Despite the modern popularity of Vincent van Gogh paintings, the early years of van Gogh (1853-1890) offered nary a hint of his future fame.

Shoes, 1886.  Oil on canvas, approximately 15" by 18".  Vincent van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Shoes, 1886.  Oil on canvas, approximately 15″ by 18″.  Vincent van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Born in Groot-Zundert, Holland, to a Calvinist pastor, Vincent van Gogh dropped out of school in 1869 to work for an art dealer; he was fired seven years later. He then spent two years as a lay preacher working with impoverished miners; he was denied ordination because he was considered “overly passionate” by Calvinist authorities.

In 1880 at the age of 27, Vincent van Gogh resolved to become an artist.  In his brief career spanning only one decade, he created 1,000 paintings, including 70 in the last 70 days of his life.

Art historians know that in 1886, Vincent purchased a pair of well-worn shoes from a Parisian flea market. Earlier in the year, he had focused on floral still life paintings, but for autumn and winter, he needed a new motif.

Introducing the most famous pair of shoes in modern art.

The Cologne’s Wallraf Richartz Museum mounted a 2009 exhibition entitled, Vincent van Gogh: Shoes, and explored the impact of this painting (see above) on art history and modern philosophy about art (for the curious, don’t miss detailed sniping and polysyllabic putdowns among art historians and philosophers, including Martin Heidegger, Meyer Schapiro, and Jacques Derrida).

Three Pairs of Shoes, 1886-1887.  Oil on canvas, 19 5/8" by 29 9/16".  Bequest from the Collection of Maurice Wertheim, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA.

Three Pairs of Shoes, 1886-1887.  Oil on canvas, 19 5/8″ by 29 9/16″.  Bequest from the Collection of Maurice Wertheim, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA.

There are five van Gogh paintings of shoes (two of these van Gogh artworks are in Amsterdam’s vanGogh Museum; one is in the Baltimore Museum of Art; one is at the Met).  None has been more extensively researched than Three Pairs of Shoes owned by the Harvard Art Museums (formerly known at the Fogg Museum).  It is one of the famous paintings donated to Harvard in 1950 by Maurice Wertheim.

Three Pairs of Shoes has elements of still life paintings – the six boots are arranged intentionally on a white display cloth often seen in that genre – and also elements of portraiture.  Each shoe, which would have been immediately recognizable to Parisians as a laborer’s workboot, exudes its own personality.  For any doubting that an inanimate object can convey personality, look no further than Three Pairs of Shoes. As in so much of van Gogh’s artwork, the heavy paint application, or impasto, enhances details like the nail heads.

Art historians noticed that textural ridges in the painting, or its topography, didn’t precisely relate to the contours of the shoes.  When examining the work under raking light, or light that casts shadows, they observed groups of circular brushstrokes that suggested a painting underneath.

Indeed, even with the naked eye one can see occasional patches of color seeping through in areas that are worn or cracked.  Using x-radiography, conservators have created images of the underlying still-life (read more about the process and see the x-radiographs in van Gogh’s Three Pairs of Shoes.)  

Recent technical research suggests that there are 40 paintings by van Gogh that have been painted over.  May the research begin!

Want to give the gift of art appreciation?

Masterpiece Cards is your answer! This boxed set of art history Cards is a survey of art history to have and hold.  Covering nearly six centuries, the Cards have brilliant reproductions, key facts, and an essay introducing the work’s meaning and artist.  There’s nothing like these – we promise! And no batteries are required.  Explore a sample.

Can’t get enough of van Gogh artwork?

We can’t either.  Read an overview of van Gogh paintings up until 1889; famous paintings by van Gogh in the Hermitage; the iconic Starry Night; and van Gogh paintings from 1889 to 1890.