- The Literary Code of Vincent van Gogh
University of Chicago Press
https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/V/bo51205258.html224 Pages; Print, $25.00
Vincent van Gogh’s reading practice is as legendary as his paintings. While he devoted his days to his canvases, at night he would “light the lamp and go on reading.” In his letters (of which we have over 800), he devoted many passages to discussing literature from Shakespeare to popular periodicals and modern novels. Reading Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Émile Zola as well as French historical studies by Jules Michelet, cultural criticism by Thomas Carlyle, and studying printed illustrations by Frédéric Montenard, Hubert von Herkomer, and George Cruikshank laid the thematic and stylistic foundation for his art. Van Gogh, for example, noted that he sympathized with Madame François and Florent, two working-class characters who attempt to navigate bourgeois Paris in Zola’s Le Ventre de Paris (1873). Prints that depicted those who lived on the economic or geographic margins likewise captured his attention. In a letter to the artist Anthon van Rappard, Van Gogh shared one of his important artistic influences: The Graphic, a British illustrated publication from which he saved prints to “form a kind of Bible for an artist, in which he reads now and again to get into a mood.” Among the many prints he mentioned, Van Gogh compared George John Pinwell’s The Sisters “to the full song of the nightingale on a spring night” and regularly touted the quality and the impact of the prints he came across. Both the novels he read and the prints he cherished conveyed the dignity of a humble life amid inescapable societal difficulties, a central theme he explored in the imagery of his short, ten-year painting career.
Despite the fluency between the written word and painting, we seldom recognize the literary imprint that permeates Van Gogh’s oeuvre. Even art historians pay relatively scant attention to the fundamentally interdisciplinary nature of his artistic approach. Cursory references to Van Gogh’s reading habits abound in biographical accounts and exhibition catalogs, and just two scholarly explorations come to mind: Judy Sund’s 1992 True to Temperament: Van Gogh and French Naturalist Literature and Wouter van der Veen’s 2009 Vincent van Gogh: A Literary Mind. Given that Van Gogh mentioned over two-hundred authors in his letters and read in Dutch, English, French, and German, surely there is more to explore. Mariella Guzzoni’s Vincent’s Books: Van Gogh and the Writers Who Inspired Him offers newfound connections between Van Gogh’s paintings and his insatiable literary curiosity that will be of interest to Van Gogh enthusiasts and bibliophiles. Finding a worthwhile approach to Van Gogh’s large body of work — over 800 paintings and 1000 works on paper — requires a method as innovative as the paintings themselves. Guzzoni uses the extensive collection of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam as well as her own collection of the editions Van Gogh read and discussed in his letters. She leads readers chronologically through Van Gogh’s works without becoming entangled in the myriad facts of the painter’s biography, a temptation few authors navigate well. Instead, she explores specific references and stops to rest on telling exchanges between text and art that the book’s engaging layout complements. Vincent’s Books is a beautiful publication that pays homage to the art of the book. It is carefully structured, poignantly designed, and includes full-color matte reproductions of journal pages and book covers. Reproductions of the editions Van Gogh read appear throughout and Guzzoni also includes pictures of the books open to the passages she discusses so you can view the print in its original publication. These pictures appear alongside Van Gogh’s paintings, drawings, or letters and are often accompanied by germane quotations. Readers can pause on passages dedicated to reflecting on the interplay between text and image, an experience akin to spending time with a rare edition in an archive...