G.A. Aurier, Châteauroux (acquired from the artist)
Mrs. S. Williame-Aurier, Châteauroux (by descent from the above in 1892)
Jacques Williame, Châteauroux (by descent from the above)
M. Naessens, Brussels (acquired from the above through the agency of Robert Sereau in 1943)
Private Collection, Belgium (acquired from the above in 1962 and sold: Christie's, London, December 8, 1999, lot 11)
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
Liège, Musée des Beaux-Arts; Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts; Mons, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Vincent van Gogh, 1946-47, no. 34bis (as dating from the Dutch period)
Paris, Musée de l'Orangerie, Vincent van Gogh, 1947, no. 34bis
Geneva, Musée Rath, Vincent van Gogh, 1947, no. 35
Jacob-Baart de la Faille, The Works of Vincent van Gogh, His Paintings and Drawings, London, 1970, F 332a, illustrated p. 159 (as dating from winter 1886-87)
Paolo Lecaldano, L'Opera pittorica completa di Van Gogh e i suoi nessi grafici, Milan, 1971, no. 325, illustrated p. 112
Jan Hulsker, The Complete Van Gogh, Paintings, Drawings, Sketches, New York, 1980, no. 1233, illustrated p. 273 (as dating from early 1887)
Ronald Pickvance, Van Gogh in Arles (exhibition catalogue), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1984, p. 36
Van Gogh à Paris (exhibition catalogue), Musée d'Orsay, Paris, 1988, discussed p. 65 (as dating from late 1886)
Ingo Walter and Rainer Metzger, Vincent van Gogh — The Complete Paintings, Part I, Cologne, 1990, illustrated p. 210
Jan Hulsker, The New Complete Van Gogh, Paintings, Drawings, Sketches, Amsterdam and Philadelpia, 1996, no. 1233, illustrated p. 273 (titled A Pair of Shoes, One Turned Upside Down and as dating from spring 1887)
Van Gogh's weather-beaten leather shoes have become some of the most recognizable images in the history of modern art. The present picture is one from a series of five depictions (see figs. 1-4) of this subject that the artist completed between 1886 and 1887. Four of these pictures are included in the collections of museums around the world; the present canvas is the only one of the five remaining in private hands. These splendid paintings, along with his series of sunflowers, are regarded as Van Gogh's most successful still-lifes and have come to be regarded as the artist's signature works.
While the series, A Pair of Shoes, is one of the most studied and cited in recent art history texts, no one can seem to agree on the precise date that the present work was painted. In the 1970 edition of De La Faille's catalogue raisonné on the artist's work, the picture was dated to winter 1886-87. Jan Hulsker, however, believes that van Gogh painted the entire series in 1887, and dates the picture specifically to the springtime of that year. Other scholars, however, have proposed that this picture, along with the more earth-toned works at the Rijksmuseum and at the Fogg, were painted at the end of 1886, when the artist's palette still bore the darker colors of his Dutch paintings. While the specific months are debatable, it is without question that the artist was in Paris with his brother Theo when he completed the series, and that the circumstances by which he arrived at this subject matter were influenced by his experiences in the French capital.
