By Edward Pettit
The Vincent Van Gogh exhibition, Van Gogh Up Close, now open at the Philadelphia Museum of Art has been receiving lots of attention. The exhibition focuses on Van Gogh’s paintings of nature and one can see the vibrancy in color and texture of our everyday world that the artist illuminates. Van Gogh also brought this same urgency, this same blazing brilliance to mundane objects like chairs.
And one chair that inspired him was an engraving by Luke Fildes of “The Empty Chair” of Charles Dickens. Fildes had been illustrating Dickens’s last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, when the author died. As a tribute, Fildes painted a watercolor of Dickens’s work space: the writing desk in his study and the now empty chair, prominently displayed, never to be filled again. Fildes’s watercolor is on permanent display (along with Dickens’s writing desk) in the Rare Book Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia.
An engraving of Fildes’s “Empty Chair” was published in the journal Graphic (as well as many other magazines). Van Gogh was an ardent admirer of illustrated journals (including Graphic), especially in their dedication to social realism in art. Van Gogh greatly admired Fildes’s painting (and may have first seen it in Graphic) and even owned a copy of the engraving. For Van Gogh, the empty chair symbolized the coming absence of the artist. He wrote “Empty chairs—there are many of them, there will be even more and sooner or later there will be nothing but empty chairs.”
But for me, this kind of melancholic fatalism doesn’t come across in Van Gogh’s chairs. His chairs have a pipe, flowers, books, a candle perched on their seats. These mundane objects are hopeful in a way, placeholders waiting for the eventual return of a sitter. And maybe that can serve as a blithe reminder for Fildes’s mournful chair. Maybe the Empty Chair is welcoming, inviting us to have a seat in Dickens’s imagination and enjoy the works he created while seated there.
Join us all year as we metaphorically sit in Dickens’s chair.
Edward Pettit is the Charles Dickens Ambassador for FLP’s Year of Dickens and writes about his adventures in Dickens at http://readingcharlesdickens.com/