Around 11 September 1888, Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) sent a letter from Arles to Paul Gauguin in Pont-Aven, asking him and Emile Bernard (1868–1941) to paint portraits of each other and send them to him. Van Gogh promised to reciprocate with works of his own. Van Gogh’s letter came during an inspiration-filled period for Gauguin and Bernard, during which, together with Charles Laval (1862–1894), they were experimenting intensively with style and technique. In September, Van Gogh – who for months had been trying to persuade Gauguin to come to Arles – began to fear that the fruitful collaboration between the artists in Pont-Aven would undo his efforts. Moreover, he could not suppress his feelings of loneliness. Van Gogh’s request for an exchange was therefore intended to stimulate a sense of solidarity between Arles and Pont-Aven, but it was also meant as a reminder to Gauguin of his dream of collaborating with him in Arles.
A portrait within a portrait
Three weeks after receiving Van Gogh’s letter, Gauguin and Bernard informed him that they had complied with his request, albeit in a modified form of their own devising. Instead of portraying each other, they had each painted a self-portrait with a schematic portrait of the other in the background. Camille Pissarro’s Portrait of Cézanne of 1874 might have served as the source of inspiration for this portrait-within-a-portrait approach, since this painting contains, in the upper right-hand corner, a portrait of another artist: a caricature of Gustave Courbet (1819–1877). Pissarro (1830–1903) kept this work after its completion, so Gauguin could have seen it during one of his many visits to the older artist in the first half of the 1880s.
In his self-portrait, Gauguin placed himself and Bernard at opposite edges of the canvas and filled the central part with wallpaper. In the lower right-hand corner, he added – in addition to his signature, the date and a dedication to Van Gogh – the words ‘les misérables’. From 1888 onwards, his works more frequently bear inscriptions or descriptive titles, such as La belle Angèle (1889, Musée d’Orsay, Paris) and Bonjour, Monsieur Gauguin (1889, Národni Galerie, Prague). This is also true of many of his Tahitian works made after 1891. Such titles were often intentionally vague, to enhance the evocative and mysterious quality of his work. But in the case of Self-Portrait with Portrait of Emile Bernard (Les misérables), he explained in detail in letters to Van Gogh and his artist friend Emile Schuffenecker (1851–1934) what he was intending to say with this portrait and the accompanying inscription.
Gauguin wrote that he had portrayed himself as Jean Valjean, the archetypal victim of injustice who is the protagonist of Victor Hugo’s novel Les misérables. Hugo relates the story of the ex-convict Valjean, who attempts to lead a morally pure life but is constantly pursued by Inspector Javert, who repeatedly tries to reimprison him for past transgressions. Gauguin intended this personification as a reference to the victimization of avant-garde artists like himself and his friends, who, in his opinion, were misunderstood in the art world and thus found it hard to sell their work. Gauguin therefore took on the character of Valjean, ‘whom society oppresses, [has] outlawed’. To this he added: ‘By doing him with my features, you have my individual image, as well as a portrait of us all, poor victims of society, taking our revenge on it by doing good.’ Such associations found fertile ground in the mind of Van Gogh, who had similar notions about his position as an artist and had previously described avant-garde painters as living like ‘madmen or criminals’. Here Gauguin cast himself not only in the role of victim but also as the self-appointed leader of the avant-garde painters who found themselves in this distressing situation.
To Gauguin’s mind, Valjean’s coarse and repulsive appearance combined with his big-hearted and generous nature was reflected in his own image of avant-garde artists such as Van Gogh and himself. By portraying himself as a repugnant figure, Gauguin underscored this analogy. The red tones in the face stood for the ‘red-hot lava that sets our painters’ souls ablaze’, while ‘that girlish little background, with its childish flowers’ symbolized their ‘artistic virginity’. This dichotomy could be interpreted as the passion for painting shared by the avant-garde artists, combined with the ‘purity’ of their artistic intentions. It is no coincidence that passion and purity are qualities with which Hugo imbued the personage of Jean Valjean.
