This hefty Bible had belonged to Van Gogh's father, a Protestant minister. Vincent van Gogh painted it a few months after his father passed away. Next to the Bible he placed his own copy of 'La joie de vivre' by Émile Zola. Van Gogh saw that novel as a kind of 'bible' for modern life. Placed together, the two books symbolize the different worldviews of Vincent and his father.
At first glance, this canvas seems to recall 17th century still lifes. At that time, such objects were considered symbols of mortality and the transcience of knowledge, weath and other earthly things, which were usually seen in contrast to the eternal nature of the Christian faith. In this work, Van Gogh both elaborates on this tradition and gives it his own, highly personal interpretation.
In October 1885, Vincent described this work in a ltter to Theo as 'still life of an open, hence an off-white Bible, bound in leather, against a black background with a yellow-brown foreground, with an additional note of lemon yellow.' Vincent appears to have wanted to prove to his brother that black could be used to good effect in painting, a question they had discussed at great length in their correspondence.
Theo found the colors mixed with black in his brother's painting too dark and somber. He encouraged Vincent to use brighter, lighter tones, like tose of the Impressionists.
Read the story to find our more about about Vincent's quest, in which his colours changed from dark to bright.