Further Reading

The literature on Vincent van Gogh is both wide and deep. For readers interested in learning more about certain periods of his life, dimensions of his personality, aspects of his oeuvre, or developments in his career, the sheer volume of resources can be overwhelming and off-putting. To encourage reader curiosity and facilitate the pursuit of specific lines of inquiry, we offer the following annotated bibliography. This list is designed to supplement and, to some extent, distill both the “Selected Bibliography” printed in the book and the chapter-by-chapter listings of additional sources, which accompany the online notes. Our purpose is to focus on those works that we have found particularly helpful (or, in some cases, essential), and that we think would be good places for readers to start learning more about topics in Van Gogh’s life and art that are of special interest to them.

Collections of Primary Sources

Below, we list important sources for further information about specific periods in Vincent’s life. There are also some volumes that collect primary-source materials (i.e., first-hand accounts) from throughout Vincent’s life. By far the most important of these is Susan Alyson Stein’s Van Gogh: A Retrospective (1986). Because it covers so much territory and selects its sources judiciously, Stein’s book is an indispensable resource and a necessary corrective to Vincent’s sometimes evasive and occasionally misleading letters. Another collection that provides important “outside” perspectives on Van Gogh is Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov’s excellent Van Gogh in Perspective (1973).

Van Gogh’s Letters

The best and most obvious place to begin is with Vincent van Gogh’s own letters. Together, they form a work of such extraordinary importance that it has stood for almost a century as a major literary achievement independent of Van Gogh’s stature and accomplishment as an artist. The recent retranslation by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten, and Nienke Bakker, Vincent van Gogh: The Letters: The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition (1999), not only provides more precise translations than the long-standard English translation by Vincent’s sister-in-law, Johanna Bonger (see below), it also provides an unparalleled wealth of illustrations and annotations that are both hugely helpful to the modern reader and a model of scholarship for the ages. This massive six-volume work has rightly been named “the book of the decade” by The Guardian.

In his article, “The Van Gogh Letters Project: New Findings and Old” (1997-1998), editor Leo Jansen offers a fascinating overview of the vast, fifteen-year project that produced this monumental work of scholarship involving dozens of translators, scholars, editors, and others. The Complete Letters, which is available in Dutch and French printed editions as well, has also been reconceived, expanded, and greatly enhanced in an online edition: a stunningly beautiful and technologically cutting-edge scholarly resource, www.vangoghletters.org/vg/. No subject lends itself better to the unlimited interconnectedness of the internet than Van Gogh’s exhaustively visual and allusive letters, and the Complete Letters site takes full advantage of the web’s capacity to provide vast amounts of supplementary information at the flick of a finger. Moreover, the site is open to the public and access is free.

Johanna Bonger’s early English translation of Van Gogh’s letters is still available as the Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh (Third Edition, 2000), both in bookstores and in many of the libraries of the English-speaking world. Her translations remain of great interest not only because so much of the scholarly literature until recently has been based on them but because she was a talented translator who knew Vincent personally and could literally hear his voice when she read his words. She also shared the same cultural background as Vincent; brought the same Victorian values and mindset to her translating; and, as Theo’s wife, had access to information and perspectives that could help her put Vincent’s words into the context of their period.

Bonger’s Dutch editions of the letters, Verzamelde brieven van Vincent van Gogh (edited with the assistance of Vincent’s nephew, V. W. van Gogh; 1954); and Van Gogh door Van Gogh: De brieven als commentaar op zijn werk (1973), although long crucial to Van Gogh studies, have been largely superseded by the more careful dating and organization of Vincent’s letters that informs the new Complete Letters.

Van Gogh’s Life

Primary Accounts

Several people who knew Vincent as an adult wrote accounts of him. The most reliable of these are the contemporary descriptions, often included in letters, which were not written with an eye toward posterity. The correspondence of Camille Pissarro and his son Lucien, Camille Pissarro: Letters to His Son Lucien (edited by John Rewald and Lucien Pissarro and translated by Lionel Abel; 1945), contains some such references to Van Gogh. It is more generally useful as an unscreened window onto the complex and highly charged world of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.

Posthumous recollections of Van Gogh are, in general, less trustworthy — even those that were recorded soon after his death. This is because his celebrity, especially after his presumed suicide, soared immediately, distorting and inflating memories as it rose ever higher. Stein (see above) collects many of these later recollections. A good rule for assessing their reliability is that the less the witnesses knew about Vincent’s celebrity, the more credibility they should be given. The first-hand accounts that date from Vincent’s earlier life (in Nuenen and Antwerp, for example) are less likely to suffer from such hagiographic distortions.

Unfortunately, the least trustworthy of the contemporary accounts are those by fellow artists who came to know Vincent after he moved to Paris in 1886. Émile Bernard wrote many articles about Van Gogh that played an important part in developing the mythology around the artist. The two most important of these are “Les hommes d’aujourd’hui,” published in Les Hommes d’Aujourd’hui in 1890, and “Vincent van Gogh,” published in L’Écho de Paris in 1891. Bernard’s “Souvenirs sur Van Gogh” (“Memories of Van Gogh”), published in L’Amour de l’Art 5 in December 1924, could have been an important contribution to the Van Gogh literature by a contemporary who knew him. Instead, like Bernard’s other works on the subject of Van Gogh, it is a combination of dubious recollection, outright invention, and self-inflation that renders it almost completely unreliable.

