loved painters.

It was partly by immersing himself in literature that Van Gogh developed the singular, elegant voice that makes his letters such an important literary achievement. This immersion also helped give him an ability to describe so persuasively his appreciation for the work of other artists and his intentions for his own art, making it unusually possible—­perhaps uniquely so—­for us to see art through the eyes of an artist of his stature.

The trajectory for Van Gogh’s love of reading—­as for so much else in his life—­was set in earliest childhood. Every evening at his parents’ parsonage in the small village of Zundert, situated in the south of the Netherlands, ended the same way: with a book. Far from being a solitary, solipsistic exercise, reading aloud bound the family together and set them apart from the sea of rural illiteracy that surrounded them. His parents read to each other and to their children; the older children read to the younger; and, later in life, the children read to their parents. Reading aloud was used to console the sick and distract the worried, as well as to educate and entertain. Whether in the shade of the garden awning or by the light of an oil lamp, reading was (and would always remain) the comforting voice of family unity. Long after the children had dispersed, they continued to exchange books and book recommendations as if no book was truly read until all had read it.

While the Bible was always considered “the best book,” the parsonage bookcases bowed with edifying classics: German Romantics like Friedrich Schiller; Shakespeare (in Dutch translation); and even a few French works by authors like Molière and Alexandre Dumas. Excluded were books considered excessive or disturbing, like Goethe’s Faust, as well as more modern works, especially by such French writers as Honoré de Balzac and, later, Émile Zola, which Van Gogh’s mother, Anna, dismissed as “products of great minds but impure souls.”

Equally unacceptable in the household were the novels of Victor Hugo. Through the better part of a century of bourgeois consumerism and contentment, Hugo had kept the torch of idealism—­the flame of the Revolution—­alight and aloft. He had battled backsliding governments and resurgent religion, outraging everyone from Louis Napoleon to the Van Gogh family with his celebrations of godlessness and criminality. “Hugo is on the side of criminals,” Vincent’s mother once declared in horror. “What would become of the world if bad things were considered to be good? For the love of God, that can’t be right.”

Early on, Van Gogh’s taste for French literature, especially the most revolutionary novels, became a prime battleground in the intensifying conflict between father and son. When Vincent sent his parents a copy of Hugo’s The Last Day of a Condemned Man, it struck exactly the blow he must have intended. In an astounding about-­face clearly pitched to elicit maximum outrage, he eventually even repudiated the special authority of the Bible. “I too read the Bible occasionally,” he said, “just as I sometimes read Michelet or Balzac or Eliot.”

It was a battle that didn’t end with the death of Dorus van Gogh in 1885—­from a heart attack that Vincent’s sister Anna blamed on her difficult older brother. When his father died, Vincent decided to dedicate a painting to him, and to include in it a group of memento mori, or reminders of death. Looking around his studio he naturally selected, first, a huge Bible that had belonged to his father. Because the church kept the pulpit Bible and his widow kept the family Bible, this magnificent tome, with copper-­reinforced corners and double brass clasps, was the only Bible passed down when Dorus van Gogh died. Clearing an open place in the clutter of his studio, Vincent spread a cloth over a table, set the Bible on it, and unhooked the clasps. He pulled his easel up so close that the open book almost filled his perspective frame.

Still Life with Bible, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub