Still Life with Bible, 1885
This dark, Rembrandt-influenced still life provided Van Gogh with a means to explore strong contrasts between the dramatic black background, various off-whites, yellowish-browns, and a strategic punch of lemon yellow. It’s objects, however, were more than formalist props. Throughout his career, the artist included inanimate items – chairs, shoes, and books – as pictorial stand-ins to represent specific ideas, people, or even himself.
Vincent’s father Theodorus was a protestant minister. The large, leather-bound bible that dominates the composition belonged to him, and one can almost feel the weight of it. The elder Van Gogh’s stern and domineering temperament profoundly shaped his son’s early years. In letters to Théo, Vincent refers to his childhood as “austere, cold and sterile,” largely blaming their father, whom he remembers for a “certain steely hardness and icy coldness.” Still Life with Bible was painted in the fall of 1885, just after Theodorus passed away. The snuffed out candle on the right is a naturalistic detail, as well as a motif, employed in art for centuries, to signify the theme of death.
In front of the bible, the artist has placed his own paperback copy of Émile Zola’s contemporary French novel La joie de vivre, a small but heady symbol of modern life and artistic currents. Before turning to art, Vincent pursued a career as a lay preacher, but he found himself temperamentally unsuited for the role. While faith remained an important compass throughout his life, the words of avant-garde writers and poets, which he read in their original German, French, and English, increasingly touched his soul, overriding the exclusive dogma of the scriptures and his strict upbringing. In this way, we can “read” these two books and their unlikely conjunction as an expression of the conflicting worldviews held by father and son, and even a harbinger of the artist’s move to Paris three years later, in search of likeminded, sympathetic company.