"So often, a visit to a bookshop has cheered me and reminded me that there are good things in the world" - Vincent Van Gogh
Vincent Van Gogh’s outlook and art was strongly influenced by English art and literature. In September 1882 he wrote "I am organizing my whole life so as to do the things of everyday life that Dickens describes."
For our 2018 exhibition, Van Gogh & Britain, our book buyer selected some of the books Van Gogh read and was most influenced by during his time in London. We are fortunate enough to know not only what Van Gogh read, but also what he thought about these books, from the frequent letters he wrote to his brother Theo.
Charlotte Bronte£7.99 £7.43
Vincent Van Gogh came across Charlotte Bronte's Shirley at his uncle Vincent's house in June 1881. He wrote to his brother Theo about it: "I do not know if you ever read English books; if you do, I can strongly recommend that you read Shirley by Currer Bell, author of another book called Jane Eyre. It is as beautiful as pictures by Millas, of Broughton or Herkomer. I found it at Prisenhage and finished it in three days."
George Eliot£12.99 £12.08
Van Gogh first read Middlemarch in February 1883. It is likely this was inspired by reading reviews of the novel in issues of the Graphic of 1871-72 which he had just acquired. He wrote: "I am reading Eliot's Middlemarch. Eliot analyses like Balzac or Zola - but English situations, with an English sentiment."
George Eliot£10.99 £10.22
Felix Holt was probably Vincent's favourite book. It inspired one of his paintings in his "Yellow House"; Vincent's Bedroom in Arles. He explained to his sister Wil that he intended to make the painting capture a simplicity unencumbered by "the refinements of the rich". "I wanted to achieve an effect of simplicity of the sort one finds described in Felix Holt. After being told this you may quickly understand this picture, but it will probably remain ridiculous in the eyes of others who have not been warned." Vincent also wrote in March 1884: "The other day I re-read Felix Holt, the Radical by Eliot. There are certain conceptions of life in it that I think are excellent - deep things, said in a guilelessly humorous way; the book is written with great vigour, and various scenes are described in the way Frank Holl or someone like him would draw them. There aren't many writers who are as thoroughly sincere and good as Eliot." In April 1884 he wrote again about the Felix Holt character; "There is something broad and rough in him which appeals to me very much - something of the roughness of torchon. A man who apparently does not seek culture in outward things, but who is inwardly much, very much further than most."
George Eliot£9.99 £9.29
Vincent wrote to Theo on the 19th of February 1876; "I have just read a very fine book by Eliot, Scenes of Clerical Life; three tales especially the last one, Janet's Repentance, struck me very much. It is the story of a clergyman who lived chiefly among the inhabitants of the squalid streets of a town... For dinner he had nothing but underdone mutton and watery potatoes. He died at the age of thirty-four. During his long illness he was nursed by a woman who had been a drunkard, but by his teaching, and leaning as it were on him, [she] conquered her weakness and found rest for her soul."
George Eliot£5.99 £5.57
In the mid 1870's, Van Gogh was zealously reading the Bible, attending an English church in Paris, and seriously thinking about becoming a evangelist or missionary himself. A few months later, in London, he applied for a post working among the labouring poor, who he regarded as "more beautiful than the autumn and the churches." He found echoes of his own evangelism in Silas Marner: "There is such a longing for religion among the people in large cities... In one of her novels Eliot describes the life of factory workers who have formed a small community and hold their services in a chapel in Lantern Yard; she calls it the "kingdom of God on earth" - no more no less."
Charles Dickens£6.99 £6.50
In August 1879, Vincent visited his parents in Etten. His mother reported, "He reads Dickens all day and only speaks when spoken to." In the same month Vincent wrote: "Have you rever read Dicken's Les Temps Difficiles? I give you the title in French because there is a very good French translation at 1.25 Francs published by Hachette. It is excellent; in it the character of Stephen Blackpool, a working man, is most striking and sympathetic."
Charles Dickens£8.99 £8.36
Vincent noted in his letters that he read Edwin Drood while in hospital in June 1882.
Thomas Carlyle£12.99 £12.08
Another English author Vincent admired was Thomas Carlyle. In a book of poetry Vincent prepared for his brother Theo at the beginning of 1975, Vincent copied out extracts from Past and Present, Sartor Resartus, and On Heroes, Hero-worship and the Heroic in History.
Emile Zola£10.99 £10.22
We are not certain if Van Gogh read this one, although it is very likely, but that is one of his paintings on the cover so we thought we'd add it on to this list. Zola is always worth reading anyway, so why not.
The book of the exhibition that inspired this list. This lavishly illustrated publication illustrates fifty van Gogh paintings, and traces the story from the artist's obscure years in England in the 1870s through his growing influence and reputation to iconic status in the 1950s.