Paul Gauguin also recorded a number of reminiscences about his encounters with Vincent: including, most famously, in the Yellow House. Unlike Bernard, however, he never collected these memories into dedicated books or articles but instead spread them through his writings, especially Avant et après (Before and After; 1903; 1923). Later scholars have collected his letters to Vincent (and Theo) into volumes (see below). Gauguin’s surprising (and uncharacteristic) diffidence in this regard arose from his belief that Vincent’s insanity and “suicide” (followed soon after by his brother’s death in an asylum) would reflect badly on him and his art. Thus, he did not wish to underscore his closeness to the Van Gogh brothers at the time of their deaths. Subsequently, when his predictions about posterity’s view of Van Gogh proved wrong and the latter’s star rose higher than his, Gauguin made various, vain efforts to claim credit for Vincent’s distinctive artistic vision. Unfortunately, his later biographical comments about Vincent were all deeply stained by this belated attempt to co-opt his former colleague’s celebrity.

General Biographies

Both Jan Hulsker and Marc Edo Tralbaut devoted much of their intellectual lives to studying Van Gogh, and the early literature is at times dominated by their work. Theirs are the first “modern” biographies of Van Gogh: the first to escape the swoon of romanticizing and mythologizing that plagued earlier efforts like Julius Meier-Graefe’s Vincent Van Gogh; a Biographical Study (1936) and Irving Stone’s infamously fictionalized Lust for Life (1934).

Hulsker’s Vincent and Theo: A Dual Biography (1985) and Tralbaut’s Vincent van Gogh (1969), together with their many articles on Van Gogh, remain important sources on the artist’s life. As the Dutch Minister for Culture, a founder of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and a friend of the Van Gogh family, Hulsker was for many years the historian with the best access to important unpublished primary source material. Using this access, Hulsker helped fill in some critical gaps in Van Gogh’s story. For example, he first published the letters that the Postman Joseph Roulin and the Reverend Salles exchanged with Theo during Vincent’s confinements in Arles and Saint-Rémy. (“Vincent’s Stay in the Hospitals at Arles and St.-Rémy: Unpublished Letters from the Postman Joseph Roulin and the Reverend Salles to Theo van Gogh,” published in 1971 with a translation by J. van Hattum). Unfortunately, the same insider status that permitted him such extraordinary access also restricted his view of Vincent, about whom he could hardly ever bring himself to say a negative word. His copious scholarship on the artist is marred by strained justifications of Vincent’s often odious behavior and pre-emptive acquittals of his family for their contributory role in his troubled life.

Tralbaut not only wrote a full-fledged biography of Van Gogh (the work from 1969), he diligently tracked down documentary evidence that helped fill gaps in the record, especially for the years that Vincent spent in the Borinage, Brussels, and Antwerp – the Belgian Tralbaut’s home territory.

Biographies of Theo

Theo van Gogh, 1857-1891: Art Dealer, Collector and Brother of Vincent (1999), by Chris Stolwijk and Richard Thomson, with a contribution by Sjraar van Heugten, is clearly the definitive book on Theo. It is especially good on Theo’s work at Goupil (later, Boussod & Valadon). In particular, it corrects the inflating effect of Vincent’s celebrity on Theo’s reputation as a champion of the new art – both his brother’s and others’. Stolwijk also wrote an excellent article on Theo’s early years, “‘Our Crown and Our Honour and Our Joy’: Theo van Gogh’s Early Years” (1997-98), as well as the definitive account of the Goupil firm, in which Theo spent his entire adult life: Un marchand avisé (A Dealer Notified; translated by Jeanne Bouniort in 1999). Essential reading for anyone interested in Theo van Gogh (or Vincent) is Brief Happiness: The Correspondence of Theo van Gogh and Jo Bonger, edited by Leo Jansen and Jan Robert (1999). These previously unpublished letters, dating from 1887 to 1890, not only cover a critical period in Vincent’s life (including his self-mutilation, repeated institutionalizations, and death), they also present an unparalleled insight into Theo’s complex personality, into his relationship with Johanna Bonger, and especially into the decisive impact that their relationship had on the final, fatal turns in Vincent’s life.

Periods in Van Gogh’s Life

A library of excellent books is available for readers who wish to know more about specific periods in Van Gogh’s life and/or work. In our opinion, these are among the leaders. For Vincent’s childhood, Benno J. Stokvis stands out as a rich source of primary materials. In his short book Nasporingen omtrent Vincent van Gogh in Brabant (Investigations Regarding Vincent van Gogh in Brabant; 1926) and in his article “Nieuwe nasporingen omtrent Vincent van Gogh in Brabant,” (“New Investigations Regarding Vincent van Gogh in Brabant”; 1927) Stokvis reports his early interviews with people who had known the Van Goghs during their years in Brabant, and these two works remain essential resources for research into Vincent’s youth. Han van Crimpen edited a similar compendium of early reminiscences: Friends Remember Vincent (1912).

Of all Vincent’s siblings, only one wrote a memoir of her brother: Elisabeth Huberta du Quesne-Van Gogh (“Lies”). Her account of their shared childhood, Personal Recollections of Vincent van Gogh (1910; reprint translated by Katharine S. Dreier with a foreword by Arthur S. Dove, 1913), is notorious for its errors, embellishments, and excesses, especially in regard to Vincent’s later life and art. But it remains, in our view, both a helpful aid in reconstructing the artist’s childhood years and an insight into the family’s perspective on Vincent’s troubled life after he left home.

While not technically a first-hand account, Jo Bonger’s Memoir, which was appended to her translation of his letters, draws upon the memories and perspective of her husband, Vincent’s brother Theo. She also had access to other family members, including Vincent’s mother and sisters, as well as to family correspondence dating from long before she entered Theo’s life. Her Memoir is the earliest (and in some cases the only) account of Vincent’s youth to benefit from these sources. However, because some of the key players in her memoir were still alive at the time she wrote it, Bonger’s account is often least informative where the reader’s curiosity is most aroused.

