How soberly clever or quietly ruminative a man Vincent van Gogh may or may not have been is not a subject that has drawn overmuch attention in the past.
Many more words have been spilled over such matters as his suffering (from that ear-lopping to the yearlong incarceration in an asylum) and to his generally wayward behavior (including those destructive months spent with Gauguin in Arles, where he vainly hoped to create a self-sustaining community of idealists), not to mention the astonishing brevity and obsessiveness of his career — how quickly that extraordinary talent of his developed before death snuffed it out.
In short, the majority of these approaches have often been newsworthy variants — sometimes graphic in the extreme — on the hackneyed tale of the tormented genius who burns to death in the raging flames of his own creativity. Of course he does!
Things changed somewhat in 2009, when a multi-volume edition of Vincent van Gogh – The Letters: The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition was published, in print and online. (The online edition is both fuller than its print counterpart, and entirely free to access.)
The lavish and leisurely print edition included reproductions of all the artworks to which he had ever referred in his correspondence, drawing attention to the breadth of his knowledge, the quality of his intellectual curiosity, the nature and variety of his looking, and with what speed and assurance he was able to riff on what he was seeing. There was something else too though: his habits as a reader.
Vincent’s Books: Van Gogh and the Writers Who Inspired Him by Mariella Guzzoni (Thames & Hudson; University of Chicago Press, 2020) tells us in much greater detail about all those books he read, and when and why he did so. It also shows us the paintings in which books are a subject: his own paintings, and those by some of the painters to whom he was indebted.
In his paintings we see books on their own, or books in the company of people or other objects; small, lonely ziggurats of books, or a book beside a candle. That last juxtaposition is telling in the extreme. Vincent had a reverence for books. They were sacred ground. They have a kind of inner glow about them.
Not the copies of the particular books that he owned though. He reverenced books for their intellectual and emotional content. He didn’t collect old books in the way that he collected, say, prints. He was no slow-moving antiquarian. His hands were probably never clean enough to be trusted with the handling of fine editions.
What is more, life moved too fast for that sort of thing. His copies of books could be thumbed and scruffy. Once read, a book might be abandoned on a park bench. What really mattered was everything that those books contained, their lessons in life.
In certain respects, Van Gogh was something of an intellectual. Only in certain respects though. (He had no time for dictionary words or theorizing.) He was no slouch as a linguist, for example. As a reader, he could more than get by in several languages. He read Dickens, Carlyle, Flaubert, Balzac, Maupassant, and Zola in the original. Dickens and Carlyle were never very easy to read, then or now, but this Dutchman did so. He even read English poetry – John Keats, for example.
Dickens was one of his especial favorites. He read and then reread his books, examining not only the words, but the illustrations too, because Dickens’s novels, published as they were in weekly installments, were always dramatically enhanced by pictures, often mawkish cliffhangers. Vincent learned a lot from the different ways in which stories and novels — in fact, texts in general — were illustrated, including useful lessons in the art of portraiture.
So his reading also extended to the illustrated weekly magazines of the time, and what they told him about social justice. Vincent loved those books and magazines for their human stories. Here were stirring and often shocking tales of society and the poor, issues of public and private morality, and indigence (Vincent himself was usually hard up, and he felt for all those others out there in the cold with him). He understood how the curse of poverty registered itself so emphatically on the faces of the poor. His first great ambition in life was to be a preacher, and the bible is among the books he read and read — and painted, too.
To Vincent, books were calls to action, lessons in life. He did not intellectualize over books. He devoured them, compulsively – the stark naturalism of Zola’s fiction about the underbelly of Paris, for example, which shocked him and enthralled him so much that he knew he had to read every book Zola had ever written.
Reading was a dogged, lifelong pursuit of a bare-knuckled authenticity of feeling, a peeling away of all pretense in pursuit of a directness and an honesty that immediately fed into how he saw the world. Stripping away refinement, he dug down to the hard core of everything until he became the supreme painter of the gnarled, tenacious, unlovely root…
Vincent’s Books: Van Gogh and the Writers Who Inspired Him (2020) by Mariella Guzzoni is published in the US by University of Chicago Press; the UK edition will be released by Thames & Hudson on July 2, 2020.