…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.