Read Like van Gogh: The Literature Vincent Loved

Sofia R.C. Melendez

If there’s one thing that can make you feel closer to those you admire and look up to…

…it’s learning about the things they enjoy most. Dutch post-Impressionist Vincent Willem van Gogh (1853-1890), in addition to being well-versed in the fine arts and art history, deeply admired reading. Throughout the 820 surviving letters written over 18 years that we have today, many of them include references to various types of literature, including novels and poetry. In his correspondence with friends and family members, the lively conversations about books allow readers to indirectly experience the artist’s lifelong passion for knowledge. In this article, a curated selection of the most prominently discussed authorial figures in van Gogh’s letters will be presented: Victor Hugo (1802-1885), William Shakespeare (1564-1616), as well as Walt Whitman (1819-1892). Their works mentioned in the letters will be listed (make sure to check specific quotes out on @g0ghgetter on Instagram!), as well as how Vincent personally related to them and how it may have affected his own body of work. According to the official online database Van Gogh Letters, Vincent references Victor Hugo in 56 letters, mostly to his brother, Theo (1857-1891) and friend Anthon van Rappard (1858-1892), exhibiting his knowledge of the author’s oeuvre. He speaks of Notre-Dame-de Paris, an 1831 novel colloquially known in English as “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.” It follows a man named Quasimodo who yearns to be accepted within the society around him while living in the cathedral’s bell tower. Van Gogh also references Hugo’s musings on William Shakespeare and other literary giants, which he wrote while in exile in 1864, as well as L’Annee Terrible, a poetry collection chronicling a difficult year in the author’s life. Most importantly, he deeply admired Les Misérables, the tale of convict-turned-Christian Jean Valjean, which is interwoven throughout vignettes of the student-run June Rebellion of 1832, young love (both reciprocated and unrequited), and larger commentary on political happenings in post-revolution Paris. Vincent enjoyed Victor Hugo’s views on spirituality and mortality and how those values were reflected in his complex characters. He may have specifically seen himself in Valjean, who was outcast but found purpose through kindness, faith, and his love of his fellow man. The artist may have even gotten the name for one of his most famous paintings, The Starry Night (1889) from a quote in Les Mis: “At such moments, while he offered his heart at the hour when nocturnal flowers offer their perfume, illuminated like a lamp amid the starry night…” (Book I: Fantine, Volume I, Chapter XIII: “What He Believed”). Another connection that can be made between van Gogh and Hugo is that the author himself was a fine artist in private; his works on paper now reside in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Getty Museum, the Musée d’Orsay, and the Art Institute of Chicago, just to name a few. He mainly worked with ink and brush, stencil, and collage. When researching his creations, one work that stood out was The Hanged Man in the collection of the Met. Made circa 1855-1860, it is made with brush ink and wash on wove paper. During the time of its creation (as well as the writing of Les Mis), Hugo was mid-exile in Guernsey due to his anti-monarchist views and open condemnation of Napoleon III’s reign. This drawing was inspired by his opposition to the cruel existence of the death penalty.
Read Like van Gogh: The Literature Vincent Loved
Carte de visite of Victor Hugo, photographed & Bertall and Cie, 1867. Special Collections, Fine Arts Library, Harvard Art Museum. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Read Like van Gogh: The Literature Vincent Loved
In letter 267 to Anthon van Rappard, Vincent mentions wanting to see Friedric Unzelmann’s wood engraving of a print by Adolph Menzel depicting the playwright. Friedrich Ludwig Unzelmann, Shakespeare (after a copper engraving by Adolph von Menzel, 1850. Wood engraving, Kupferstichkabinett, State Museum of Berlin. Photo courtesy of Artstor.

