'I have also painted 'Une Liseuse de Romans,' the luxuriant hair very black, a green bodice, the sleeves the color of wine leafs, the skirt black, the background all yellow, bookshelves with books. She is holding a yellow book in her hands' (Van Gogh, The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, Vol. III, London, 1958, no. W 9, p. 448).
So Van Gogh wrote to his sister (fig. 6), Wil, towards the end of 1888. By the time Une liseuse de romans was painted, van Gogh had been in Arles for over half a year, and this change of location had had huge ramifications in his painting. While he had found Paris stifling, and this had reflected itself in many of his works executed there, the French countryside had resuscitated the lust for life that characterises his greatest pictures. He regained confidence and originality, his own unique manner of expressing the wonders of the world. The mixture of innovation and enthusiasm with which he painted during this period have led to its being considered one of the highpoints of his entire artistic career. Une liseuse de romans is an intimate and exquisite work packed with the various strands of influence - Japanese art, Gauguin, the South - which had converged in Arles to produce an artist with an inimitable and indomitable ability to seemingly recreate on canvas the stuff of life itself.
One of the main reasons that Van Gogh had headed for the South of France was that he considered it the closest he could afford to reach to Japan, a country with which he was obsessed. Some months earlier he had written to his brother Theo, justifying his stay there:
'About this staying on in the South, even if it is more expensive, consider: we like Japanese painting, we have felt its influence, all the impressionists have that in common; then why not go to Japan, that is to say the equivalent of Japan, the South?' (Van Gogh, ibid., Vol. II, no. 500, p. 589).
There were several key factors that attracted Van Gogh to the art of the Japanese. One of these was the intensity of the artistic process, the dedication that some of the great Japanese itinerant artists had shown, wandering like paupers in search of the perfect aesthetic sight. However another aspect, inspired greatly by the prints of artists such as Hiroshige, Utamaro and Hokusai, was the use of fields of bold colour in his works. Van Gogh created his own brand of cloisonnisme based on the bold, bordered colours in Japanese prints. Van Gogh discussed this use of contrasting colours that he had developed in a letter written to his sister shortly before Une liseuse de romans was painted, explaining that it was in part a legacy of the Japanese artists he loved so much:
'My dear sister, it is my belief that it is actually one's duty to paint the rich and magnificent aspects of nature. We are in need of gaiety and happiness, of hope and love.
'The more ugly, old, vicious, ill, poor I get, the more I want to take my revenge by producing a brilliant color, well arranged, resplendent. Jewellers too get old and ugly before they learn how to arrange precious stones well. And arranging the colors in a picture in order to make them vibrate and to enhance their value by their contrasts is something like arranging jewels properly' (Van Gogh, ibid., Vol. III, W 7, p. 444).
In Une liseuse de romans, the various colours are arranged in such a way as to create a harmony, each area making its neighbours sing all the more. The reader herself is thrust into bold relief by the ardent yellow of the background. These colours, as seen in the letter the artist had sent his sister describing the work, were both a product of the artist's enthusiasm and a source of pride for him. He was daring here to present colour almost for its own sake, using it to capture his sense of 'gaiety and happiness, hope and love'. However, Van Gogh has filled the reader herself with subdued tones, apart from her shoulders and her book. This gives her a sense of shade, of darkness, and therefore of mystery. At the same time, it links the painting to its near contemporary, The Sower (fig. 1), which, despite its rural theme, echoes the composition of La liseuse de romans.
It is no coincidence that when Van Gogh described this picture to his brother, he ended the description by saying, 'Gauguin gives me the courage to imagine things, and certainly things from the imagination take on a more mysterious character' (Van Gogh, ibid., Vol. III, no. 562, p. 104). Van Gogh was not merely referring to the image itself, but also to the fact that, inspired by Gauguin, he was painting subjects not from life, but from his heart, mind and memory. The images that were in his mind he now deemed suitable to be harnessed on canvas. Van Gogh referred to this process as 'Abstraction', and indeed discussed his use of abstraction with his friend Emile Bernard with specific reference to this painting (in letter B 21). For Van Gogh, abstraction meant working from the mind, or the heart, and not from life. Gauguin was the artist who gave Van Gogh the inspiration and encouragement to tap into the mysteries of his own mind, and of the universe, without having to resort to the real world as a visual key. Instead, he could sit and conjure up memories, visions, sights that were poignant and pertinent to him, thereby tapping into a mystic strain of life that he had formerly ignored. Van Gogh was executing another painting at the same time as Une liseuse de romans, Un Souvenir du jardin à Etten (fig. 3), now in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, and discussed this painting at some length with his sister. First he described the painting, and then he defended and explained himself, tying the use of the bold colours to the memory process which he here invokes:
'I don't know whether you can understand that one may make a poem only by arranging colors, in the same way that one can say comforting things in music.
'In a similar manner the bizarre lines, purposely selected and multiplied, meandering all through the picture, may fail to give the garden a vulgar resemblance, but may present it to our minds as seen in a dream, depicting its character, and at the same time stranger than it is in reality' (Van Gogh, ibid., Vol. III, no. W 9, p. 448).
This sense of the poetic nature of his memory, of visually being able to recreate an image, and yet to render it more intense than the original moment, is both the crux of Van Gogh's painting, and a great legacy from Gauguin. Although Van Gogh repeatedly referred to Gauguin as an impressionist painter, it is clear that neither of the two were exploring any sense of 'impressionnisme', but were instead seeking a more extreme, more expressionistic means of tapping not into any worldly reality but instead into an intense, emotional experience of life at its rawest and most poetic. Writing about the poet Walt Whitman, Van Gogh perhaps unwittingly set down some words that encapsulate much of his own art:
'He sees in the future, and even in the present, a world of healthy, carnal love, strong and frank - of friendship - of work - under the great starlit vault of heaven a something which after all one can only call God - and eternity in its place above the world. At first it makes you smile, it is all so candid and pure; but it sets you thinking for the same reason' (Van Gogh, ibid., Vol. III, no. W 8, p. 445).
It is apt that this description is in fact a reference to books, the subject of Une liseuse de romans and a recurring theme throughout van Gogh's art, appearing in paintings as diverse as his painting of Gauguin's chair (fig. 5), simpler still lifes like his Still Life with French Novels and a Rose painted in Paris (fig. 4), or his portrait of Mme. Ginoux, L'Arlésienne. Van Gogh was reading a great deal in the South, finding several authors who seemed to share aims in one way or another with him: Maupassant, Flaubert, Zola and Whitman. The first three in particular, all of whose books tended to be printed with cheap, yellow paper covers, Van Gogh had entreated his sister to read, along with other Naturalist fiction, and some have speculated that in Une liseuse de romans, Van Gogh's only known oil depicting a woman actually reading, not merely holding, a book, is the artist's highly personal visualisation of his sister reading one of the books he had so heartily recommended.