The Old Oak by Jules Dupre, admired by van Gogh

A Summer Reading List à la Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh lived in this house in Cuesmes
The house in Cuesmes, in the Borinage, which van Gogh called home during the time he decided he wanted to become an artist. Image courtesy WikiMedia.


Irving Stone curated and edited down the copious letters that Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, turning the most meaningful ones into a volume titled Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent van Gogh. In these outpourings to his sibling, he speaks of books he is reading and art he is studying, even while he is being primed for the ministry in order to follow in his father’s footsteps. In a letter from Amsterdam in May of 1877, he tells his brother that whenever possible he invented some errand to go to the bookshops. He was the quintessential perpetual student, a characteristic I intrinsically understand, which is why his reading list was so fascinating to me.

He declares in a letter from Borinage, the coal-mining region of Belgium in December 1878, “I have more or less irresistible passion for books, and I want continually to instruct myself, just as much as I want to eat my bread.” It’s this depth of ardor that influenced me to include him in my poem “Now Hiring Night Cooks” several years ago.


Details of Ary Scheffer Return of the Prodigal son.
A detail of Ary Scheffer’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” 1857. Image courtesy The Wallace Collection.


And one of the most fascinating aspects of his vision is that he continuously sees literature in art and vice versa: “There is something of Rembrandt in Shakespeare, and of Correggio in Michelet, and of Delacroix in Victor Hugo, and then there is something of Rembrandt in the Gospel, or in the Gospel something of Rembrandt, as you like it. And in Bunyan there is something of Millet, and in Harriet Beecher Stowe there is something of Ary Scheffer.”

When I realized I had filled an entire page of my writer’s notebook with the titles of books he referenced, which I would put on my summer reading list, I thought a post featuring his choices would give my readers the opportunity to create their own from the titles he mentions. This list only scratches the surface, though, so if you want to experience the full scope of his curiosity, I suggest you read Dear Theo. And if you decide to read any of the ones he devoured, please let me know which ones you chose, okay?


A Summer Reading List
à la Vincent van Gogh


While Living in London:

Vincent van Gogh drew this house on Hackford Road
Van Gogh’s drawing of 87 Hackford Road where he lived in London, a period during which he read broadly and contentedly.


I am reading a great deal now. I am glad you have read Michelet and that you understand him so well. Such a book teaches us that there is more in love than people generally suppose. L’Amour has been a revelation to me…”No woman is old.” That does not mean that there are no old women, but that a woman is not old as long as she loves and is loved. From the money I gave you, you must buy Alphonse Karr’s Journey Round My Garden. Be sure to do that. Autumn is coming fast, and that makes nature more serious and more intimate still.


Journey Round My Garden was on Vincent Van Gogh's reading list
Chapter Illustration from Journey Round My Garden by Alphonse Karr.


In a little book containing poetry I sent you, I copied “Meerestille” by Heine. Some time ago I saw a picture by Thys Maris that reminded me of it: an old Dutch town with rows of brownish red houses with stepped gables and high stoops, grey roofs, and white or yellow doors, window frames, and cornices; canals with ships and a large white drawbridge under which a barge passes with a man at the rudder. And there is life everywhere. A porter with his wheelbarrow, a man who is leaning against the railing of the bridge and looking into the water, a woman in black with a white bonnet.

I send you a little drawing. I made it last Sunday, the morning when the little daughter of my landlady died. It is a view on Stratham Common, a large grassy plain with oak tress and gorse. As you see, it is sketched on the title-page of the ‘Poems’ by Edmond Roche. There are some very fine ones among them, grave and sad. I copy them for you. [Roche is known for being chosen by Richard Wagner to translate Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and the Flying Dutchman into French.]


The cover of George Eliot's "Silas Marner," on Vincent van Gogh's reading list.
The cover of George Eliot’s “Silas Marner,” on Vincent van Gogh’s reading list.


George Eliot describes in one of her novels the life of factory workers who formed a small community and held their services in a chapel in Lantern Yard. There is something touching in seeing these thousands of people crowding to hear these evangelists. [He’s speaking of Eliot’s novel Silas Marner.]



While living in Amsterdam:

I am very busy making a summary of the history of the Reformation; the history of those days is quite stimulating and attractive. I think if one reads attentively a few books such as those of Motley, of Dickens, of Gruson, and on the Crusades, one gets involuntarily a good and simple view of history in general.


