Vincent Van Gogh, Starry Night (June 1889)

For his painting, however, Vincent reduced the bustling town of six thousand to a sleepy village of no more than a few hundred souls—no bigger than Zundert or Helvoirt. The twelfth-century church of Saint Martin, which dominated the town with its fearsomely spiked stone bell tower, became a simple country chapel with a needlelike spire that barely pierced the horizon. Finally, he moved the town from the valley floor north of the asylum and placed it to the east, directly between his bedroom window and the familiar serrated line of the Alpilles—a spot from which it, too, could witness the celestial spectacle about to begin.

With all these elements—cypress tree, townscape, hills, horizon—secured in his imagination, Vincent’s brush launched into the sky. Unconstrained by sketches, unschooled by a subject in front of him, unbounded by perspective frame, unbiased by ardor, his eye was free to meditate on the light — the fathomless, ever-comforting light he always saw in the night sky. He saw that light refracted — curved, magnified, scattered — through all the prisms of his past: from Andersen’s tales to Verne’s journeys, from Symbolist poetry to astronomical discoveries. The hero of his youth, Dickens, had written of “a whole world with all its greatnesses and littlenesses” visible “in a twinkling star.” The hero of his age, Zola, described the sky of a summer night as “powdered with the glittering dust of almost invisible stars”.

Behind these thousands of stars, thousands more were appearing, and so it went on ceaselessly in the infinite depths of the sky. It was a continuous blossoming, a showering of sparks from fanned embers, innumerable worlds glowing with the calm fire of gems. The Milky Way was whitening already, flinging wide its tiny suns, so countless and so distant that they seem like a sash of light thrown over the roundness of the firmament.

In his reading, in his thinking, in his seeing, Vincent had long looked past the “real” night sky—the tiny, static specks and sallow light of the night paintings he detested—in search of something truer to the vision of limitless possibility and inextinguishable light—the ultimate serenity—that he found in Zola’s blossoming, showering, glittering night.

Steven Naifeh & Gregory White Smith, Van Gogh: The Life (2011)


The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

We all know that Van Gogh was a passionate painter, but I wonder how many of us realize that he was a most ardent reader too? My recent trip to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has renewed my interest in reading more about this gifted yet tormented painter. I knew he had written letters quite extensively to his brother Theo and I did manage to get a copy of his letters some time ago, though yet to read them (as usual). But it is only now that I realize that Van Gogh was a lover of books, too! And this has certainly sealed the deal in me wanting to read not just his letters, but also to attempt his biography (and this is no small feat!), which comes in the form of a 900+ pages chunkster of a book, Van Gogh: The Life, by Pulitzer Prize winning writers Steven Naifeh & Gregory White Smith.

This definitive biography has been described as a “….. tour de force — an exquisitely detailed, compellingly readable, and ultimately heartbreaking portrait of creative genius Vincent van Gogh.”

Doesn’t that sound simply irresistible? 😉

Has anyone read this yet? Or his letters, by any chance? If so, would love to hear what you think about them.

2 thoughts on “Friday Feature: Van Gogh, the Reader (1)

  1. I have not read it, but it sounds intriguing, despite the length. I’ve read biographies of quite a few writers, but not painters. Will have to remedy that.


    1. It does, doens’t it? I will slowly make my way through it, somehow! I’m into the second chapter so far, and I am finding it very readable. Have also just ordered a copy of Sue Roe’s ‘The Private Lives of The Impressionists’ which includes painters like Monet, Manet, Pissaro, Degas, Renoir, etc. Saw the book for sale at one of the museums in Paris and have been thinking about it ever since. Finally found a used copy, at the right price and with the cover I want. Nice! 🙂


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