A holy obsession: when Van Gogh lost himself in Dickens and Shakespeare
A new exhibition about the artist's life in London reveals that he revelled in English novels
“This is the first time for several months that I’ve picked up a book,” wrote Vincent van Gogh to his brother, Theo, on Sunday, March 24 1889, 130 years ago. “That tells me a lot and heals me a great deal.”
Three months earlier, the Dutch artist had removed his ear at the root. The people of Arles were so concerned by his volatile behaviour that they petitioned the mayor to have him locked up.
Van Gogh, then 35, admits to Theo that he had been left “confused” by what had happened; afflicted by a “nameless moral anguish”. He has, he adds, begun rereading Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, hoping the story of Bob Cratchit and Ebenezer Scrooge, which he had loved since childhood, would bring “a few solid thoughts” to his muddled brain.
It wasn’t the first time Van Gogh turned to Dickens in a moment of crisis. He even took up pipe smoking because the author had prescribed it as “a remedy against suicide”. As a new exhibition at Tate Britain will reveal, Van Gogh’s passion for Dickens, along with other British writers such as Shakespeare, John Bunyan, John Keats, Thomas Carlyle, Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot, not only gave Van Gogh spiritual comfort but set light to his imagination and invigorated his social conscience.
“His interest in literature gives us a view of Van Gogh that goes beyond the figure of the tormented artist,” says curator Carol Jacobi. “Instead, he seems intellectually curious, connected to the things going on around him, synthesising books, images and real life in a way that would become key to his art. There was no line in his head between looking and reading.”
Van Gogh and Britain explores the artist’s two extended stays there in the 1870s – first in London, then Ramsgate – before he took up painting or drawing. When he arrived at the age of 20, in 1873, it was as an apprentice-cum-clerk to the art dealers Goupil & Co. A photograph taken shortly before he left for England shows a chubby-faced, clean-shaven young man in a suit and tie – a far cry from the gaunt, ill-kempt, wild-eyed version of him we have from the self-portraits painted a decade and a half later.
For the first two years, Van Gogh revelled in all that the quintessentially modern city – then the hub of a vast empire – had to offer. He bought himself a top hat, he steamed to work along the Thames, he walked along the newly constructed Embankment. Goupil’s offices were in Covent Garden, then thronged with stalls and shops selling books and prints. Van Gogh’s time in London coincided with a great boom in illustrated books, which were presented to passers-by in the new plate-glass shop windows.
“One sees all kinds of things, from the etchings of Rembrandt to the Household edition of Dickens,” wrote Van Gogh to Theo in 1877, remembering a visit to Booksellers’ Row. The glass windows, he said, gave everything “a green cast (especially in foggy weather)”.
The Tate exhibition will include about 40 books, each mentioned by Van Gogh in his letters. Though these aren’t the actual books that Van Gogh held in his hands, Jacobi and her team have researched the editions that were available at the time and, where possible, obtained the exact printing Van Gogh cites. His letters to Theo are filled with such references. He copies out passages, mentions characters, dwells longingly on certain scenes. He was particularly fond of Hard Times, and of the moment when cold-hearted, fact-driven Thomas Gradgrind is finally humanised by despair. He drew this image, of a man with his head in hands, over and over again.
“Have you ever read Dickens, Les temps difficiles,” he wrote to Theo, in 1879. “I’m giving you the title in French because there’s a very good French translation for 1.25 francs ... ”
Bookishness ran in the family. Their sister, Lies, described how excited she was as a little girl by “the countless books that were hidden away from me in every nook and cranny of the house, and which I just as often managed to get my hands on; of those times in bed, shivering with fear, and of the remorse I felt when I was caught”. Van Gogh, Theo and their father – a Protestant pastor – swapped reading tips, and even copies of books, by post.
“It’s really difficult for us to remember,” says Jacobi, “that there was a time when you simply couldn’t get your hands on enough culture. In those days, a book or a picture was a precious thing; something to thirst after and experience intensely.”
It is odd to imagine the fidgety, agitated Van Gogh settling down in a chair to read a 400-page novel. But not only did he read them, he reread them, often several times. Probably, he was lonely in London, and reading was a pleasurable way to pass the hours outside work. He was only just out of his teens, too, and so it is unsurprising that he was drawn to a good Boy’s Own adventure story such as Robinson Crusoe, or a sensation novel, such as Mrs Oliphant’s Innocent.
There is a real sense of him losing himself in these books, in a “reality more real than reality”, as he put it to Theo. He loved the idea of Christmas that Dickens had promulgated, and was charmingly excited to experience his first (in the Netherlands, Christmas is celebrated on December 5, St Nicholas’s Eve) while lodging with a widow and her daughter in a three-storey house in Brixton, south London. (After renovation, it opens to the public next month.)
Van Gogh returned to Crusoe in 1882, when (to the consternation of his family) he was living in poverty in The Hague, sketching peasants. He wrote: “I often think of the old story of Robinson Crusoe, who didn’t lose heart because of his solitariness but ... had a very active and very stimulating life through his own searching and toiling.”
Much of the literature that Van Gogh singled out – Dickens, Eliot, Carlyle – looked at the ills of society. The flipside of life in the modern capital was nightmarish poverty, homelessness and dirt. Dust heaps particularly terrified the Victorians; Dickens made one the focus of Our Mutual Friend, which we know Van Gogh read. Later, he made several drawings of dustmen and their carts. “In the poorest little house, in the filthiest corner, I see paintings or drawings,” he said to Theo. “And my mind turns in that direction as if with an irresistible urge.”
In 1876, Van Gogh was sacked from Goupil. (Apparently, he’d been too vociferous about their clients’ taste, or lack thereof.) He found new, unpaid employment at a boarding school in Ramsgate, on the Kent coast. His letters began to fill with references to the downtrodden boys of Dotheboys Hall, from Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby. By 1879, Van Gogh was living a punishing existence trying to provide Christian ministry in a poor mining community in Belgium. When that, too, failed, he went home to his parents in Etten. The following year, his father was worried enough to consider putting him in an asylum. Then, in June, Van Gogh wrote to Theo.
Instead of giving way to despair he has chosen to take “the way of active melancholy ... I studied the books I had to hand rather seriously ... Shakespeare and a little V Hugo and Dickens and Beecher Stowe.” The conclusion he draws is “that the love of books is as holy as that of Rembrandt, and I even think that the two complement each other ... Shakespeare – who is as mysterious as he? – his language and his way of doing things are surely the equal of any brush trembling with fever and emotion.”
Begging Theo to see in him something other than an “idler”, he says: “My torment is none other than this, what could I be good for, couldn’t I serve and be useful in some way ... Do you see? Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it.”
Fortunately, Theo did see. He wrote back to his brother almost immediately. “Have you ever thought about becoming an artist?”
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)