Rembrandt's Flight to Egypt in the Night admired by van Gogh
Rembrandt van Rijn’s etching ‘The flight to Egypt in the Night,’ circa 1651; image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Felix M. Warburg and his family, 1941.


I am copying the whole of the ‘Imitation of Jesus Christ’ from a French edition which I borrowed from Uncle Cor…The book is sublime, and he who wrote it must have been a man after God’s own heart; a few days ago I got an irresistible longing for it, perhaps because I look so often at that lithograph after Ruyperez…How would a man like Father, who so often goes long distances even in the night with a lantern, to visit a sick or dying man, to speak with him about one whose word is a light even in the night of suffering and agony—how would he feel about the etchings by Rembrandt; for instance, ‘The flight to Egypt in the Night’?


“Marie-Antoinette before the Tribunal,” 1851
“Marie-Antoinette before the Tribunal,” 1851, Oil on canvas, © The Forbes Collection, New York.


The many pictures about the days of the French Revolution, ‘The Girondins,’ and ‘Last Victims of the Terror,’ and ‘Marie Antoinette’ by Delaroche, what a beautiful unity they form, together with books such as those by Michelet, Carlyle, and also Dickens’s ‘Tale of Two Cities.’ In all of these there is something of the Spirit of the Resurrection and the Life—that lives though it seems dead, for it is not dead but it sleepeth.


The Girondins by Delaroche, admired by van Gogh but not on his reading list
The Girondins by Delaroche; image courtesy the Musée Carnavalet in Paris.


Twilight is falling, ‘blessed twilight,’ Dickens called it and indeed he is right…Look at Thomas á Kempis, who wrote his little book with a simplicity and a sincerity unequalled by another writer, or in another sphere look at the work of Millet or Jules Duprés’s ‘The Large Oaks’—that is the thing.


The Old Oak by Jules Dupre, admired by van Gogh
Jules Dupré’s “The Old Oak,” 1870; image courtesy WikiMedia and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.


I often read ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ these days—there is so much slavery still in the world—and in that remarkably wonderful book the artist has put things in a new light, and that important question is treated with so much wisdom and such zeal and interest for the true welfare of the poor oppressed…

I knew well who Rembrandt was, and Millet, and Jules Dupré, and Delacroix, and Millais, and M. Maris. Well—now I do not have those surroundings any more, yet that thing that is called soul, they say it never dies, but lives always, and goes on searching always and always and forever. So instead of giving way to this homesickness I said to myself: That land, or the fatherland, is everywhere. So instead of yielding to despair, I chose the part of active melancholy. I preferred the melancholy that hopes and aspires and seeks to that which despairs in stagnation and woe. So I studied more or less seriously the books within my reach, such as the Bible, and the ‘French Revolution’ by Michelet, and last winter, Shakespeare and Victor Hugo and Dickens, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and lately Aeschylus; and then several others, less classical, several great ‘little masters.’


Young Man in a Fur Cap, admired by van Gogh
“Young Man in a Fur Cap,” a 1654 self-portrait by Carel Fabritius; image courtesy WikiMedia.


I am fond of the portrait of a man by Fabritius, which one day we stood looking at a long while in the museum of Haarlem. Yes, but I am as fond of Sydney Carton, in the ‘Tale of Two Cities’ by Dickens. [The below video of the books contained within this museum made me cry!]



My God, how beautiful Shakespeare is! Who is mysterious like him? His language and style can indeed be compared to an artist’s brush, quivering with fever and emotion. But one must learn to read, as well as one must learn to see and learn to live.


Bargue drawing lessons were studied seriously by van Gogh
A study from Bargue’s drawing lessons, which Vincent van Gogh took so seriously.


I work regularly on the ‘Cours de Dessin,’ Bargue, and intend to finish it before I undertake anything else, for day by day it makes my hand as well as my mind more supple and strong. Those studies are excellent. Between times I am reading a book on anatomy, and another on perspective, which Mr. Tersteeg has also sent me. The study is very dry, and at times those books are terribly irritating, but still I think I do well to study them. [Cours de Dessin is a book of drawing exercises by Charles Bargue]

I wish all people had what I begin to acquire gradually: the power to read a book without difficulty in a short time, and to keep a strong impression of it. It is with the reading of books the same as with looking at pictures; one must, without doubt, without hesitation, with assurance, admire what is beautiful.

The Modern Salonnière and this entry, A Summer Reading List à la Vincent van Gogh, © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and SEO strategist. Her books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.


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