Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was born in Groot-Zundert, Holland to a pastor’s family within the Dutch Reformed Church.(2) Van Gogh was brought up in a home that held dear to religion. Thus, he was a man who knew great faith in God. This would be very prevalent in his life later on. Because of his upbringing, van Gogh became a very emotional and attentive individual. He was powerfully compassionate, and it showed through his artwork. Although van Gogh produced over 800 paintings and 800 drawings, it was all done over a short period of ten years, and in this ten years, he sold only one painting.(3) At the age of 37, van Gogh committed suicide, and it was not until after his death that his work began to be recognized and valued by society. Van Gogh was always interested in art and began dealing it in 1869, but then quickly realized that it was something he personally would like to do. In 1880, he decided to pursue this field and studied at the Royal Academy of Art.(4) Throughout his learning experience here as well as in Arles and Paris, van Gogh discovered an undeniable passion for drawing, painting, and making art. During different periods of his life, he was a diverse kind of artist and would be coined overall as a Post-Impressionist painter.(5) Most artists around during his time such as Berthe Morisot, Paul Gauguin, and Georges Seurat were very well-known for their work in Impressionism, but various types of Impressionism. These artists, including van Gogh, branched out from the traditional Manet type of Impressionism, and invented new and unique approaches to painting—such as Seurat’s Pointillism.(6) Van Gogh explored this idea of breaking free from the traditional ways of art and incorporated aspects of Realism, Expressionism, and Impressionism into his work. However, one of his most emotional painting periods was articulated during his work in Expressionism. Since he was a deeply sensitive man, he took opportunities to express that on paper and canvas.(7) It was in this stage that Pair of Old Shoes (1886) was created.
In the painting Pair of Old Shoes, van Gogh uses three separate elements of art that work harmoniously together in order to produce an experience for the viewer. These elements are light, shape, and color. The subject matter of this piece is a pair of shoes that look tarnished and worn. As a still-life work, van Gogh presents this pair of shoes as something very simple and familiar, but with his use of artistic elements, the painting is unique and intriguing.(8) There is a strong sense of light in this image that seems to be coming from a light source in the room that is above the shoes. This makes for a lighter background and a little glare on portions of each shoe. The way one can see these aspects of light is through the colors van Gogh chose to apply. Earth tones of black, brown, and white are very dominant in this picture, but they seem to have a relationship with one another that helps the painting flow well. Some of the browns run in to the black colors, and the whites in the background and on the shoes make the subject really stand out as if they are a dark object in a bright room. The use of these earthy colors suits van Gogh’s Expressionistic works very well as they symbolize his message of simplicity and humility.(9) Along with light and color, van Gogh utilizes shape to create a sense of life in the image. The shape of each shoe is organic, and so much so that there is hardly a concrete form to them at all. The tops are floppy. The shoelaces are loosened and slung. A captivating story could easily be constructed from this painting, and that is a result of van Gogh’s genius marriage of light, color, and shape.
Van Gogh’s Pair of Old Shoes fits in very well with his other works of Expressionism. During this period in his life, around 1883-1886, he painted images to represent the sentiments that he felt. As a person who wanted to give love and charity away, he cared deeply about the poor and simple people. This was not only shown through Pair of Old Shoes¸ but also in his paintings of Weaver in Front of an Open Window (1884), Setting Potatoes (1884), and The Potato Eaters (1885).(10) All of these pieces were done in a way that spoke loudly to van Gogh’s compassion towards the humble. As Cliff Edwards put it in his book The Shoes of Van Gogh, “That’s how he sees everything: as a poor man.” He went on to compare some of van Gogh’s nature works and wrote, “These too are expressed with such quietness and simplicity, as if for poor people, so they can understand."(11) If a person looked through van Gogh’s paintings during the ten years he was an artist, he or she would see that the above idea is true. Van Gogh did not choose to paint extravagant things, he wanted the common person to understand and be able to experience his work on a personal level. Even for those who were wealthy, van Gogh’s paintings brought an encounter with humility.(12) In his work, there was a purpose in mind, and that was to communicate an emotion—not just during his Expressionism phase, but throughout all of his paintings. Any person who viewed van Gogh’s work undeniably experienced a feeling.
After looking at some of the artistic and meaningful elements van Gogh used in Pair of Old Shoes, more can be learned by analyzing these elements in the work even deeper. In order to fully understand van Gogh’s purpose of evoking an emotion and an experience in his paintings, it is a good idea to specifically look at how he accomplished that. Before even beginning this piece, van Gogh had found an old pair of working boots and considered painting a still-life of them. However, he wanted to create more shape and movement in the still-life and did so by taking the pair of shoes and walking around in them through the mud and rain so that they would look a little more worn.(13) As soon as he was finished walking outside, van Gogh came inside, placed the shoes on the floor, and started painting. His use of light, color, and shape in this painting helped bring the simple pair of shoes to life. One of the most striking features about the shoes is the fact that they do look like they were just taken off. The way van Gogh painted the shape of them showed that they had been recently worn and worked in. His application of the darker earth tones and whites for shadows and glares reflected the concept that someone owned these shoes and had just been in them.
Considering the artistry van Gogh utilized in this painting makes the onlooker wonder why exactly he presented the shoes as dark and lived in. Many scholars and other artists have studied this image for several years, and one of the most interesting interpretations is the idea that van Gogh was painting to evoke an emotion and experience of absence. The purpose of this painting was not to show the utilitarian use of the shoes, but to make the mind speculate the mystery of whose shoes they were. It is puzzling to look at Pair of Old Shoes because what a person sees is a still-life of someone’s work boots, but what he or she does not see is the man that just took them off.(14) Van Gogh knew that the mind would work in such a way that it would try and fill in the gaps of what his paintings were missing. He has succeeded in this artwork because the onlooker’s emotions are captivated by the fact that they do not know the story behind these shoes. Pair of Old Shoes is a painting that provides an experience for its audience. However, not only was van Gogh portraying absence in this work, but he was communicating the concept that poor people live and die—some ignored and unnoticed their whole life. As mentioned before, van Gogh was a man passionate about those who were needy. His emotions of that were expressed through this picture. Van Gogh was always attentive to the society around him—especially the poor. In Pair of Old Shoes, he wanted the audience to understand that having compassion on the poor and simple was so very important. After looking at this painting, one is left with an experience of absence, and van Gogh’s hope was that these humble emotions would provide a motive for others to take notice and act charitably to the suffering and ignored world around them.(15)
After understanding the background and description of this painting, a person can conclude that van Gogh was a very thoughtful painter. He believed in God and used his talent of creativity to convey his thoughts of God as well as his ideas of compassion for the poor. If a person were to look at this painting through a Christian worldview, they would notice that the brilliance of van Gogh’s artistry truly evokes emotion. Christians are called to follow Christ’s example of helping the poor and marginalized, and through Pair of Old Shoes, this calling is emphasized. Art is at its finest when there is a spiritual and emotional connection made with its audience. Van Gogh does that in Pair of Old Shoes. It is an inspiring work and by analyzing it deeply, a person cannot walk away without a moving experience. Cliff Edwards explained this very well in saying, “Vincent’s eye has taught astounding numbers of people to see the world, and to see into their own souls."(16)