In the space of a few years, from 1886 to 1888, Vincent van Gogh painted half a dozen pictures of shoes. Not just any shoes. But old shoes. Worn shoes. Peasant’s shoes.
I think it’s reasonable to ask what motivated him to do this. What was it about shoes that sparked his curiosity? The answer may lie in his abiding interest in depicting the lives of ordinary people and recognising the meaning that resides in everyday objects and scenes.
But let’s drill down into a bit more detail.
Art suffused with passion
A good place to start is surely Van Gogh himself. In a letter to his brother Theo, from July 1882, he wrote, “In the poorest little house, in the filthiest corner, I see paintings or drawings. And my mind turns in that direction as if with an irresistible urge.”
Reflecting on this close gaze, the art critic John Berger said about Van Gogh: “For him, the act of drawing or painting was a way of discovering and demonstrating why he loved so intensely what he was looking at.”
It’s this intensity of feeling that explains why Van Gogh’s paintings still resonate with us today. We look at them and sense the emotions and passions that stirred him.
The power of objects
It’s thought that Van Gogh first stumbled across a pair of second-hand shoes while wandering through a Paris flea market (he’d moved to Paris in 1886). Recognising their potential as a subject for a rather different type of still life, they appear to have provided a major stimulus to his imagination.
The German philosopher Martin Heidegger encountered the resulting painting, simply titled ‘A Pair of Shoes’, at an exhibition in Amsterdam in 1930. It clearly got him thinking about the nature of the creative process and in his famous study, The Origin of the Work of Art, he wrote:
From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth. In the stiffly rugged 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 lie the dampness and richness of the soil. Under the sole slides the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls. In the shoes vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of the ripening grain and its unexplained self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field.
This is sheer poetry. Though it’s not immediately clear why he assumed they were women’s shoes (there’s a masculine feel to them). But, passing over that, it’s clear that Heidegger recognised the shoes as an object of utility, designed to clothe and protect the feet. But also representative of a deeper meaning.
The artwork invites us to recreate the missing life of the ordinary person who previously owned the shoes. And reflect on the rural poverty and backbreaking toil required to fend off want and hunger that characterised his or her existence.
Taking a closer look
Van Gogh’s powerful, expressive style not only provides a pleasurable aesthetic experience. It also offers an opportunity to encounter life close-up. In painting the boots, he sought to capture their essence, their materiality.
They’re wrinkled, scuffed and moulded to the shape of the owner’s feet. The laces are stiff, placed almost carelessly, and it’s as if the boots have been discarded at the end of a long working day. The boots are well-used. But they exude character. You can almost feel their texture.
The painting also deploys a lovely use of colour that draws the eye in. It doesn’t offer the vibrant colours of his later paintings from the south of France. But the shimmering shades of black, brown and yellowish light coalesce to provide a wonderful realisation of that modernist urge to capture and reflect a complex world.
Making our choices in life
Shifting our perspective a little, the number of times Van Gogh painted shoes and boots suggests they had an iconic significance for him which went beyond the ideas advanced earlier.
It’s conceivable that, at some level, they symbolise his difficult passage through life. He painted prolifically but struggled to gain recognition and sold only one painting during his short years. Supported financially by his brother, his personal life was turbulent, and he experienced recurrent bouts of mental illness, committing suicide at the age of 37.
But we know from his letters to his brother that he was a keen walker and appreciated the opportunity walking provided to experience nature and observe the world around him.
Maybe there’s a sense in which he saw himself as a pilgrim through life. And pilgrims, of course, need sturdy boots to pursue their journey. In the words of Spanish poet Antonio Machado, ‘[our] road is made by walking.’ Driven forward by the search for meaning, we define ourselves by the paths we choose in life. We make the journey. And the journey, in turn, makes us.
Sometimes boots really are just boots. But in the hands of Van Gogh, we come to see that a pair of shoes can contain multitudes.
If you enjoy painting yourself, or think you might like to try it, then do join our landscape art class tomorrow at 1pm.