By all measures, the best account of Vincent’s childhood years is also the most recent: Vincent van Gogh en zijn geboorteplaats: Als een boer van Zundert by Frank Kools (Vincent van Gogh and his Birthplace: As a Farmer from Zundert; 1990). Kools’s book is filled with astonishing original research, especially on Dorus van Gogh’s role as a preacher and (Protestant) community leader, and it refuses to succumb to legend. Another classic work on Vincent’s youth remains Jan Meyers’s De jonge Vincent (The Young Vincent, 1989).

Van Gogh’s years in England have been superbly charted by Martin Bailey in both articles and books, including especially Van Gogh in England: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (with an essay by Debora Silverman; 1992) and Young Vincent: The Story of Van Gogh’s Years in England (1990). Ronald Pickvance’s English Influences on Vincent van Gogh (1974-75) is essential in understanding how Van Gogh’s preoccupation with religion during his time in England had such an important (if delayed) impact on his later career as an artist. Journalist Ken Wilkie’s In Search of Van Gogh (1978) later uncovered some important missing details about Van Gogh’s time in England, especially his relationship with Ursula and Eugenie Loyer.

For their vivid portraits of London during the time Vincent was there (one in words, one in images), we especially enjoyed Hippolyte Taine’s Notes on England (1860-70), and Eric De Maré’s Victorian London Revealed: Gustave Doré’s Metropolis (2001).

For the years Vincent spent in Amsterdam, the most helpful guide is Reindert Groot’s and Sjoerd de Vries’s 1990 Vincent Van Gogh in Amsterdam, which also includes some wonderful and rare illustrations of the people and places that defined his time there. Vincent stayed in Brussels twice: once in 1878 when he studied at a missionary school there. The definitive source on this brief and sad period in Vincent’s life is De Vlaamse Opleidingsshuuol van Nicolaas de Jonge en Zijn Opvolgers: 1875-1926 (The Flemish School of Nicolaas the Younger and His Successors: 1825-1926; 1978) by W. Lutjeharms. It is primarily an account of the evangelical community in Belgium at the time – a community that Vincent tried unsuccessfully to join, leading him, ultimately, into the wilderness of the Borinage. Pierre Secrétan-Rollier wrote the essential work on Van Gogh’s dramatic years in the Black Country, Van Gogh chez les gueules noires: l’homme de l’espoir (Van Gogh among the Miners: A Man of Hope; 1977), which is supplemented by Luis Piérard’s La vie tragique de Vincent van Gogh (The Tragic Life of Vincent van Gogh; translated by Herbert Garland; 1925) and Visage de la Wallonie (The Face of Wallonia; 1980) along with René Dejollier’s Charbonages en Wallonie, 1345-1984 (The Coal Mines of Wallonia; 1988).

Van Gogh’s years in The Hague are documented extremely ably by Michiel van der Mast and Charles Dumas in Van Gogh en Den Haag (1990). This is the period in which Vincent first dedicated himself to art (as an illustrator), and the indispensable resource on the art of this period is the first volume of the Van Gogh Museum’s catalogue raisonné: Vincent van Gogh Drawings, Volume 1 (The Early Years, 1880-1883), by Sjraar van Heugten (1996). Because this is also the period in which Vincent met and moved into his apartment the prostitute Sien Hoornik, we also found useful the leading survey of prostitution in Holland at the time, Het mysterie van de verdwenen bordelen: Prostitutie in Nederland in de negentiende eeuw (The Mystery of the Vanished Bordellos: Prostitution in the Netherlands in the Nineteenth Century; 1998); by Martin Bossenbroek and Jan H. Kompagnie. At his brother’s urging, Vincent abandoned Sien and left The Hague for the province of Drenthe in September 1883. He spent only three months in this remote and hostile region, but those months were crucial to his life and his career. Fortunately, Wout Dijk and Meent van der Sluis have written an extraordinarily detailed book, De Drentse tijd van Vincent van Gogh (Vincent van Gogh’s Time in Drenthe; 2001), about Vincent’s brief but traumatic interlude in the region.

Vincent left Drenthe to rejoin his parents in Nuenen for two years (1883-1885). It was in Nuenen that he began to paint consistently and seriously. For the best information on Vincent’s art during these years, again the best resource is the Van Gogh Museum’s catalogue raisonné: in this case, Volume 2 (Nuenen, 1883-1885), by Sjraar van Heugten (1997). Ton de Brouwer’s Van Gogh en Nuenen is a critical source of information for Van Gogh’s life in Nuenen. Van Gogh in Brabant: Paintings and Drawings from Etten and Neunen (translated by Patricia Wardle; 1988) by Trudy van Spaandonk, Antoinette Wildenberg, and Ank Mulder-Koenen covers a broader range of Vincent’s life and work in Brabant (including his earlier brief stays in Etten), but also has excellent material on his time in Nuenen. The same is true of Griselda Pollock’s article: “Labour – Modern and Rural: The Contradictions of Representing Handloom Weavers in Brabant in 1884” (1987) and Carol Zemel’s article “The ‘Spook’ in the Machine: Van Gogh’s Pictures of Weavers in Brabant” (1985). Both of the latter sources add a great deal to the study of a particular subject (weavers) that preoccupied Van Gogh during much of his stay in Nuenen.

