Vincent Van Gogh liked to read Dickens

25 February, 2010

Last week I toodled along to the Royal Academy to see the Van Gogh exhibition that everyone is talking about. The queues were incredibly long and by the time I went in, I think they were only selling tickets for the next day. Plus it was half-term, so you get the picture.

Van Gogh is one of those artists whom I didn’t get at the beginning. Of course I grew up reading all three volumes of the Ladybird Great Artists series by Dorothy Aitchison and illustrated by Martin Aitchison as well as all the other art books we had lying around the house when I was a child and knew his story. I sneered at his brightly coloured paintings, pontificating to my mother (who is a Nihonga artist) that anyone could draw like him. They were just childish dabblings and I couldn’t see why he was considered one of the greats. That was before I discovered Impressionism and was still a vulgar and unenlightened person. I stand corrected. One day I stood before a painting by Van Gogh and was transfixed by its beauty, depth and intensity. And that was what struck me at this exhibition: the sheer energy inherent in his work.

Titled The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters, the exhibition also featured letters written by Van Gogh to his brother Theo detailing the progress of his work including drawings and sketches that were to become formal paintings. These were exhibited alongside the paintings and illustrated how deeply he thought about each of his paintings. What first struck me was his beautiful and measured handwriting. I was expecting frenzied scribbles, but no, there was nothing of the sort. It shows how much I was influenced by the one-dimensional image of Van Gogh as a tortured genius when in fact he was a sensitive and cultivated soul grappling with mental illness.

And did you know Van Gogh was also a great reader, reading books in four different languages including Zola, Balzac and Dickens? There were a number of paintings featuring books that would bring a smile to all book lovers that I don’t recall seeing before, but alas, no postcards were available.

I came away from the exhibition with renewed admiration for one of our most beautiful, complex and tragic artists. Not only for his intensely textured and energetic paintings (the gold and yellow of the hay fields he painted are still shimmering before my eyes) but also for the kind of man he was. If you have a chance to go and see this exhibition, do so. Otherwise you can always go to Amsterdam and visit the amazing Van Gogh Museum.

You can read about the exhibition and the artist here and here.

And for those of you who may like an extra dose of Van Gogh, you may want to check out Irving Stone’s Lust for Life (a brilliant fictional biography of Van Gogh), art historian Sheramy Bundrick’s debut Sunflowers (which I haven’t read yet but about which I have heard good things) and The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin and nine turbulent weeks in Provence by art critic Martin Gayford.

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6 Responses to “Vincent Van Gogh liked to read Dickens”


  1. Thank you for sharing this. I’m the opposite to you I remember studying Van Gogh’s Sunflowers whilst in primary school and loving it. My interest in him only grew as I started doing art myself in high school. I wasn’t any good at straight art myself, I must admit I’m not great at drawing. Instead like to use my big imagination to decorate. Won’t be going to the Royal Academy anytime soon but will make a note to look up the books you recommend.

    • chasing bawa Says:

      When I was growing up I really loved renaissance art such as by Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Botticelli . It was only when I got into university that I started to appreciate Impressionism and all the art that came out of France (even though I was lucky enough to have a mother who dragged me to all the art galleries in Paris).

  2. gnoegnoe Says:

    I guess I’m lucky: it takes about 1 hour to get to the Van Gogh Museum from my home 😉

  3. Tony Says:

    I went to the Amsterdam museum a few years back. All the good pictures were in Chicago. I think that says something about my life, but I’m not sure what…

    • chasing bawa Says:

      I think it’s called sod’s law. It happens to the best of us. Reminds me of when I went to Italy to look at all the art. I made sure I went to the Uffizi, the Vatican, everywhere that was important but only realised when I returned home that I completely forgot about Milan and da Vinci’s Last Supper… Made me cry.


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