A Pair of Shoes

What did van Gogh mean to convey with these shoes? Three philosophers debate what the painting means for the theory of art; other commentators see the shoes as spiritual; yet others, as symbolic of Vincent’s life.


Vincent, Theo and the Fox weaves a story around 30 of van Gogh’s paintings. Readers also want information about each painting. Every Monday I write about one of the paintings. Why did I choose this painting this week? My house in the Washington, D.C. suburbs got 28″ of snow during the Blizzard of 2016. After shoveling through 4 – 5 foot drifts, my boots felt just like van Gogh’s painting!

Experts disagree on when and where Van Gogh painted A Pair of Shoes (some say Paris, 1886, others Nuenen, 1885). Either way, in Philosophers Rumble Over Van Gogh’s Shoes, Scott Horton argues that the shoes became a celebrated painting because philosophers disagreed about its meaning. In 1930, the philosopher, Martin Heidegger, saw the painting at an exhibition and, years later, used them in his essay, The Origin of the Work of Art.

Heidegger wanted to make the case that it is only what one perceives from a painting that matters for art theory. And Heidegger perceived a lot in these shoes: “From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth. In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field swept by a raw wind.” Heidegger attributes many layers of significance to the shoes: loneliness, anxiety about the source of her next meal, joy at surviving want, the “trembling” before impending childbirth and “shivering at the surrounding menace of death.” Ultimately, the shoes are “protected in the world of the peasant woman.”

But wait! in a 1968 essay, The Still Life as a Personal Object, philosopher Meyer Schapiro pointed out that Heidegger messed up: they are not women’s shoes and the painting is not addressing the world of the peasant woman. There is strong evidence that these were van Gogh’s own shoes, which he bought in a flea market and wore “on an extended rainy walk to create the effect he wished for this painting.” Shapiro argued you cannot just look at the physicality of a painting, like Heidegger proposed; you have to recognize that the artist is present in a painting, especially a still life. In short, Schapiro believes van Gogh is telling us about his own hard life in A Pair of Shoes.

The third philosopher to join the fray, Jacques Derrida, believes both Heidegger and Shapiro are wrong. The philosophical differences among the three scholars gets very complicated: to read more, go to art historian Dayna L.C.’s excellent article, Interpreting a Painting of Shoes.

A Pair of Shoes is certainly widely discussed. In addition to the philosophical debate, in Interpretations of Vincent Van Gogh’s A Pair of Shoes the website Spirituality & Practice says, “To be spiritual is…to see the fingerprints of the Divine in the most ordinary objects and things. We see that touch in A Pair of Shoes, and we are grateful to Van Gogh for opening our eyes to these humble companions which we usually take for granted. The artist conveys the sanctity of the shoes and as a result, we are compelled to reframe our view of them. Thank you, Vincent, for helping us to love as many things as we can.”

One wonders what van Gogh would think about the philosophical debate over, and spiritual interpretations of, his painting? What does the painting mean to you? I would love your comments and will read them with great interest.

Ted Macaluso

A Pair of Shoes appears halfway through the book, when Vincent and Theo are feeling frustrated from chasing the fox (don’t worry, they all get a second wind, which is when they learn about growing up). If you haven’t yet read Vincent, Theo and the Fox, check it out here.

© 2016 by Ted Macaluso.May be freely reproduced, provided attribution and a link back to tedmacaluso.com is included.

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