In the spring of 1886, Van Gogh arrived in Paris. His brother, Theo, was working as an art dealer for Boussod & Valadon in the city at the time and had encouraged his younger brother to come there in the hope that he could help to establish him as a leading figure in the Parisian art scene. Theo's directorship at Boussod & Valadon - the firm which Gauguin described to his wife as 'the centre of the impressionists' - certainly put him in an ideal position from to promote the work of his younger brother.
The first pictures executed by Van Gogh during the summer and early autumn of 1886 tend to be either landscapes of the ramshackle zone between the modern city and the old fortifications or - more frequently - flower still-lives. However, at the end of the summer, Van Gogh embarked upon his most powerful series of still-lives to date, namely that of workmen's shoes. These appear to have been painted, if not as a protest against the affluence of the city he found about him, then certainly as a validation of his own austere background. In addition, in choosing the motif of shoes, Van Gogh was also consciously paying tribute to his artistic hero, Jean-Franois Millet.
From his earliest attempts at still-life in 1881, through to his late period at Arles, Millet's portrayals of the lives of working people, including sketches of their clogs (fig. 1), held a deep resonance for Van Gogh, signifying for him the simple honesty of peasants' labour. Indeed, time and again he refers in his letters to the industry and integrity of a shoe-maker as a state to which a true artist should aspire. Writing to his brother, Theo, in April 1885, referring the words of Millet himself, Van Gogh stated: "What I hope I shall not forget is that 'il s'agit d'y aller en sabots', which means to be content with the food, drink, clothes and board which the peasants content themselves with ... Millet is father Millet - that is, a guide and counsellor to the younger painters in all things. Most of those I know - but I know only few of them - would warmly refute this; as for myself, I agree with him and believe what he says implicitly".
In Paris, Van Gogh specifically went out to buy pairs of shoes to paint in his studio and, according to a contemporary account, he acquired one pair of shoes from a flea market which he then trudged around the city in order to give them the necessary character for still-life painting. The present work belongs to a series of five paintings of shoes executed between late 1886 and the spring of the following year. It is generally believed that our work, together with the earlier of the two Van Gogh Museum pictures (fig. 2) and the Fogg Art Museum picture (fig. 3), date from the beginning of the series. The brighter palette of the Baltimore picture (fig. 4) and the later Van Gogh Museum painting (F. 331) point to a slightly later date.
Over the whole series, three different pairs of shoes are identifiable: the pair in the present work, with their short sides and square toes; the pair in the early Van Gogh Museum and Baltimore pictures with their taller sides, one turned down; and finally the pair featured in the later Van Gogh Museum picture with their elasticated side panels. All three appear together in the Fogg picture, with the present pair at the centre.
In common with the earlier of the two Van Gogh Museum paintings, our Pair of Shoes is painted over an earlier picture. Preliminary research indicates that the first picture on the canvas was a still-life of flowers standing on a chequered cloth or tiles. The colours used were bright and largely unmixed, suggesting that it, too, was executed in Paris.
The first owner of A Pair of Shoes was Albert Aurier (1865-1892), the celebrated Symbolist writer and critic. Aurier had come to know of Van Gogh's work through their mutual friend Emile Bernard and it was Aurier who wrote the first notable article on the artist, published in the Mercure de France in January 1890 under the title 'Les Isols'. Aurier's forceful advocacy of Van Gogh included the memorable lines: "... independently of that undeniable aroma of good faith and of things really seen which all his pictures exhale, his choice of subjects, the constant harmony of the most excessive colours, the honesty in the study of the characters, the continuous search for the essential meaning of each object, a thousand significant details unquestionably proclaim his profound and almost child-like sincerity, his great love of nature and of truth - of his own truth".
The publication of the article prompted Van Gogh to write to Aurier, in a letter of March 1890: "Many thanks for your article in the Mercure de France, which greatly surprised me. I like it very much as a work of art in itself, in my opinion your words produce colour, in short, I rediscover my canvases in your article, but better than they are, richer, more full of meaning".
In addition to A Pair of Shoes, Aurier owned several other important pictures by Van Gogh, including Landscape with Cypresses (F. 620) - which the Artist gave to the critic in gratitude for the 1890 article; a version of the famous L'Arlsienne (Madame Ginoux) (F. 541); and Vase with daisies and anemones (F. 323). Following Aurier's untimely death from typhoid in 1892, the collection passed to his sister in Chterou, Mme. Williame-Aurier. In 1914 the bulk of the paintings were bought by H. P. Bremmer, acting on behalf of Mrs Krller-Mller, the great early collector of the artist and at whose behest the pictures later went on to form the core of the Krller-Mller Museum's wonderful Van Gogh collection. It was perhaps a testament to the fondness Aurier's sister felt for A Pair of Shoes that it was one of only two works that were not sold. They remained in the family for a further thirty years.
When Mme. Williame-Aurier's son, Jacques finally did sell the picture in 1943, it came to the attention of Dr. J. B. de la Faille, the distinguished Van Gogh scholar. Dr. de la Faille's certificate dated 1 October 1945 confirmed that he was to include A Pair of Shoes in the forthcoming supplement to his catalogue raisonn. (This certificate erroneously dates the work to Van Gogh's Nuenen period and in a later certificate, dated 21 March 1958, Dr. de la Faille corrects this error, placing the work in Van Gogh's Paris years.)
A Pair of Shoes
Oil on canvas
Signed 'Vincent' (upper left)
Vincent van Gogh
Liege, Muse des Beaux-Arts, Vincent van Gogh, October 1946, no. 34bis; this exhibition later travelled to Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, November-December 1946; Mons, Muse des Beaux-Arts, January 1947.
Paris, Muse de l'Orangerie, Vincent van Gogh, January-March 1947, no. 34bis.
Geneva, Muse Rath, Vincent van Gogh, March-April 1947, no. 35.
14 x 18.1/8 in. (37.5 x 46 cm.)
P. Lecaldano (ed.), L'opera pittorica completa di Van Gogh e i suoi nessi grafici, Milan, 1966, no. 323 (illustrated p. 112).
J. B. de la Faille, The Works of Vincent van Gogh - His Paintings and Drawings, London, 1970, no. F 332a (illustrated p. 159).
J. Hulsker, The New Complete Van Gogh - Paintings, Drawings, Sketches, 1980, Amsterdam, no. 1233 (illustrated p. 273).
R. Pickvance, Exh. cat. Van Gogh in Arles, New York, 1984, p. 36.
I. Walter & R. Metzger, Vincent van Gogh - The Complete Paintings Part I, Cologne, 1997 (illustrated p. 210).
G. Albert Aurier (1865-1892), Paris, acquired directly from the Artist.
Mme S. Williame-Aurier, Chteauroux, by descent after her brother's death in 1892.
Jacques Williame, Chteauroux, the son of the above, until 1943.
M. Naessens, Brussels (acquired from the above through the agency of Robert Sereau in 1943).
Private Collection, Belgium, acquired from the above in 1962.