In this way Gauguin used Jean Valjean as a means of sketching a number of key features of his image of the avant-garde artist: misunderstood and coarse in appearance, but of noble character, burning with inspiration and cherishing pure artistic intentions.
Gauguin emphasized, in his descriptions of his self-portrait, that his portrayal was not at all true to life. Since 1886 he had increasingly distanced himself from the trompe l’œil tradition in European painting, the aim of which had been to produce an illusionistic evocation of reality. Gauguin considered the use of simple, archaic forms to be a more honest means of expressing the artist’s intent. To this end, he drew inspiration from art forms that he considered ‘primitive’ and as yet uninfluenced by Western decay and decadence. Gauguin followed the examples he found in Japanese prints and Persian carpets in an effort to simplify his formal idiom.
He called this simplification of reality ‘abstraction’. In a letter he wrote to Van Gogh at the end of July 1888, Gauguin introduced the concept by stating the following: ‘I entirely agree with you on the slight importance that accuracy contributes to art. Art is an abstraction.’ Gauguin thought he had been particularly successful at such abstraction in Self-Portrait with Portrait of Emile Bernard (Les misérables). Referring to the delineation of the face, he wrote that this was a ‘total abstraction’ and the palette ‘quite far from nature’. He compared the colour of his face with that of his ceramic sculptures, which he intentionally distorted by leaving them in the kiln too long. He wrote proudly to Schuffenecker: ‘It is, I think, one of my best things; absolutely incomprehensible (for example), that’s how abstract it is.’
Gauguin indicated that Persian carpets had been an important example in the rendering of his face when he wrote the following to Van Gogh: ‘The drawing of the eyes and the nose, like the flowers in Persian carpets, epitomizes an abstract and symbolic art.’ It is difficult to say what exactly Gauguin meant by this. His letter to Schuffenecker contains a sketch after the self-portrait that is somewhat easier to compare with the decorative motifs in Persian carpets . The eyes and the nose in this sketch could be compared – albeit with a bit of imagination – to a Persian flower motif. By the same token, the decorative floral wallpaper can be connected with the same source of inspiration, not because Gauguin’s wallpaper resembles a Persian carpet but because he chose to fill the largest and most important part of the canvas with a decorative motif.
Although Gauguin had various opportunities to become familiar with the art of Persian carpets, the posthumous sale of the Albert Goupil collection of Oriental art was of great importance. After all, this sale, which was made much of in the press, took place several months before Gauguin began his self-portrait. The Revue des arts décoratifs, for example, published detailed reports and illustrations of the Persian carpets that were purchased by the Musée des Arts Décoratifs . At the time of the sale Gauguin was already in Pont-Aven, but he may well have read about it in the press. He continued to emphasize the importance of Persian carpets as a source of inspiration, as evidenced by what he wrote later in life in his manuscript Diverses choses (Various Things, 1896–98): ‘The Orientals, the Persians and others, have, above all, printed a comprehensive dictionary of this language of the listening eye, they have endowed their carpets with a marvellous eloquence. O painters who seek a technique of colour, study the carpets.’
A matte paint surface
The technique in which Gauguin painted his self-portrait reflected his fascination for ‘primitive art’ as well. His dismissal of the smooth, varnished finish of Salon paintings led him to strive to achieve the most matte paint surface possible. He often achieved a matte effect by preparing his canvases with a thin, chalky ground and leaving his paintings unvarnished, as he did with this painting. Though it is difficult to discern, this canvas too was covered with a very thin ground layer consisting of chalk, plaster and animal glue. This layer was applied to a cotton cloth that was known for its absorbent quality. The paint was thus soaked up, so much so that it is visible on the reverse of the canvas. Large zones of yellow, blue and green paint have made their way through the structure of the canvas to the back , resulting in a paint surface that appears matte, thin and dry. In many places the structure of the canvas can be seen through the paint.
