Which Books did Vincent van Gogh Read?

He read like he wrote and painted: a lot and often. Which books did he like?

In the café: Agostina Segatori in Le Tambourin (January 1887 - March 1887) by Vincent van GoghVan Gogh Museum

Favorite type of stories

Vincent van Gogh loved literature. He enjoyed a direct style of writing, ranging from simple action stories and rebellious characters to books about everyday life and humanity. 

Gauguin's chair (December 1888 - 1888) by Vincent van GoghVan Gogh Museum

Book lover

Even as a child, Vincent devoured stacks of books. In general, the books he read reflected what was going on in his life.

Piles of French novels (October 1887 - November 1887) by Vincent van GoghVan Gogh Museum

Favorite books

Of all the books he read, there are four that played an important role in his life. Those are books by Charles Dickens, Jules Michelet, Émile Zola and Alphonse Daudet.

The Vicarage at Nuenen (September 1885 - October 1885) by Vincent van GoghVan Gogh Museum

Charity with Dickens

This house is the vicarage in the village of Nuenen where Vincent van Gogh's parents lived. Vincent's father was a Protestant minister. His parents encouraged Vincent to read for his own self-development. As a child, Vincent read moralistic books, often favoured amoung members of the Protestant Christian community: the kind that stressed the importance of charity and humanity. These are also key values in the work of Dickens. Vincent read and reread works of Dickens throughout his life.

Garden with Courting Couples: Square Saint-Pierre (May 1887) by Vincent van GoghVan Gogh Museum

Love with Michelet

In 'L'amour' by Jules Michelet (1858), Vincent van Gogh found wisdom he could apply to his own love life. The book deals with the love between a man and a woman and can be read as a moral lesson. Vincent used it to justify his choices and how he lived his life. When he fell in love with his cousin Kee Vos. And as he lived together with Sien Hoornink, a prostitute.

Portrait of an Old Man (December 1885 - 1885) by Vincent van GoghVan Gogh Museum

A view on reality with Zola

As Emile Zola ‘painted’ with his pen, Vincent ‘wrote’ with his brush. Zola’s stories like 'L'Oeuvre' (1886) were rooted in reality. He described life as rough and direct as it was lived in Parisian slums and miners’ villages. Like Zola, Vincent wanted to give an honest depiction of what he saw around him: farm labourers, a weathered old man, dejected or working women, a soup kitchen, a tree, dunes and fields.

Field with Flowers near Arles (1888) by Vincent van GoghVan Gogh Museum

Humour with Daudet

When Vincent went to live in Arles in the south of France (in 1888),  he had a need for reading humour and satire. He read 'Tartarin de Tarascon' by Alphonse Daudet (1887). The book deals with an entertaining caricature of the Southern Frenchman. In this farce, Vincent could identify with life in southern France. Its humour impressed him. Vincent believed that little happened in his own era that was truly uplifting and that art was the only thing that could give one any consolation.

Piles of French novels (October 1887 - November 1887) by Vincent van GoghVan Gogh Museum

Other favorite authors

Vincent van Gogh enjoyed various other authors and books, from the Bible to John Keats. From George Eliot to the Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Shakespeare, Voltaire, Hans Christian Andersen, and many others. 

Self-portrait with grey felt hat (September 1887 - October 1887) by Vincent van GoghVan Gogh Museum

Reading books is like 

‘Reading books is like looking at paintings: without doubting, without hesitating, with self-assurance, one must find beautiful that which is beautiful.’ – Vincent van Gogh in a letter to his brother Theo, 5 August 1881

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Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam

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