For more on Van Gogh’s brief (four-month) stay in Antwerp, the most focused and informative source is the latest installment of the Van Gogh Museum’s catalogue raisonné of its collection: Vincent van Gogh Drawings, Volume 3, Antwerp & Paris, 1885-1888, by Marije Vellekoop and Sjraar van Heugten (2001); and the corresponding paintings volume from the same series: Vincent van Gogh Pantings, Volume 2, Antwerp & Paris (1885-1888), by Ella Hendriks and Louis van Tilborgh (see below). Tralbaut also dedicates considerable attention to this period in his general biography (see above). Also revealing are the reminiscences of Vincent’s classmates at the Antwerp Academy (Victor Hageman, Van Gogh in Antwerp (an interview with Louis Piérard in 1914); and Richard Baseleer, Vincent Van Gogh in zijn Antwerpse Periode (Vincent van Gogh in his Antwerp Period), both of which are reprinted in Susan Alyson Stein’s Van Gogh: A Retrospective.

Vincent’s move to Paris in 1886 and the two years he spent living there with Theo present an entirely different challenge to scholars because the letters between the brothers virtually stopped. For a long time, this meant that little was known about this crucial period when Vincent first encountered the Impressionists as well as the other revolutionary painters of his era. Fortunately, Françoise Cachin and Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov stepped into the breach. Their joint book on the subject, Van Gogh à Paris (1988), as well as Welsh-Ovcharov’s Vincent van Gogh: His Paris Period (1976) and Vincent van Gogh and the Birth of Cloisonism (1981) pioneered the understanding of Vincent’s years in Paris. These three books are the crucial starting point for any understanding of or inquiry into the two years when Vincent’s art underwent its most important transformation.

More recent and more detailed information on specific paintings, along with some extraordinarily well-researched biographical material, is available in the relevant volume of the Van Gogh Museum’s ongoing catalogue raisonné series: Vincent van Gogh Paintings, Volume 2, Antwerp and Paris (1885-1888) by Ella Hendriks and Louis van Tilborgh, with the assistance of Margriet van Eikema Hommes and Monique Hageman.

Two other books that are useful to understanding Vincent’s Paris years are A Painter’s Pilgrimage through Fifty Years (1939) by A.S.A. Hartick (a British artist who knew Van Gogh in Paris), and Vincent van Gogh (1923) by Gustave Coquiot, who interviewed some of the people who knew Van Gogh in Paris. Other stand-outs in the literature on Van Gogh’s stay in Paris, or that help provide a context for understanding it, are: Frédéric Destremau’s “L’atelier Cormon (1882-1887),” published in the Bulletin de la Société de l’Histoire de l’Art Français (1996); Sven Lövgren, Genesis of Modernism: Seurat, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and French Symbolism of the 1880s (1971); Mariel Oberthur’s Cafés and Cabarets of Montmartre (1984); Jerrold Seigel’s Bohemian Paris: Culture, Politics and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life: 1830-1930 (1986); and Canvases and Careers: Institutional Change in the French Painting World by Harrison C. White and Cynthia A. White (1965).

In 1888, Vincent moved from Paris to Provence in southern France where he stayed first in Arles and then at an asylum in nearby Saint-Rémy. In May 1890, he moved one final time, to the picturesque village of Auvers near Paris. He died three months later. Because these two years (1888-1890) were not only his last, but also his most productive, and because he created many of his greatest masterpieces during these years, there is a vast literature on this brief period. The starting point for any research in any of the three places is Ronald Pickvance’s pair of exhibition catalogues, Van Gogh in Arles (1984) and Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy and Auvers (1986). Pickvance provides day-by-day accounts of Van Gogh’s time in each place as well as individual analyses of many of the great works that he created while there.

Van Gogh’s time specifically in Arles is explored in more depth and with wonderful insights in two other books: Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art, by Debora Silverman; and Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South by Douglas Druick and Peter Zegers. The latter is a particularly comprehensive and authoritative account of Vincent’s time in Arles, especially his famous stay in the Yellow House with Gauguin in 1888, which ended in his infamous self-mutilation. But both books are absolutely essential reading for this critical period in the artist’s life. For more general background on Provence, we recommend La Provence de van Gogh (1981) by Jean-Paul Clébert and Pierre Richard and The Lion of Arles: A Portrait of Mistral and His Circle (1964) by Tudor Edwards.

Among the primary documents from this period, by far the most important (other than surviving letters by both Vincent and Theo) is “Les isolés” (“The Isolated Ones”), the article by critic G.-Albert Aurier published in Mercure de France in 1890 that launched Van Gogh’s celebrity, sprang him from the insane asylum, and, paradoxically, put him on an inescapable trajectory toward death. For more on Aurier, who played such a brief but fateful role in Van Gogh’s life, we recommend Oeuvres Posthumes (Posthumous Works), a collection of his works published in 1893, and Patricia Townley Mathews’s 1984 dissertation, “G.-Albert Aurier’s Symbolist Art Criticism and Theory.”

Van Gogh’s Art

Catalogues Raisonnés

J. B. de la Faille’s Vincent van Gogh: The Complete Works on Paper, Catalogue Raisonné (1992) and Jan Hulsker’s The New Complete Van Gogh: Paintings, Drawings, Sketches (1996) remain the two most comprehensive catalogue raisonnés of the artist’s oeuvre. To scholars, they are essential to identifying Van Gogh’s works.

