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, wealth 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.
The objects depicted seem to allude to Van Gogh’s relationship with his father, Revered Theodorus Van Gogh, who died suddenly in March 1885. The Dutch Authorized Bible had belonged to him, and was a symbol of his rather conventional faith and strict way of life.
In a letter to Theo, Vincent described this work 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.’ Van Gogh 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 paintings too dark and somber. He encouraged him to use brighter, lighter tones, like those of the Impressionists. But Vincent justified his practice by reminding Theo that 17th-century masters such as Frans Hals had used a great deal of black in their works. Later, in Paris, he admitted to Theo that he now found his earlier, dark palette old-fashioned, and he adapted his coloration to newer norms.