Still Life with Open Bible Vincent van Gogh Buy Art Prints Now
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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Still Life with Open Bible was perhaps quite a rare painting for Van Gogh as it contained such strong symbolism. It was painted not long after the death of Van Gogh's father in March 1885, who had been a pastor in the Dutch reformed church in Nuenen.

The relationship between father and son was a tense one, with the direction in life Vincent Van Gogh took not meeting the approval of his father. The representation of the large, family bible with the obscured passages next to a copy of Zola's novel La Joie de Vivre instantly reflects different outlooks on life. Housed in the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, Still Life with Open Bible is an oil on canvas painting measuring 65.7cm x 78.5cm. The bible dominates the setting, propped up on a cloth-covered table with an extinguished candle placed next to it, thought to represent the passing of Van Gogh's father. The well thumbed copy of Zola's novel is placed beneath the bible, with the painting set within a black background further enhancing a sombre atmosphere.

The contrasting books represent contrasting outlooks on life. Vincent Van Gogh was an admirer of Zola's work and the novel La Joie de Vivre in the painting can be viewed almost as a modern day bible for modern day thinking as seen through the eyes of the younger Van Gogh. The bible signifies the father's faith and although Vincent Van Gogh respected the words of Jesus within the bible, it still represented an antiquated blind devotion to faith. For Vincent Van Gogh the Bible was set in the past and constantly looked back, while Zola's work was present and looking ahead.

Vincent Van Gogh painted Still Life with Open Bible in one go within a single day. He had tried to follow his father in to the ministry but failed his training. Disillusioned he left the church when aged 27 years old, turning his attention to art and producing some of the world's most cherished works. Some of that disillusionment may well have been poured in to Still Life with Open Bible as his life went a separate way from that of his father's. Yet for all its upbeat title Zola's novel is very dark, containing human suffering and this may be why Van Gogh chose this particular book.

According to a letter he wrote Van Gogh found the bible too depressing and narrow-minded. In contrast, although Zola's novel can be bleak he may have considered it as modern and more representative of the current world. Still Life with Open Bible takes its influence from traditional still lifes of the time with their heavy symbolism, but infused with Van Gogh’s own personal style and influence. It is in essence a memorial to his father and although they may not have seen eye to eye he clearly had an impact.