Less comprehensive but more informative, current, and scholarly than de la Faille or Hulsker is the multi-volume catalogues raisonné of its own collection that the Van Gogh Museum has been gradually producing over the last fifteen years. So far, there are four volumes on Van Gogh’s drawings: the first two (1996, 1997) by Museum curator Sjraar van Heugten, the third by Van Heugten and Marije Vellekoop (2001), and the fourth by Vellekoop and Ella Hendriks (2007). There are also two volumes on the Museum’s paintings, the first (The Dutch Period, 1881-1885) by curator Louis van Tilborgh and Marije Vellekoop, the second (Antwerp & Paris, 1885-1888) by Van Tilborgh and Ella Hendriks. Based on years of brilliant, patient scholarship, and absolutely definitive, these volumes include information on the history, media, and conservation of the works featured, and constitute literally the last word on the incomparable holdings of the Van Gogh Museum.

For the less scholarly aficionado – for those who just want to see good, vivid reproductions of Vincent’s paintings, the internet provides a perfect medium. The website of the Van Gogh Museum (www.vangoghmuseum.nl) offers beautiful, high resolution images of its treasures which allow the user to follow every twist and turn of Vincent’s amazing brushwork. The Museum’s site, however, is limited to the images in the Museum’s collection. For a more comprehensive online gallery, the Canadian Van Gogh scholar, David Brooks, has put together an extraordinarily thorough catalogue of images at www.vggallery.com. Brooks’s images are so good and his supplementary information (including exhibition histories) so conscientious that his site has received the endorsement of the Van Gogh Museum.

The second largest collection of Van Gogh works is held by the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands (http://kmm.nl). It, too, has published a multi-volume catalogue of its holdings, including an excellent volume by Jos ten Berge, Teio Meedenddorp, Aukje Vergeest, and Robert Verhoogt: The Paintings of Vincent van Gogh in the Collection of the Kröller-Müller Museum (2003); and a companion volume of works on paper: Drawings and Prints by Vincent van Gogh in the Collection of the Kröller-Müller Museum (2009) by Teio Meedendorp.

Overviews of Van Gogh’s Art

Anyone who hasn’t read John Rewald’s The History of Impressionism (1946) and Post-Impressionism from Van Gogh to Gauguin (1956) (which also appeared in several revised editions) is missing not just majestic overviews of these great movements in art, but also one of the great art historical experiences in life. The sections on Van Gogh in the latter book are among the most elegantly written and moving works in the entire Van Gogh literature. Rewald commanded not only an astonishingly synthetic mind, but also an extraordinarily prolific pen, and all of his sizeable oeuvre remains at the summit of art history even decades after it was written.

Especially vital to an understanding of the art of the period in which Van Gogh was working is Rewald’s Studies in Post-Impressionism (edited by Irene and Frances Weitzenhoffer) (1986). We also wish to pay homage to Meyer Schapiro’s Vincent van Gogh (1983), which so often captures the essence of the artist’s work, and to Robert L. Herbert’s Impressionism: Art, Leisure and Parisian Society (1988), which adds so importantly to an understanding of the movement that Rewald pioneered.

Exhibition Catalogues and Sources on Specific Works of Art

There have been many great Van Gogh exhibitions (and accompanying catalogues) over the years, but it is fair to single out a few for special recognition (beyond those mentioned elsewhere on this list). First among these is the recent magnificent exhibition and catalogue of Van Gogh’s drawings, Vincent van Gogh: Drawings (2005), by Colta Ives, Susan Alyson Stein, Sjraar van Heugten, and Marije Vellekoop. Another that deserves special mention Cornelia Homburg’s study of Van Gogh’s frequent resort to copying, The Copy Turns Original: Vincent van Gogh and a New Approach to Traditional Artistic Practice (1986). Homburg focuses her acute eye on the remarkable number of images that Van Gogh returned to again and again in his oeuvre. Cornelia Homburg’s exhibition, Vincent van Gogh and the Painters of the Petit Boulevard, is also a major contribution to Van Gogh scholarship.

We also recommend Art in the Age of Van Gogh: Dutch Paintings from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (1999), by Griselda Pollock and Alana Chong; Catalogue of the Van Gogh Museum’s Collection of Japanese Prints (1991), by Charlotte van Rappard-Boon, Willem van Gulik, and Keiko Bremen-Ito; Vincent van Gogh in zijn Hollandse jaren: Kijk op stad enland door Van Gogh en zijn tijdgenoten: 1870-1890 (Vincent van Gogh in his Dutch Years: A Look at City and Country by Van Gogh and his Contemporaries: 1870-1980; 1981), by Griselda Pollock; Van Gogh Face to Face: The Portraits (2000), with contributions by Roland Dorn, George S. Keyes, Joseph J. Rishel, George T. M. Shackelford (with Katherine Sachs); and Lauren Soth; The Real Van Gogh – The Artist and His Letters (2010), by Ann Dumas, Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten, and Nienke Bakker; Vincent van Gogh: The Paintings and the Drawings (2003), by Evert van Uitert, Louis van Tilborgh and Sjraar van Heugten; Vincent’s Choice: The Musée Imaginaire of Van Gogh (2003), by Chris Stolwijk et al.; Vincent van Gogh and Expressionism by Jill Lloyd; and Van Gogh à Arles: Dessins: 1888-1889 (2003), by Alain Amiel and Anne Clergue, published by the Fondation Vincent van Gogh.

