‘In the mere sight of an old pair of shoes there is something profoundly melancholy’, wrote Flaubert to Louise Colet in 1846. Vincent van Gogh may have had Flaubert’s letter in mind (as well as a drawing by Millet of his own wooden sabots) while he worked on his series of paintings of boots and shoes, begun in 1886. It is said that the artist, a compulsive walker, bought and wore an old pair of carter’s boots in preparation for at least one of these pictures. Paul Gauguin, after his friend’s death, claimed that van Gogh had painted the very boots he wore when he walked from Holland to Belgium as a young preacher. None of this is verifiable; even if it were, van Gogh’s footwear would surely remain mysterious: battered, abandoned and self-involved.
Lesley Chamberlain’s book is about the most famous of van Gogh’s shoe paintings, known today as Boots with Laces. She has not set out to test old biographical conjectures or reflect on the provenance of the boots in question, a pair of crumpled things in dusty black, their uppers sagging