I’ve always been a little peculiar on the subject of Vincent van Gogh.
I tend, as you may have gathered, to prefer art with more deliberate semantic content—something to read, something to put into the context of biography or period.
So when laclefdescoeurs requested that I write about Van Gogh’s 1885 Still Life with Bible, I was a little skeptical.
However, the painting certainly isn’t devoid of meaning.
It evokes those ubiquitous still-lives of the 17th century, at which time (as the Van Gogh Museum points out) the books and candle would have been “considered symbols of mortality and the transience of knowledge, wealth and other earthly things, which were usually seen in contrast to the eternal nature of the Christian faith.”
Here, though, they convey almost the opposite.
The Bible opens to Isaiah 53, which rails against the inherent and universal ingratitude and ignorance of man—who must be saved by the intercession of some higher, greater, good.
Next to it, in contrast, lies a well loved copy of the year-old book Émile Zola’s La joie de vivre—in which one must be one’s own intercessor.
The candle suggests that the days of the former text, with its guilting and complacent message—like the days of Van Gogh’s own father, a reverend, who died the year this work was painted—are spent.
Before I get too sentimental, however, I’ll quote the Van Gogh Museum one more time: “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…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.”
Ah, those age-old themes: palette, and religion.