Une Liseuse de romans was painted at Arles in November 1888, during a period of unmatched productivity in Van Gogh's career. Ronald Pickvance has described the artist's fifteenth-month stay at Arles as "the zenith, the climax, the greatest flowering of Van Gogh's decade of artistic activity" (exh. cat., op. cit., New York, 1984, p. 11), and Richard Kendall has written, "The act of metamorphosis by which Van Gogh reinvented himself in Arles is one of the most startling phenomena of his career" (Van Gogh's Van Goghs, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1998, p. 90). More specifically, the present painting dates to a nine-week period during which Gauguin visited Van Gogh at Arles, and the two artists lived and worked side-by-side. Their partnership gave rise to an episode of intense aesthetic exploration for both painters. Une Liseuse de romans bears powerful witness both to Van Gogh's response to Gauguin's example (in particular, to Gauguin's views about "abstraction" versus painting from nature) and to Van Gogh's passionate engagement with contemporary literature and the modern gospel of the Naturalist novel.
Van Gogh painted the canvas in mid-November, during the fourth week of Gauguin's stay at Arles. A period of bad weather had descended upon the region, and the two painters were forced to work indoors. On November 10th, Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, "We are having wind and rain here, and I am very glad not to be alone. I work from memory on bad days, and that would not do if I were alone" (Letter to Theo 718/561). Two days later, Van Gogh wrote to his sister Wil about two paintings that he had just completed, Memory of the Garden at Etten (De la Faille no. 496; fig. 1) and the present canvas: "I have also painted Une Liseuse de romans, the luxuriant hair very black, a green bodice, the sleeves the color of wine lees, the skirt black, the background all yellow, bookshelves with books. She is holding a yellow book in her hands" (Letter to Wil 720/W9). On the same day, Van Gogh discussed these two paintings in a letter to Theo, describing Une Liseuse de romans as "a woman reading a novel in a library like the Lecture Française, a woman all in green" (Letter to Theo 719/562). He mentioned the present painting once more, in a letter to Emile Bernard the following year: "As you know, once or twice, while Gauguin was in Arles, I gave myself free rein with abstractions, for instance in... Une Liseuse de romans, black in a yellow library" (Letter to Bernard 822/B21).
The issue of abstraction--working from the imagination, rather than from nature--was a fraught one for Van Gogh. By the time that he arrived at Arles, Gauguin was a forceful proponent of painting in this way. In a letter to Emile Schuffenecker dated August 1888, he wrote, "A piece of advice, do not imitate nature. Art is an abstraction; draw it out from nature while dreaming in front of it and think more about the act of creation than about the result" (V. Merlhès, ed., Correspondence de Paul Gauguin: Documents, témoignages, Paris, 1984, Letter 159). Van Gogh, however, had serious reservations about this approach. In early October, Van Gogh shared his concerns with Bernard: "I cannot work without a model. I won't say that I don't turn my back on nature ruthlessly in order to turn a study into a picture, arranging the colors, enlarging and simplifying; but in the matter of form I am too afraid of departing from the possible and the true. I exaggerate... but I do not invent the whole picture" (Letter to Bernard 698/B19). In mid-November, under Gauguin's influence, Van Gogh reversed his position, painting Memory of the Garden and Une Liseuse de romans entirely "de tête" (Letter to Theo 718/561). He wrote to Wil that Gauguin had given him "the courage to imagine things" (Letter to Wil 720/W9), and he told Theo, "Gauguin, in spite of himself and in spite of me, has more or less proved to me that it is time I was varying my work a little. I am beginning to compose from memory" (Letter to Theo 721/563). Douglas Druick and Peter Zegers have written, "Issues debated in past correspondence were at stake here: painting ecstatically and quickly versus reflectively and deliberately; plein-air versus studio work; the étude versus the tableau. If Vincent had hoped that sharing a studio would help him to address these questions, the bad weather that descended on Arles in mid-November afforded the opportunity" (exh. cat., op. cit., Chicago, 2002, p. 198).
The formal aspects of the present painting also point to Gauguin's influence. The flat planes of color, framed in heavy black outlines, recall the style of cloisonnisme established by Gauguin, Bernard, and Louis Anquetin at Pont-Aven earlier in the year. Particularly noteworthy is Bernard's Les Bretonnes dans la prairie from August 1888 (Luthi, no. 114; fig. 2), which anticipates both the emphatic contours and the distinctive palette (black, yellow, and green) of Van Gogh's Liseuse. Bernard gave this canvas to Gauguin, who brought it with him to Arles; Van Gogh found the painting so original that he made a watercolor copy in December (De la Faille, no. 1422; Civica Galleria d'Arte Moderna, Milan) and described it in detail to his sister the following year (Letter to Wil 827/W16). Une Liseuse de romans also reflects the work that Gauguin was doing alongside Van Gogh at Arles. A key feature of Van Gogh's composition is the placement of the woman's figure close up and completely parallel to the picture plane, a device that may have been inspired by Gauguin's Misères humaines, painted the previous week (Wildenstein, no. 304; fig. 3). In both canvases, the result is to detach the figure both formally and psychologically from her environment, producing a completely inward orientation.