Any contribution by the scholar and Museum curator Louis van Tilborgh is worth reading for anyone interested in Van Gogh’s art. His article, written with Ella Hendriks, on Vincent’s sunflower paintings, “The Tokyo ‘Sunflowers’: A Genuine Repetition by Van Gogh or a Schuffenecker Forgery?” (2001) is a marvel of art history and detective work. He has also written the definitive scholarship on another of Van Gogh’s iconic images. The Potato Eaters by Vincent van Gogh: Cahier Vincent 5 (1993), which Van Tilborgh edited, includes articles by Dieuwertje Dekkers, Sjraar van Heugten, Ijsbrand Hummelen, and Cornelia Peres, as well as by Van Tilborgh himself. It is clearly the definitive work on a painting that is crucial to understanding both Van Gogh’s life and his art. Van Tilborgh also edited (with Cornelia Peres and Michael Hoyle) A Closer Look: Technical and Art-Historical Studies on Works by van Gogh and Gauguin: Cahier Vincent 3 (1991), a fascinating look at the conservation of Van Gogh’s works, and how the efforts of conservators add so vitally to the understanding of his art.

Biographies of Artists Other than Van Gogh and Sources on Their Art

It would take too much space to address the vast literature on the many artists who crossed Van Gogh’s path, either in reality or in his imagination. But a few artists had such a profound impact on his life, or his art, that it is impossible to know him completely without knowing them. One of those, of course, is Paul Gauguin — both because of the importance of their brief, tumultuous cohabitation in Arles in 1888 and because of each artist’s influence on the other’s work. The literature on Gauguin, is understandably, voluminous. Among the highlights are Belinda Thompson’s Gauguin (1987), David Sweetman’s Paul Gauguin: A Life (1995), and Nancy Mowll Mathews’s extraordinary and revealing Paul Gauguin: An Erotic Life (2001).

Gauguin’s own writings are full of self-importance and self-invention, but all the more interesting for it. In addition to Avant et après (1903) (translated by Van Wyck Brooks in 1923 as Intimate Journals), there are several collections of his letters: Lettres de Paul Gauguin à Émile Bernard, 1888-1891 (1954); Paul Gauguin: 45 Lettres à Vincent, Théo et Jo van Gogh, edited by Douglas Cooper in 1983; Paul Gauguin et Vincent van Gogh, 1887-1888: Lettres retrouvées, sources ignores (Rediscovered Letters and Previously Unknown Sources), edited by Victor Merlhès in 1989; Correspondence de Paul Gauguin: Documents, Témoignages (The Correspondence of Paul Gauguin: Documents and Testimonies), edited by Victor Merlhès in 1984; and The Writings of a Savage: Paul Gauguin; and Paul Gauguin: Letters to His Wife and Friends, edited by Maurice Malingue and translated by Henry J. Stenning in 1946.

Two key books on Émile Bernard are Émile Bernard, 1861-1941: A Pioneer of Modern Art (1990), by Mary Anne Steven, Caroline Boyle-Turner, Roland Dorn, Vojtech Jirat-Wasiutynski, and Christiaan Vogelaa; and Émile Bernard (1868-1941): The Theme of Bordellos and Prostitutes in Turn-of-the-Century French Art (1988) by Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov and Philip Dennis Cate.

Lautrec mon ami (My Friend Lautrec, 1992), a memoir of the artist by his friend François Gauzi, gives a wonderful account of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s colorful life and reaps a harvest of information about life in the atelier Cormon, where Lautrec and Van Gogh briefly overlapped. Another of Vincent’s Cormon classmate was the Australian painter John Peter Russell. The two essential guides to Russell’s life and art are Ann Galbally’s The Art of John Peter Russell (1977) and Elizabeth Salter’s The Lost Impressionist: A Biography of John Peter Russell (1976).

In the early part of Van Gogh’s career, three figures stand out as important to his artistic project: one as a true friend and the other two as powerful models. The friend was Anthon van Rappard, who, it is fair to say, was not only Vincent’s best friend, but his only friend in a lifetime of searching for companionship. Despite Van Rappard’s unique (and artistically influential) place in Van Gogh’s life and work, the literature on him is thin. The only real source is Anthon van Rappard: Companion and Correspondent of Vincent van Gogh: His Life and All His Work (1974) by Jaap W. Brouwer, Jan Laurens Siesling, and Jacques Vis. The two more distant but more influential artists in Vincent’s formative artistic years were the Anglo-German artist Hubert Herkomer, and the provincial Frenchman, Jean-François Millet. The former is best represented in Herkomer: A Victorian Artist (1999) by Lee MacCormick Edwards — an extremely useful book on a once-influential but now largely forgotten artist. The literature on Millet, still a recognized giant of nineteenth-century art, is larger. For more on Millet’s tremendous influence on Van Gogh, we recommend Griselda Pollock’s dissertation, “Van Gogh and Dutch Art: A Study in Van Gogh’s Notion of the Modern” (1980) and Van Gogh and Millet (1988) by Louis van Tilborgh, Sjraar van Heugten, and Philip Conisbee. It is also helpful to read Alfred Sensier’s hagiographic biography La Vie et l’Oeuvre de J.-F. Millet (The Life and Work of J.-F. Millet; 1881). Only through this book (despite its manifest flaws) and the artist’s work (mostly in reproduction), did Van Gogh know one of his greatest artistic heroes.

Among the many works on artists of particular importance to Van Gogh, we would recommend in particular: Ary Scheffer bewonderd door Van Gogh: Tentoonstelling bij gelegenheid van het honderdste sterfjaar Vincent van Gogh (Ary Scheffe Admired by Van Gogh: Exhibition on the Occasion of the Hundredth Anniversary of Van Goghs’ Death; 1990), by L.J.I. Ewals; Jules Breton: Painter of Peasant Life (1990), by Annette Bourrut Lacouture; Paul Signac, 1863-1935 (2003) by Marina Ferretti-Bocquillon et al.; and Cézanne to Van Gogh: The Collection of Doctor Gachet (1999) by Anne Distel and Susan Alyson Stein. There are numerous books about The Hague School in which Vincent’s eye was trained early and which he learned about from one of the School’s great masters, Anton Mauve. The leading sources are: The Hague School: Dutch Masters of the 19th Century (1983), by Ronald de Leeuw, John Sillevis, and Charles Dumas; De Haagse School en de jonge Van Gogh (The Hague School and the Young Van Gogh; 1996), by Fred Leeman and John Sillevas; and De Haagse School (The Hague School; 1997), by Hans Janssen and Wim van Sinderen with contributions by Jeroen Kapelle.

