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Vincent van Gogh’s Favorite Literature

by VanGoghology

Vincent van Gogh's Favorite Literature


incent van Gogh had a deep appreciation for literature and often found inspiration in the books he read. Some of his favorite books included works by authors such as Charles Dickens, Emile Zola, and Leo Tolstoy. Van Gogh was particularly drawn to novels that explored themes of human suffering, resilience, and the beauty of everyday life. These books not only provided him with entertainment but also influenced his artistic vision and the subjects he chose to paint.

It is clear that literature was very important to Van Gogh since he frequently mentioned the books he was reading in his letters to Theo, and also to his friends. The ability of writers to put into words the fundamentals of human feeling was something he greatly admired. No matter where he was, Van Gogh made sure to take a book with him since he thought reading was crucial to his intellectual and psychological development.

Works like “Starry Night” and “The Bedroom” demonstrate the literary influence on van Gogh’s art. The intricacy and profundity of feeling that he discovered in his beloved literature are reflected in these creations. The books that meant the most to Van Gogh were not only comforters in times of trouble, but also sources of ideas that ignited his fire for art.

In 1873, during his time spent living in London, Vincent became acquainted by works of the poets. 

The last few days I’ve enjoyed reading the poems of John Keats; he’s a poet who isn’t very well known in Holland, I believe. He’s the favorite of the painters here, and that’s how I came to be reading him. Herewith something by him. His most famous piece is ‘St Agnes’ eve’, but it’s rather too long to copy out.

Vincent often quoted poets in his letters: “Like the ivy on the walls, so the pen must cover the paper“. This quote is from ‘The Ivy Green‘ by Charles Dickens. Dickens of course being another favorite of Vincent’s. 

In a letter to Theo, Vincent asked his brother if he had read ‘Les temps difficiles’, stating that he is giving him the title in French because there’s a very good French translation, Bibliothèque des meilleurs romans étranger.  It’s masterly, he writes, one of the characters is a worker, Stephen Blackpool, who’s well portrayed and extremely likeable.

Stephen Blackpool is a character in Dickens book ‘Hard Times’. He is a paragon of integrity, embodying the highest standards of moral character. He refuses to join the workers union and, as a consequence, is ostracized. Even in the face of adversity and being wrongly accused of stealing, Stephen never wavers from his principles of candor, faith, and honesty. His refusal to spy on his colleagues leads to his firing, but he later returns to clear his name, ultimately falling into a mine shaft and dying. It’s easy to understand why Vincent liked this character.

French Novels min

I’ve finished the book by Zola, Pot-bouille. I thought the most powerful passage was the kitchen maid Adele (scruffy Breton) giving birth in the dark attic room. Josserand is also portrayed with devilish skill and with sentiment. The rest of the characters too, but these two sombre ones, Josserand writing his addresses at night, and that tiny maid’s room, made the most impression on me.

A select few:

  • Émile Zola, (several).
  • Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin
  • Victor Hugo, Les misérables
  • Honoré de Balzac, Le Père Goriot
  • Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, and (several)
  • Shakespeare (several)
  • Edmond de Goncourt, Chéri
  • Jules Michelet, L’amour
  • Hans Christian Andersen, What the Moon Saw
  • George Eliot, Scenes of Clerical Life
  • Charlotte Brontë, Shirley, A tale.
  • Pierre Loti, Madame Chrysanthème 
  • Voltaire, Candide
  • Arsène Alexandre, Honoré Daumier: l’homme et l’oeuvre
  • Thomas Carlyle, on heroes, hero-worship and the heroic in history. and (several)
  • Alfred Sensier, La vie et l’oeuvre de J.F. Millet – A biographical work about one of Vincent’s favorite artists, Jean-François Millet (1814-1875).
  • The Bible

Vincent became obsessed with the Bible, especially during his years in England, the Borinage, and Dordrecht. 

Still Life with Three Books min

Now I’m going to read a little more of Les misérables, although it’s already late. A book like that warms one up, just like paintings by Dupré and old Millets — or several Decamps’ — it’s written with what’s called verve.

The Genius of Van Gogh

Aside from being a complete bookworm. Van Gogh’s intellect was truly remarkable, as he possessed a keen and perceptive mind that allowed him to delve deep into various subjects. His intelligence was evident not only in his artistic endeavors but also in his extensive knowledge of literature, philosophy, and science. The ability to grasp complex concepts with an insatiable curiosity enabled him to create thought-provoking and emotionally charged artworks.

In 1877, he started studying Latin and Greek, while in addition to being fluent in Dutch and French, he also spoke English and German. His knowledge of French was particularly important, as it allowed him to immerse himself in the vibrant art scene of Paris; By speaking multiple languages, van Gogh was able to connect with fellow artists, patrons, art critics, and friends from diverse backgrounds, enriching his artistic practice and expanding his creative horizons.

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