Still Life with Bible, 1885
In late October 1885 Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo:
"I’m sending you a still life of an open, hence an off-white Bible, bound in leather, against a black background with a yellow-brown foreground, with an additional note of lemon yellow.
I painted this in one go, in a single day."
It's arguable that the works of Van Gogh are lacking in symbolic import. A cypress tree is just a cypress tree (albeit one brilliantly rendered), a bird's nest is just a bird's nest--just as Sigmund Freud once said "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." Having said that, Still Life with Bible is one of the rare exceptions in Van Gogh's oeuvre where the symbolic meaning is quite forceful.
Van Gogh painted this work in October, 1885. The Bible belonged to his father who was a a pastor of the Dutch Reformed Church in the Netherlands. Van Gogh and his father had a turbulent relationship up until his father's death at the end of March, 1885. For Van Gogh the Bible represented everything he saw in his father: blind devotion to religion and faith, forever trapped in an antiquated mindset. The Bible is open to Isaiah 53 which describes a servant of God as "a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief . . . he was despised and we esteemed him not." This individual is often perceived as a Christ-like figure and Van Gogh, despite his ambivalent feelings about religion, did have respect for the ideals of Jesus Christ. One could also interpret this outcast figure as how Van Gogh perceived himself, particularly in the eyes of his parents. In 1883 Van Gogh would write to Theo:
"I feel what Father and Mother think of me instinctively (I do not say intelligently).
They feel the same dread of taking me in the house as they would about taking in a big, rough dog. He would run into the room with wet paws--and he is so rough. He will be in everybody's way. And he barks so loud. In short, he is a foul beast.
All right--but the beast has a human history, and though only a dog, he has a human soul, and even a very sensitive one, that makes him feel what people think of him, which an ordinary dog cannot do.
And I, admitting that I am a kind of dog, leave them alone." (Letter 346)
In front of the Bible is a copy of Emile Zola's La joie de vivre. Van Gogh was a great admirer of Zola's literary works and would write to his sister Willemina:
"On the contrary, if one wants truth, life as it is, De Goncourt, for example, in Germinie Lacerteux, La fille Elisa, Zola in La joie de vivre and L’assommoir and so many other masterpieces paint life as we feel it ourselves and thus satisfy that need which we have, that people tell us the truth." (Letter W1).
In Zola's book it can be argued that Van Gogh was depicting the antithesis of his father's Bible. A fresh and modern way of perceiving the world realistically, rather than the Bible which Van Gogh felt caused "despair and indignation" (Letter B8). To Van Gogh the Bible was looking backward while modern works by Zola and other writers he admired looked forward in inventive, new ways.
Another symbolic inclusion in this painting is the candlestick with the extinguished candle. This is generally perceived to represent Van Gogh's father who had died several months earlier. To Van Gogh the candle's flame was snuffed out and would no longer illuminate the Bible--a book he would describe to Emile Bernard as feeling no love (Letter B9).
About this Bible
It was generally believed that this was Van Gogh's father's family Bible, but later research revealed that this wasn't the case. This specific Bible is an 1882 reprint of a States Bible edition of 1712. Researchers at the Van Gogh Museum determined that this Bible wasn't the family Bible at all and served no specific function in the Van Gogh household. Furthermore the Bible wasn't a lectern Bible either, but was more likely a gift to Reverend Van Gogh.
The Bible survives to this day and is part of the collection of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
This hefty Bible had belonged to Van Gogh's father, a Protestant minister. Van Gogh painted it just after his father's death. He placed his own copy of Émile Zola's La joie de vivre next to it. That book was a kind of 'bible' for modern life. The books symbolize the different worldviews of Van Gogh and his father.
Vincent described this work to Theo as 'a still life of an open, hence an off-white Bible, bound in leather, against a black background with a yellow-brown foreground, with an additional note of lemon yellow.' He wanted to show that the colour black could be effective. The brothers had previously discussed this question at length.
Theo thought Vincent's canvases were too dark and gloomy. He encouraged his brother to use lighter, brighter tones, as the Impressionists did.