If certain formal elements of Une Liseuse de romans reflect the example of Gauguin, however, the theme of the canvas--a woman reading a novel--is Van Gogh's own, and one that held powerful significance for him. He was a passionate reader, perhaps the best-read of the artists in his circle, and his letters contain references to more than two hundred novels. Van Gogh proudly professed to his brother Theo in 1880 a "more or less irresistible passion for books" and declared that "the love of books is as sacred as the love of Rembrandt" (Letter to Theo 155/133). His abiding passion as a reader was French Naturalist literature, the richly pictorial and compellingly realistic novels of Emile Zola, Alphonse Daudet, Guy de Maupassant, and the Goncourt brothers. Indeed, Vincent's engagement with Naturalist fiction--les romans parisiens (fig. 4)--was one factor that led him to Paris in 1886, and it was Daudet's tales of the Midi, especially his picaresque Tartarin de Tarascon series, that stirred Vincent's interest in the South.
Van Gogh viewed the reader as an ideal modern type and admired other artist's representations of the theme. As early as 1879, he wrote appreciatively of one of Ernest Meissonier's many pictures of readers (Letter to Theo 152/130). He was especially fond of a Meissonier portrait (and a similar composition of "modern man" by Albert Besnard) in which the reader holds his place with his finger, as though caught mid-passage (Letter to Theo 798/602). At the Puvis de Chavannes retrospective that Durand-Ruel mounted in November 1887, Van Gogh was particularly struck by Puvis's Portrait de Eugène Benon, 1882, which depicts the sitter with an open book. The book's yellow cover identifies it as a work of Naturalist literature--and, in turn, identified the sitter for Van Gogh as someone open-minded and receptive to new ideas. In a letter to Theo, he referred to the portrait as a "consoling thing" that proved that it was possible to see "modern life as something bright, in spite of its inevitable griefs" (Letter to Theo 829/617).
Books appear in fifteen of Van Gogh's paintings between 1885 and 1890, including some of his best-known works. It was not until his arrival at Arles, however, that Van Gogh began to include books in figural compositions, in addition to still-lifes. The first figural painting in which books make an appearance is a portrait of Mme Ginoux, the proprietor of a local café who posed for Van Gogh and Gauguin in early November. Van Gogh painted two portraits of Mme Ginoux at this time and an additional five the following year at Saint-Rémy. In the first of the Arles portraits, Mme Ginoux is seated at a table with a parasol and gloves in front of her (De la Faille, no. 489; Musée d'Orsay, Paris); in the second version, these items have been replaced by two well-thumbed books, one of them lying open, whose colorful paper bindings readily identify them as Naturalist novels (De la Faille, no. 488; fig. 5). Since few provincial women read such books in this era, the novels' presence most likely reflects Van Gogh's own literary tastes, not those of his sitter. Judy Sund has written, "Van Gogh literally transformed Ginoux; the bored barfly of the first Arlésienne... became, in Van Gogh's second take, an intent reader--and in this incarnation she is as much a reflection of the artist as of his model" (op. cit., p. 209).
The present canvas was painted less than two weeks after Mme Ginoux posed for Van Gogh and Gauguin. Like Van Gogh's Arlésienne, his Liseuse de romans is depicted half-length, her shoulders turned in three-quarter profile toward the left. Her features, coiffure, and costume also seem to derive from the artist's recent work on the Ginoux portraits. Yet while Mme Ginoux is shown gazing into the distance, the woman in the present painting is actually reading, her fixed expression suggesting the intense involvement and concentration that Van Gogh himself brought to literature. The painting glows both from the lamplight and from the radiant yellow books, expressing Van Gogh's conviction that modern literature was both literally and figuratively illuminating. He later made this clear in a letter to Theo in which he contemplated painting a Parisian bookstore, "an essentially modern subject because it seems to the imagination such a rich source of light" (Letter to Theo 823/615).
A noteworthy feature of Van Gogh's reader--in contrast to those of Meissonier, Besnard, and Puvis--is her gender. In this respect, Van Gogh's point of departure was probably Rembrandt's Holy Family (fig. 6), which had long been a touchstone for the artist; he hung a reproduction of it in his bedroom in 1875 and gave copies both to Theo and to his sister Anna. By replacing the Bible with a Naturalist novel, however, Van Gogh suggests--as he did in Still Life with Bible and Zola's "Joie de vivre" (De la Faille, no. 117; Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)--that Naturalist literature represents a new kind of modern gospel. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Van Gogh considered Naturalist novels not just acceptable but desirable reading for women. He waged a tireless campaign to influence his sister Wil's literary predilections, repeatedly (and often successfully) urging her to read certain books or authors. Van Gogh explicitly identified one of the figures in Memory of the Garden at Etten as his sister (Letter to Wil 720/W9), and it is possible that Une Liseuse de romans is also based on his "memories," both real and ideal, of his favorite sibling. Sund has concluded, "That this imagined woman should be seated in a library, reading a yellow book (i.e. a modern novel) with wide-eyed attention, reflects the artist's conviction that everyone should read and suggests anew that his conception of the ideal woman included a devotion to modern fiction that was modeled on his own. In Une Liseuese, the purposeful tinkering with reality that Van Gogh began in the second Arlésienne was made complete and resulted in an idiosyncratically conceived paradigm of modern womanhood" (ibid., pp. 211-212).
(fig. 1) Vincent Van Gogh, Memory of the Garden at Etten, 1888. State Hermitage Museums, St. Petersburg.
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(fig. 2) Emile Bernard, Les Bretonnes dans la prairie, 1888. Private collection.
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(fig. 3) Paul Gauguin, Misères humaines, 1888. Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen.
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(fig. 4) Vincent Van Gogh, Les Romans parisiennes, 1887. Private collection.
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(fig. 5) Vincent Van Gogh, L'Arlésienne, 1888. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
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(fig. 6) Rembrandt van Rijn, The Holy Family, 1638-1640. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
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