Anyone who has googled his or her own name has probably had the experience of encountering parallel lives. Even with a somewhat unusual name like Laura Aydelotte, plugging my name into Google will bring up Laura Aydelotte’s mugshot, an account of Laura Aydelotte’s hike the length of the Appalachian Trail, and Laura Aydelotte the teenager, whose pinterest page indicates an interest in fancy nail polish patterns and large diamond engagement rings. None of these people is me, but they all share my name, and I, like most of us, have many lives joined to me merely by the coincidence of the 14 letters I identify myself by.
But what if the person who shared your name were your own cousin? And what if that cousin were Vincent van Gogh? A bookplate recently discovered in Penn’s Kislak Center presents just this question. Attached to the front pastedown of a 1620 Dutch edition of Bartolomé de las Casas, call number, SC5 C2648 Ep620s, the ex-libris bears an illustration of a bearded man in a plumed hat and academic looking robes holding his head as he concentrates on a large book in front of him (whether in concentration or consternation is unclear). To the left of the image of the man is the van Gogh family crest and the lettering reads clearly “EX LIBRIS VINCENT VAN GOGH.”
Penn’s records for the book indicated that the ex-libris was identified in 1938 by Edwin Wolf at the time the book was sold in Philadelphia by A.S.W. Rosenbach as “the only known bookplate of the artist Vincent van Gogh.” However, a quick e-mail to the Art Librarian at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam soon elicited the reply that this is one of three identified bookplates belonging to the other Vincent van Gogh (1866-1911), cousin of the painter (1853-1890). And, as though this already weren’t confusing enough, it turns out that the artist and his cousin also had an uncle named Vincent van Gogh, whom the famous Vincent referred to in letters as Uncle ‘Cent. The Vincent van Gogh whom this bookplate belonged to was the son of the artist’s uncle, Cornelis van Gogh (brother of the artist Vincent’s father), who was a bookseller and art dealer in Amsterdam. While cousin Vincent is only mentioned a few times in his famous relation’s letters, Uncle Cornelis, whom the painter refers to as “Uncle Cor” appears nearly 250 times in the painter’s correspondence. Many of these mentions refer to visits to Uncle Cor’s bookshop and gallery, and the artist Vincent seems to have found inspiration more than once looking at the illustrations, engravings, and other materials he found in Uncle Cor’s shop and had lent to him by his uncle. As the artist indicates in a letter from January of 1889, Cousin Vincent inherited the bookshop from his father, Cornelis, and continued the business himself.
Knowing this close connection makes it tempting to speculate whether the artist van Gogh may have ever come in contact with the book that bears his cousin’s ex-libris. This is especially tempting because this volume of Las Casas is filled with the gorgeous, though also especially gory, engravings by Theodore de Bry of the atrocities committed by the Spanish against native American people described in the text. The engravings were intended in part at the time this book was published as a scare tactic and warning about what the Spanish might do to the Dutch if they were allowed to invade.
It would be easy to imagine how the blend of formal beauty and untempered violence in the de Bry engravings might have influenced an artist like van Gogh. But even if the artist never saw this book, the presence of the other Vincent van Gogh’s ex-libris leaves a record of the fact that this book and its contents likely did leave some kind of impression on the mind of a man living over a century ago. Just as finding the traces of the lives of those who share our name on Google allows us to imagine other lives—experiences in and approaches to the world different from our own but linked by an accident of name—so finding this trace of the other Vincent van Gogh prompts us to imagine the thoughts and experience of an otherwise unknown person from the past. The vast majority of lives will, in time, pass into obscurity, with history shining its spotlight on the notable achievements of those like the painter van Gogh, whose self expressions are admired by museum goers all over the world. However, a coincidence of naming gives us a brief glimpse into the life of a man who devoted his career to books and art, and the opportunity to pause for a moment and contemplate who the other Vincent van Gogh once was.
For images of this bookplate and more, visit the POP Flickr feed.
Those who read dutch can learn more about van Gogh bookplates in this article. Those who can’t read Dutch can see images of the other Vincent van Gogh’s two other bookplates: https://provenanceonlineproject.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/201407211652471.pdf