Great Works: A Pair of Boots (Les Souliers), 1887 (33cm x 40.9cm), Vincent van Gogh

Baltimore Museum of Art

Enid Blyton, that writer adored by children and despised by the middle classes for her straitened vocabulary and unimaginative plots, once wrote a story called “The Brownie Biddle’s Boots”. It was read to me from a children’s omnibus during the 1950s in Sheffield, when I lay a-bed at nights, and I always wanted it to be repeated again and again by my mother because, being an afflicted child of (presumably) imaginatively straitened, working-class parents, I found it imaginatively inexhaustible. It told the story of a pair of old boots that took matters into their own hands one day by going off on their own without a pair of legs to lead them. They were stout, wilful items of well used footwear that chose to please nothing but themselves, forever on the tramp, tramp, tramp. Yes, tramping was their game, on the road to the forever unpredictable excitements of nowhere in particular.

Temperamentally, those boots of Blyton’s have something in common with Van Gogh’s painting. Van Gogh too was rather fond of the imaginative possibilities of old boots, and he painted or drew them on a number of occasions. This one was done fairly early in his relatively short career as a painter, when he was living with his brother Theo in Rue Lepic, devouring subject matter of all kinds. You can tell that his eyes just could not get enough of these old boots, with their gleaming, tough-minded studs and riddling, near-dancing laces.

Sometimes a painting writhes and squirms before your very eyes, to such an extent that you feel almost uncomfortable in its presence….

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Van Gogh, Pair of Shoes, 1886