William Shakespeare

“What I’d very much like to have here to read from time to time would be a Shakespeare.” (Letter 782). Similar to his references of Victor Hugo, Vincent expresses his love of “The Bard” mostly in letters to his brother, Theo. William Shakespeare is mentioned in 16 letters between 1880 to 1889. The majority of the plays discussed concern royalty: Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, King Lear, Hamlet, and Macbeth. The artist became lost in these fictional worlds while homesick, frequently analyzing the themes with great passion, as well as making vague, passing references to their material (exhibiting his familiarity with the playwright’s work - see note 6 in letter 387). Van Gogh often found himself drawn to the secondary Shakespearean characters & their main traits, such as Lady Macbeth’s “fatal” ambition and Falstaff’s drunken “blindness”. In letter 407, written on Monday, November 26th, 1883, Vincent even goes so far as to liken Theo’s then-girlfriend Marie to the former, humorously asking if there is “a little weed of a rather dangerous desire for what I’ll call greatness running through her wheat.” While interred in the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole sanitarium in Saint-Rémy de Provence between May 1889 and May 1890, Vincent would frequently ask Theo and his wife, Jo, to ship copies of Shakespeare to him, so he could make use of his time while not painting. In a letter to the eldest van Gogh relaying life updates, Jo remarks on her own passion for the Bard’s writing: “Isn’t it beautiful – and so few people know it, ‘It’s too difficult,’ people say – but that isn’t true – as for me I understand it much better than Zola. But when I think that it’s almost 300 years since these so beautiful things were written I think that the world hasn’t progressed much in these times.” (Letter 787). The time-defying, universal themes of love, loyalty, power, and caution found within the works of William Shakespeare transfixed her, as well as Vincent and his knowledge-hungry mind. In her letter, Jo also mentions that she saw The Merchant of Venice in London once: the three major West End productions of the late 19th century being Charles Kean’s at the Princess’s Theatre in 1858, the Bancroft’s at the Prince of Wales’ Theatre in 1875, and Henry Irving’s at the Lyceum Theatre in 1879. Although it is not documented whether or not Vincent had the chance to see any Shakespeare work live in the theatre, he was in London from May 1883 to October 1884, as well as January to May 1885. Perhaps he saw some other production that we aren’t aware of! If not, the printed individual works or anthologies he had were a perfectly accessible & suitable alternative.
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Walt Whitman

It’s rather comical that I place the author least mentioned in Vincent’s catalogue of letters amongst two of the most mentioned, however, I have good reason. The great American transcendentalist poet Walt Whitman is only discussed once: in letter 670 from Arles on August 26th, 1888, from the artist to his sister Willemien. Out of all his sisters, he kept up correspondence with her the most; the siblings had many things in common, from humor to struggles to love of literature. Whitman’s poetry reached France around 1880, and Vincent understandably would be drawn to his writing. The themes of nature, spirituality, and transcendent language can be equated to that of the painter’s own body of work. In the letter, Vincent remarks on his love of “The Prayer of Columbus”, a poem who’s lines can be put in juxtaposition with the story of the painter’s own life: “Is it the prophet's thought I speak, or am I raving? / What do I know of life? what of myself? / I know not even my own work past or present, Dim ever-shifting guesses of it spread before me…”. He also mentions how Theo has “Whitman’s American poems”, which is probably how he found out about the poet’s work. There has been a lot of scholarship, past and present, that chronicles the connection between van Gogh’s paintings and Whitman’s poetry. I am convinced that you can find a Walt verse to match a majority of Vincent’s pieces. One very specific example is the comparison between the 1889 masterpiece The Starry Night (another work painted while Vincent was self-admitted in Saint-Rémy) and several pieces from Leaves of Grass and From Noon to Starry Night (it’s in the title right there!). The poems “Song of Myself”, “A Clear Midnight”, and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” (which van Gogh had the opportunity to read both in French and English) include imagery reminiscent of the aforementioned painting. In a letter to friend Émile Bernard (1868-1941), van Gogh refers to Starry Night as “one depicting the poet with a starry sky” (Letter 698). Could the poet he was referring to be “Uncle Walt” himself? If one of the most groundbreaking works in the Western art historical canon was inspired by the work of my favorite poet, then I will certainly not complain.
Read Like van Gogh: The Literature Vincent Loved
George C. Collins, Walt Whitman, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing right, wearing hat, 1887. Photographic print mounted on board, Library of Congress. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Read Like van Gogh: The Literature Vincent Loved

Sofia R.C. Melendez

Sofia R.C. Melendez (she/they) is a queer, Hispanic multi-disciplinary artist, art historian, writer, & performer. For over a year, she has run the online art education page Goghgetter, where they wittily recap and comment on art historical figures, movements, and events. She has (already) dedicated her career to studying the life and work of post-Impressionist Vincent Willem van Gogh & the intersection of art and mental health. They happily reside in their native New York City, where they are actively working in museums as well as on their two-part bachelor’s thesis.
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