Van Gogh himself loved biographies of artists and it is interesting to see the kinds of biographical profiles that he was accustomed to reading. In addition to the Sensier book on Millet (see above), he read collections of biographical essays such as Charles M. Blanc’s Les artistes de mon temps (The Artists of my Time; 1876); as well as works of criticism that incorporated biographical material, such as Les maitres d’autrefois: Belgique Hollande (The Old Master of Belgium and Holland; 1876), by Eugène Fromentin, and L’art au dix-huitième siècle: Watteau, Boucher, Chardin, La Tour, Greuze, Fragonard (French XVIII Century Painters Watteau, Boucher, Chardin, La Tour, Greuze, Fragonard; 1856-1875), by Edmond and Jules de Goncourt. Georges Michel, a little-known master of French landscape painting in the first half of the nineteenth century, was a particular favorite of both Van Gogh brothers, and Alfred Sensier also wrote a small book about Michel, Étude sur Georges Michel (A Study of Georges Michel; 1873), that was among Vincent’s best-loved works of art biography.

Topics in Van Gogh Scholarship

Despite the great (and continuous) outpouring of books and articles, there are still some topics on Van Gogh’s work and life that are either in flux or inexhaustibly interesting, or both. We have tried to list a few of the more irresistible invitations to further inquiry below.

Van Gogh’s Reading

As we hope our biography makes clear, Van Gogh was a voracious reader. He not only read many books, he often read them more than once. It would take too much space to list only the books and articles that we know he read – and, besides, that Herculean job has already been done with admirable thoroughness by Fieke Pabst, the Van Gogh Museum Archivist, and Evert van Uitert in “A Literary Life, with a List of Books and Periodicals Read by Van Gogh,” published in 1987. This marvelous feat of scholarship involved literary detective work of the highest order, as Vincent’s letters sometimes give only a garbled line or two – in Dutch, English, French, or German – to hint at the books, poems, and journals he was continuously reading. Still, because allusions to his reading are not always identified as such, and he does not always quote directly from his sources, but only adopts their arguments or their tropes or sometimes just their perspectives, there are always new influences to be found.

The subject of Van Gogh’s reading can be approached not just as a treasure hunt through his letters, but also as an invaluable insight into his thinking, and thence into his art. Sadly, some of Van Gogh’s favorite authors, such as Jules Michelet, the heroic and prolific writer on both nature and history (plus a few love manuals) is nowhere to be found in the curricula of most English-speaking schools. In a world that has grown far more Anglo-centric since Vincent’s time, the same can be said, to a lesser extent, about Taine, Zola, Maupassant, and the Goncourt brothers, all of whom were giants of Van Gogh’s literary world. (Balzac and Hugo have survived somewhat better in the American academic curricula). Of course, some of Vincent’s favorite works were written in English as well: Shakespeare, Dickens, and Eliot among British authors; Harriet Beecher Stowe and Walt Whitman among American. But the same fate that has befallen his French favorites have also removed many of his favorite German authors — Goethe, Heine, and Uhland – from reading lists in many schools outside Germany.

Reading the books and poetry that Van Gogh read has been one of the great unexpected pleasures of the decade we spent preparing this biography. It is astonishing, and not a little depressing, to find how much beauty and wisdom has been lost – or at least neglected – in the hundred years since Vincent died. For those who have the time, we highly recommend following Vincent’s tracks through the great literature of his era. One good place to start is Fieke Pabst’s wonderful book on the poetry Van Gogh loved enough to transcribe: Vincent van Gogh’s Poetry Albums: Cahier Vincent 1 (1888).

Van Gogh’s View on Family, Women, and Relationships

For a broad view of the place of women in Van Gogh’s world, we recommend Michelle Perrot’s A History of Private Life, Volume IV: From the Fires of Revolution to the Great War (translated by Arthur Goldhammer; 1990); and Eugen Weber’s France, Fin de Siècle (1986). The most important contemporary insight into views of women in the era (views that Vincent shared) can be found in two of Vincent’s favorite books: La femme (Woman; 1860), and L’amour (Love; 1859), both by Jules Michelet. On the more sensitive (and pertinent to Van Gogh) issue of prostitution and its place in a particularly libertine era, a very helpful source is Alain Corbin’s Women for Hire: Prostitution and Sexuality in France after 1850 (translated by Alan Sheridan; 1990).

For a more modern perspective on Van Gogh’s views on women, see Griselda Pollock’s Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism and Histories of Art (1988), and Carol M. Zemel’s Van Gogh’s Progress: Utopia, Modernity, and Late Nineteenth-Century Art (1997). Also see Zemel’s article “Sorrowing Women, Rescuing Men: Van Gogh’s Images of Women and Family” (1987). All of these are extremely important contributions to the feminist literature on Van Gogh. Zemel’s research on the family of Sien Hoornik triumphs in bringing to light a subject that would have otherwise remained completely obscured — the century-old lives of just another impoverished family — had it not been for Sien’s relationship with Vincent van Gogh.

