Photo by the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam/Vincent van Gogh Foundation.

Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) painted this still life as a memorial to his father, the Reverend Theodorus van Gogh. His father’s Bible is open to Isaiah 53, “The Song of the Suffering Servant,” in which the suffering of one troubled servant of God provides healing for many. A seemingly discordant note in the painting is provided by a contemporary French novel, La Joie de vivre, by Emile Zola. For van Gogh, however, Zola’s heroine, an abused orphan girl, becomes a modern incarnation of suffering love, a present-day suffering servant. Defeated in his own attempts to follow his father into the ministry, van Gogh saw himself as a similar servant, who could preach, comfort and heal through his paintings.