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. You find yourself protesting a little. You feel, in some rather ill-defined way, that it's not quite playing fair. Is not painting, you ask yourself, about reflection, slow meditation, gradual, painstaking appraisal – that sort of thing? Not here. There is nothing slow about this painting. It is hectic, impromptu, flung down. It almost stinks with the smell of the feet that it bade goodbye to perhaps just seconds before it became an object of that renegade Dutchman's delightful absorption. It is perfectly possible that Vincent himself had been the recent wearer of these boots – he is said to have bought at least one pair from a flea market in Paris.

You appeal for the painting to be still, to calm down a little, but it is not in the business of listening to your appeals. It is in the business of a kind of brutish, no-holds-barred presentation of itself. It is itself and nothing more. It is not schmoozing with art or elegance. It knows nothing about the embellishment of drawing rooms or the nature of refinement. It is a pair of recently squirmed-out-of boots, and that's all there is to be said about it. No wonder that Claribel Cone, when she bought the painting in 1927, wrote rather uncomfortably about her new acquisition to her sister Etta: 'I am not so pleased with my Van Gogh,' she confided to her sister from elegantly booted Lausanne – "it is so unlike his better (more forceful, more mad style perhaps). And the pair of shoes will not grace my livingroom with beauty – however – it is a Van Gogh – almost-certainly – Mr V. [Vallotton] says sans doutes..."

Oh dear! Claribel got what she bought – which was not a pair of shoes, for all her feigning. It was a pair of unlovely, working man's boots that Van Gogh painted during a year when he painted about one hundred other paintings too. He was getting into his stride as a painter. He was devouring subjects with his eye. This is such an act of devouring, this pouncing upon this pair of boots, voraciously, and laying them out (with just a hint perhaps in the direction of comedy) upon what looks like a piece of lovely blue fabric. What is a pair of battered old boots doing mingling with a piece of blue fabric? Would the fabric not recoil in horror? And there they sit, close to being animal in their atmosphere – see how bendy those uppers are, how they loll sideways so that we see the delicious ochre of their inside leather. We see so clearly how Vincent attacked them, feverishly, with his brush strokes, from all directions, across, up, down, sometimes wildly scrubbily. That fabric looks like a violent sea. These boots had miles to cover yet, and always so gracelessly.

ABOUT THE ARTIST

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) came, quite late on, to painting, and his mature work was done in an almighty rush over a period of about three years. The fact that his work almost always has an air of gasping, compulsive energy about it is explained by that very fact.

Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam