A s a young man Vincent Van Gogh spent three life-defining years in London. From 1873-76, he commuted between lodgings in Stockwell and Oval and a Covent Garden office where he worked as a clerk training to become an art dealer.
Carol Jacobi, lead curator of Tate Britain's exhibition Van Gogh and Britain, describes him as “an intensely literary artist, and the books that he read during his time in London were as important to his later development as the images he encountered in the city”.
“I want to paint what Dickens has done with words”
He was particularly drawn to Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Bronte’s Jane Eyre, everything by George Eliot. But above all, Van Gogh loved Charles Dickens. He found a particular affinity in the concern and sympathy of the authors, who filled the pages of their novels, with the everyday hardships of modest and working people. In a letter, he described the novels as “reality more real than reality”.
The artist’s letters were published in full in 1914 and consist of over 903 surviving letters, mostly written by the artist, and mostly written to his brother Theo. Over 50 of these letters reference, recommend and often discuss at length Charles Dickens and his works. His favourite titles were the Christmas books. In a letter in 1883 he writes:
“This week I bought a new 6-penny edition of Christmas carol and Haunted man by Dickens (London Chapman and Hall) with about 7 illustrations by Barnard, for example, a junk shop among others. I find all of Dickens beautiful, but those two tales — I’ve re-read them almost every year since I was a boy, and they always seem new to me. Barnard has understood Dickens well. Lately I again saw photographs after Black and White drawings by B., a series of characters from Dickens. I saw Mrs Gamp, Little Dorrit, Sikes, Sydney Carton, and several others. They’re a few figures worked up to a very high standard, very important, treated like cartoons. In my view there’s no other writer who’s as much a painter and draughtsman as Dickens. He’s one of those whose characters are resurrections.”
He was also drawn to the illustrators of the time, often through their evocative work for Dickens. Frederick Barnard, Luke Fildes, J. Mahoney, Henry French and more are all mentioned in his letters and he frequently bought woodcuts and engravings by these artists, often of Dickensian scenes. He wrote to Anthon van Rappard on another occasion saying: “For me the English draughtsmen are what Dickens is in the sphere of literature. It’s one and the same sentiment, noble and healthy, and something one always comes back to.”
You can see the influence of these woodcuts and illustrations directly in Van Gogh’s work. ‘Worn Out: At Eternity’s Gate’ an oil on canvas painted in 1890, features a seated man in an almost identical pose to an illustration found in Hard Times.
Van Gogh often walked the banks of the Thames, and wandered throughout the city, essentially mimicking the method of his favorite author, observing and trying to understand the world. He remained devoted to the Victorian author throughout his life. The Arlésienne (1890), painted in the last year of his life, shows a book with ‘Charles Dickens’ written on the spine.
The two men never crossed paths in London. Van Gogh arrived in London three years after the author died in 1870. Dickens was working on what became his final and unfinished work The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Van Gogh wrote in a letter to his brother of the novel: “I have my perspective books here and a few volumes of Dickens, including Edwin Drood. There’s perspective in Dickens too. By Jove, what an artist. There’s no one to match him.” (9 June 1882).
Luke Fildes, who was working with Dickens on illustrating Edwin Drood at the time, felt compelled to draw what would be known as The Empty Chair. A solemn work published originally in The Graphic, the illustration was reprinted across the world as a tribute to the author. It shows the author’s chair, empty, in his study at Gad’s Hill. Van Gogh acquired a wood cut of this illustration, “I also long to show you the woodcuts. I have another splendid one, a drawing by Fildes, ‘Dickens’s empty chair’ from The Graphic of 70” (26 July, 1882).
In another letter, Van Gogh explains the story himself to his brother in December 1892: “Edwin Drood was Dickens’s last work, and Luke Fildes, having got in touch with D. through those small illustrations, comes into his room on the day of his death — sees his empty chair standing there, and so it was that one of the old Nos. of The Graphic had that striking drawing. ” He finishes the story “Empty chairs — there are many, more will come, and sooner or later instead of Herkomer, Luke Fildes, Frank Holl, William Small &c. there will only be Empty chairs…”. It’s impossible not to think of Van Gogh’s own empty chair, painted in 1888.
Van Gogh and Britain is on exhibition at the Tate Britian this summer until 11 August.
Charles Dickens: The Lawrence Drizen Collection will be sold 24 September, with a highlight exhibition at the Charles Dickens Museum from the 3-6 September and a full exhibition at Sotheby’s London from the 20-24 of September.