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Art and Images in Psychiatry
December 2003

Still Life With Open Bible and Zola's La Joie de Vivre

Author Affiliations


Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2003;60(12):1182. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.60.12.1182

THEODORUS VAN GOGH died suddenly and unexpectedly on the doorstep of his vicarage in Neunen, the Netherlands, as he returned from a walk on March 25, 1885. He was 63 years old and had apparently had a heart attack. His death proved pivotal for his son Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890). Although at one time Vincent had idolized his father, after his own experiences as an evangelist, he argued with him frequently about traditional views of religion. Because of disagreements, on Christmas Day 1881, his father had asked him to leave the family home; 2 years later Vincent had returned penniless. Theodorus welcomed him and accepted him back into the home but did not accept his son's manner of dress or his ideas, writing to Vincent's brother Theo, "[I]t is a pity he is so reserved, there is simply no changing the fact that he is eccentric."1(p255) Vincent wrote to Theo that although he loved his father,

Father cannot understand or sympathize with me, and I cannot be reconciled with Father's system—it oppresses me, it would choke me. I too read the Bible . . . as I read Michele or Balzac or Eliot; but see quite different things in the Bible than Father does, and I cannot find at all what Father draws from it in his academic way.2(letter 164)

Theodorus was allied with the Groningen School of the Dutch Reform Church,3 which taught that dogma is less important than charity, that God reveals himself in the Word but also in creation—in humanity and in nature—and that Christ personifies consolation for the human race, especially for the poor and the weak. Vincent, however, felt that his father did not sufficiently adhere to these tenets.

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Dutch. Still Life With Open Bible and Zola's La Joie de Vivre,1885. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Copyright Snark/Art Resource, New York, NY.

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Dutch. Still Life With Open Bible and Zola's La Joie de Vivre,1885. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Copyright Snark/Art Resource, New York, NY.

Shortly after his father's death, Vincent painted Still Life With Open Bible and Zola's La Joie de Vivre ("The Joy of Living") spontaneously and quickly, in a single day. The painting shows his father's Bible and a worn copy of Emile Zola's novel. An extinguished, burned-down candle stands next to the Bible. Touches of blue relieve the monochromatic hue of the Bible and candle. Both the Bible and novel are bathed in warm light, yet the cover of Zola's book stands out more brightly in yellow, a color that for Vincent signified life. The pages of the Bible are clean and well cared for, whereas those of the novel are bent and damaged.

In memorializing his father's death by depicting his Bible with the Zola novel, Vincent seems to emphasize their differences. The painting is often interpreted as Vincent's rebellion against his father's views, which Vincent felt were outdated, and his contrasting them with his own more modern views, represented by Zola. However, Edwards4(p47) proposes that a closer look suggests he was seeking to find common ground. The Bible is opened not to the Ten Commandments or to admonishments about evil action, nor to the parable of the Prodigal Son, a favorite story of Vincent's, but rather to Isaiah, chapter 53. The French name Isaie (Isaiah) appears at the top of the right-hand page, and "Chap LIII" (53) is highlighted in black in the right column. Isaiah describes the suffering of God's misunderstood servant who is despised and rejected by his fellow men—a man of sorrows who vicariously brings healing to them by bearing their sorrows. Isaiah is a prophet who sings and rejoices. Vincent, as an evangelist, personally identified with him. He chose La Joie de Vivre because to him it portrayed the suffering servant's Song of Isaiah in modern form. Zola's novel depicts a miserable bourgeois family: Mr Chanteau is immobilized with gout, his wife is self-centered and greedy, and their son, Lazare, avoids all of life's challenges. An orphan, Pauline Quenu, is placed in their care. Although she is betrayed, robbed, and misused, she remains a "ray of hope in the household and an angel of charity in their poor fishing village."4(p50) Zola describes her as the "incarnation of renunciation, of love for others and kindly charity for erring humanity."4(p50) Vincent was a painter with a message, preoccupied with the purpose of life, and thus an artistic counterpart to Zola.

Subsequently, Vincent expressed the religious impulse through his art. In this way, he maintained continuity with the Groningen School. He wrote to artist Emile Bernard, criticizing Bernard's painting of overt Christian themes: "[Y]ou can give the impression of anguish without aiming straight to the historical garden of Gethsemane; it is not necessary to portray the characters of the Sermon on the Mount in order to produce a consoling and gentle motif."4(p58) Vincent was subsequently drawn to the Japanese ukiyo-e prints, Zenlike in their illustration of nature.5 He wrote to Theo, "Come now, isn't it almost a true religion that these simple Japanese teach us, who live in nature as though they themselves were flowers?"2(letter 542) In preparation for Paul Gauguin's arrival at the Studio of the South, Vincent painted himself as a Buddhist monk; he thought of the studio as having a monastic purpose, that the artist had a mission to communicate higher truths and to console. The worldwide popularity of Vincent's paintings is an indicator of his success in this mission to engage the viewer emotionally and profoundly, and even to offer consolation.6

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