We know from François Gauzi's account that Van Gogh purchased a pair of 'clumsy, bulky' peasant shoes at a flea market with the intention of painting them. At first, the artist thought that the 'old clonkers' were too shiny and clean to make a worthy subject for his still life, so he put them on and plodded around the muddy streets of Paris for several weeks so that they would acquire a more weathered look. In the five pictures that he completed between the fall of 1886 and the early spring of 1887, Van Gogh used three pairs of shoes: a square-toed version that rose just below the ankle and two other pairs with higher top lines. The square-toed pair, with its precisely nailed soles, is the subject of the present work, and all three pairs are included in the painting at the Fogg Art Museum. In 19th century France, the subject of shoes had particular socio-political connotations in the paintings of the avant-garde, as they did in Nils Kreuger's depiction of a Parisian workman's boots in from 1882 (see fig. 5) It is believed that the artist drew his inspiration for this series from Millet’s numerous drawings of the peasant clogs or sabots (see fig. 6), which represented the earnest simplicity of peasant life. The subject probably appealed to Van Gogh for similar reasons, and Jan Hulsker provides the following analysis of the matter:
“It is only too easy to see in this a symbol of Vincent’s own journey through life, his craving always to settle somewhere else, his ‘goût de l’errance’ (‘taste for roving’), as Leprohon called it – and so we find this thought in several books on Van Gogh. Tralbaut has simply pointed out that Vincent had always been a great walker and said that it was therefore hardly surprising that he depicted his shoes, ‘his companions on these wanderings.’ What many have seen in a work like 1124 (F. 255) has been aptly summed up by Frank Elgar: ‘Old, worn, gaping and down at heel, the articles exhibited tell a story of poverty, wretchedness and weary, endless tramping. They reveal the plight of the man who wore them out so utterly and, through his adversity, the toil and fatigue of the whole world’” (Jan Hulsker, op. cit., p. 244).
Van Gogh would return to the subject of the shoes once again in 1888 (see fig. 7), painting a pair of clogs similar to the ones that had fascinated Millet. But it is the workmen's shoes -- soiled, beaten, and bearing the weight of the artist's plight -- that have become the symbol of Van Gogh's very existence. This series would later inspire countless artists in the 20th century, including Magritte and Miró, whose 1937 meditation on this theme is directly indebted to the present work (see fig. 8). The philosopher Martin Heidegger devoted a lengthy essay to van Gogh's depiction of these shoes and spoke about the existential significance of the image itself. Several years later, Shapiro provided a response to Heidegger's famous text and claimed that these shoes were a symbol of the artist himself: “As long as we only imagine a pair of shoes in general, or simply look at the empty, unused shoes as they merely stand there in the picture, we shall never discover what the equipmental being of equipment in truth is. In Van Gogh’s painting we cannot even tell where these shoes stand. There is nothing surrounding this pair of peasant shoes in or to which they belong, only an undefined space. There are not even clods from the soil of the fields or the path through it sticking to them, which might at least hint at their employment. A pair of peasant shoes and nothing more. And yet. From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stands forth. In the stiffly solid heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field, swept by a raw wind. On the leather there lies the dampness and saturation of the soil. Under the soles there slides the loneliness of the field-path as the evening declines. In the shoes there vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of the ripening corn and its enigmatic self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field. This equipment is pervaded by uncomplaining anxiety about the certainty of bread, the wordless joy of having once more having withstood want, the trembling before the advent of birth and shivering at the surrounding menace of death" (Meyer Shapiro, "The still life as personal object, A note on Heidegger and van Gogh," in M. L. Simmel (ed.), The Reach of Mind, New York, 1968, pp. 203-209).
Fig. 1, Vincent van Gogh, A Pair of Shoes, 1886, oil on canvas, Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Vincent van Gogh Foundation, Amsterdam
Fig. 2, Vincent van Gogh, Three Pairs of Shoes, 1886, oil on canvas, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge
Fig. 3, Vincent van Gogh, A Pair of Shoes, 1887, oil on canvas, The Cone Collection, The Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore
Fig. 4, Vincent van Gogh, A Pair of Shoes, 1887, oil on paper on cardboard, Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Vincent van Gogh Foundation, Amsterdam
Fig. 5, Nils Kreuger, Les Brodequins, Paris 1882, oil, Prins Eugens Gemäldegalerie, Stockholm
Fig. 6, Jean-François Millet, Les Sabots, 1881, charcoal on paper
Fig. 7, Vincent van Gogh, A Pair of Leather Clogs, 1888, oil on canvas, Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam
Fig. 8, Joan Miró, Still Life with Old Shoe, 1937, oil on canvas, The Museum of Modern Art, New York
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