Vincent’s bookshelf

“…to name one passion among others, I have a more or less irresistable passion for books, and I have a need continually to educate myself, to study if you like, precisely as I need to eat my bread.”

Vincent van Gogh, letter to Theo van Gogh, 22-24, 1880

“Blossoming Almond Branch in a Glass with a Book”, by Vincent van Gogh, Arles, 1888, (image courtesy

While visiting the National Gallery of Canada’s gorgeous exhibit Van Gogh: Up CloseI was intrigued to discover that Vincent van Gogh was an avid letter writer, reader and book lover, praising authors who could “paint with words.” Now I’ve got the bug. I am all about Van Gogh, his books, and his gentle still life works influenced by Japanese prints. So different from his more dramatic and angry irises and sunflowers.

I’ve assembled five of his paintings with books: some were painted during his important “Paris Years” (1886-1888), when his style changed and he became captivated by Japanese woodcut prints. Most were painted in Arles (1888-1889), where he suffered his breakdown. Sadly, these were to be his last years, as he died in 1890.

These paintings are all new to me. I find them very accessible and enjoyable–I want to walk into the paintings and touch the books, smell the flowers, have a cup of coffee and chat with the man himself.

Many of the paintings include Van Gogh’s favourite authors and books. According to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam:

“Vincent was an admirer of such French Naturalist writers as Emile Zola and Guy de Maupassant. In his opinion, these authors ‘paint’ life ‘as we ourselves feel it.’ The books in this painting symbolised the contemporary life that he believed to have been captured so well by these authors.”

Van Gogh also admired the writings of William Shakespeare and Honoré de Balzac.

If he were alive today, what would he be reading?

Still Life with Books, “Romans Parisiens” by Vincent van Gogh, Paris, 1887
“The Novel Reader” by Vincent van Gogh, Arles, 1888 (image courtesy
“Still Life Vase With Oleanders and Books” by Vincent van Gogh, Arles, 1888 (image courtesy

The still life above features Zola’s La Joie de Vivre.

Drawing Board, Pipe Onions and Sealing Wax, by Vincent van Gogh, Arles, 1889
(image courtesy

His interpretation of books is so interesting, and I find them strangely comforting–they bring a real humanity to his paintings. I would love to know why he painted so many towards the end of his life. Some historians believe that books were readily accessible subjects for him to paint during his difficult Arles years.

Companion, comfort, pleasure, muse: A good book was all of these things and more to Van Gogh, according to David Brooks in his article, Vincent’s Library: Books and their depiction in the Works of Van Gogh:

“Van Gogh held writers in painters in equal regard when it came to true artistic talent and the ability, through their art, to enrich the world around them. Throughout his life Vincent van Gogh was an outcast in many respects. His brother, Theo, was an ongoing source of consolation, but so too were the books that Vincent valued so dearly. Even during his great moments of loneliness and despair–when true friends were few and far between–books would be Van Gogh’s constant companion.

And so just as Van Gogh revered the authors and poets that would bring him such comfort and profound happiness, Vincent, in turn, honoured the books–and the men and women who wrote them–through his art.”

What is your reaction to Van Gogh’s paintings of books?


  1. What a beautiful post, I hope its ok to re-blog it?!!!
    I know “The Novel Reader” from before, the rest of these paintings are new to me. But I’m going to Amsterdam in a month, and are very much looking forward to a visit his museum.

  2. I spent last summer obsessed with Van Gogh and it rekindled a life-long love. Because of my tour through his work last year, the paintings you share here are familiar to me. Discovering them opened up a new view of him and his relationship to writers and writing for which I am very grateful. I feel him to be a kindred spirit. Thank you for a truly refreshing and lovely post. (I found you by way of Sigrun’s reblog, by the way — a good mode to share the very best!)


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