Peter Gay’s epically brilliant series of books on The Bourgeois Experience Victoria to Freud address the subjects of sex and sensuality, but also much more about the society in which Vincent van Gogh and every other educated person of his generation lived: Education of the Senses (1984), The Tender Passion (1986), The Cultivation of Hatred (1993), The Naked Heart (1995), and Pleasure Wars (1998).

Van Gogh and Religion

Tsukasa Kôdera’s Vincent van Gogh: Christianity versus Nature (1990) is a thorough account of Van Gogh’s turn from religion to nature as the central sustaining force in his life and obsessive subject of his art. Kôdera’s article on “Van Gogh and the Dutch Theological Culture of the Nineteenth Century,” published in Vincent van Gogh: International Symposium in Tokyo in 1988, also illuminates this thesis. To understand the evangelical strain in both Vincent’s religion and his art, an indispensable piece is the work already mentioned by W. Lutjeharms, De Vlaamse Opleidingsshuuol van Nicolaas de Jonge en Zijn Opvolgers: 1875-1926, about Van Gogh’s time in an evangelical school in Brussels.

Van Gogh’s Social and Political Views

There are several important works on Van Gogh’s relationships with workers and peasants, including Monica Juneja’s “The Peasant Image and Agrarian Change: Representations of Rural Society in Nineteenth-Century French Painting from Millet to Van Gogh” (1988) and Griselda Pollock’s “Stark Encounters: Modern Life and Urban Work in Van Gogh’s Drawings of the Hague, 1881-1883” (1993). For a full-out hagiographic accounts of Vincent as labor hero (and martyr), see Louis Piérard’s La vie tragique de Vincent van Gogh and Pierre Secrétan-Rollier’s Van Gogh chez les gueules noires: L’homme de l’espoir. Robert L. Herbert’s “The Image of the Peasant in Nineteenth Century French Art from Millet to Gauguin” (1970) and Eugenia Herbert’s The Artist and Social Reform: France and Belgium, 1885-1898 (1961) provide extremely important additional context for understanding the roles of peasant and worker in European art of Van Gogh’s era.

Van Gogh’s Medical and Psychiatric Problems

Our understanding of Van Gogh’s medical problems, and especially his psychiatric challenges, owes a great deal to the brilliant work of the French psychiatrist Henri Gastaut, in particular his article “Mémoires Originaux: La maladie de Vincent van Gogh envisageé a la lumière des conceptions nouvelles sur l’élepsie psychomotrice” (“Original Memories: The Illness of Vincent van Gogh Understood in Light of New Theories about Psychomotor Epilepsy”) published in Annales Medico-Psychologiques in 1956. (The interested reader is urged to pursue Gastaut’s many other articles on the topic of epilepsy, especially the ones devoted specifically to Van Gogh.) Charles Mauron’s Van Gogh: Études psychocritiques (Van Gogh: Psycho-Critical Studies; 1976) is also full of acute insights into Van Gogh’s mental difficulties, and is especially eloquent on the subject of his complicated relationship with his brother Theo. Also extremely helpful and more recent is Psychiatric Aspects of Epilepsy (1984), edited by Dietrich Blumer; Aspects of Epilepsy and Psychiatry (1986), edited by Michael R. Trimble and Tom G. Bolwig; and Epilepsy and Related Disorders (1986) by William Gordon Lennox and Margaret A. Lennox.

The literature on self-mutilation includes Karl A. Menninger’s early “A Psychoanalytic Study of the Significance of Self-Mutilations” (1935) as well as Barent W. Walsh and Paul M. Rosen’s more recent Self-Mutilation: Theory, Research, and Treatment (1988).

For historical context on attitudes towards mental illness and the treatment of the mental diseases like epilepsy in the nineteenth century, see both Inheriting Madness: Professionalization and Psychiatric Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century France (1991) by Ian R. Dowbiggin; and The Invisible Plague: The Rise of Mental Illness from 1750 to the Present (2002) by E. Fuller Torrey and Judy Miller.

Two doctors reported some important medical information on Van Gogh in the first part of the twentieth century. Edgar Leroy, who supervised the asylum in Saint-Rémy after Van Gogh left it, surveyed the records on Van Gogh’s stay there in “Le Séjour de Vincent van Gogh à l’Asile de Saint-Rémy-de-Provence” (Vincent van Gogh’s Stay in the Asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence”; 1926). Dr. Victor Doiteau recorded early interviews with Dr. Paul Gachet and with René Secrétan in: “La curieuse figure de Docteur Gachet” (“The Curious Figure of Doctor Gachet”; 1923) and “Deux ‘copains’ de Van Gogh, inconnus: Les frères Gaston et René Secrétan, Vincent, tel qu’ils l’ont vu” (“Two Unknown Pals of Van Gogh: The Brothers Gaston and René Secrétan, Vincent as They Saw Him”; 1957) But new information on Vincent’s mental condition continues to be found. In “The Illness of Vincent van Gogh: A Previously Unknown Diagnosis,” published in 2003 in the Van Gogh Museum Journal, Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten, and Erik Fokke report on their important discovery that Van Gogh’s had visited an “alienist” in The Hague in 1879. For a Freudian interpretation of the artist, see Alfred J. Lubin’s Stranger on the Earth: A Psychological Biography of Vincent van Gogh (1972); and, in a similar vein, Humberto Nagera’s helpful analysis, Vincent van Gogh: A Psychological Study (1967).

Purchase Books and Materials from this Section on Further Reading on Van Gogh

Below are links to some of the major online stores from which you can purchase many of the books and other materials that are listed in our section on Further Reading. Some of these books are still in print and can readily be purchased. Others are no longer in print, but even among these items, online stores sometime offer out-of-print copies for purchase, sometimes at very reasonable prices.