Following his customary practice, Gauguin laid in the composition by drawing the contours of his subject in Prussian blue and then patiently filling in the areas. When applying the zones of colour, he painted with great precision up to the blue lines, without going across them, so as to have little overlap of the various colours and to avoid any trompe l’œil effect. The borders between the passages of light and shadow in the face are therefore particularly distinct. The fact that the paint dried quickly, owing to the absorbent qualities of the ground and the canvas, enabled Gauguin to paint soon over previously applied layers of paint.
Gauguin suspected that the painting would darken, since he had used lead white. That he did not necessarily consider this a problem is apparent from his utterance: ‘And besides, it’s not done exclusively from the point of view of colour.’ He offered no further explanation, but it must have been clear to Van Gogh what he meant. This was, after all, Gauguin’s follow-up to previous comments about the poetic expressiveness of colour, which they had been discussing in their correspondence. Gauguin deliberately pushed the discussion aside because this self-portrait had less to do with colour than with literary meaning and symbolism.
Van Gogh’s reaction
Remarkably, the letter in which Gauguin had explained to Van Gogh the meaning of Self-Portrait with Portrait of Emile Bernard (Les misérables) arrived before the painting did. Gauguin’s descriptions elicited instant humility and touched Van Gogh to the core. Of course he too had read Les misérables and knew exactly what Gauguin was talking about. He immediately assumed that the portrait would be too good for a simple exchange. Van Gogh decided, before ever seeing Gauguin’s self-portrait, that it must be purchased, because the work that he intended to send in exchange, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin , would not be equal in importance to the work of his friend in Pont-Aven.
Gauguin, however, was determined to stick to the original plan and carry through the exchange. But when Van Gogh actually laid eyes on Gauguin’s self-portrait, his initial humility turned to disappointment. Now that Van Gogh was in a position to compare his own self-portrait with Gauguin’s, he could not help coming to the conclusion that his work easily measured up to that of his friend.
Van Gogh found Gauguin’s painting too sombre and lacking in spontaneity. In a letter to Theo, he commented at length on the work. The self-portrait looked ‘studied’ and excessively elaborate, and he thought that Gauguin looked ‘ill and tormented’. This had essentially been Gauguin’s intention, but Van Gogh’s reaction plainly shows his disapproval. The blue hues that Gauguin had chosen for the shaded passages in the face seemed lugubrious to Van Gogh and were a clear sign that Gauguin’s art had taken a wrong turn. Just when Van Gogh was ready to strike a cheerful note with his bright palette inspired by Japanese prints, Gauguin seemed to be moving in the opposite direction.
Van Gogh saw in the painting a pessimism and resignation that made him think more of Claude Lantier, the protagonist of Emile Zola’s L’Œuvre, than of the forthright and resilient Jean Valjean. Lantier, an avant-garde artist, had reached a dead end in his art and in his crusade against Salon painting, and his desperation ultimately led him to commit suicide. In October 1888, Van Gogh had still trusted that Gauguin’s battle would end well, but Self-Portrait with Portrait of Emile Bernard (Les misérables) seemed to tell him that his friend had lost heart.
Van Gogh was fundamentally shocked by the way Gauguin’s art had evolved. The last works by Gauguin that he had seen were his Martinican paintings, and he had praised them highly. These works – which Van Gogh had seen in Paris, before his departure for Arles – formed the basis of his admiration for the older painter. Even though they had been corresponding in the meantime, Van Gogh knew little about the stylistic development that Gauguin had undergone in Pont-Aven. The abstracted, schematic delineation in the portrait and the colours that were ‘quite far from nature’ were by no means well received by Van Gogh, who concluded that Gauguin must once again become the ‘richer Gauguin’ of the Martinique paintings.
Van Gogh went on to say: ‘He needs to eat, to walk with me in some beautiful countryside – to have a screw once in a while – see the house as it is and as we’ll make it, and in a word, thoroughly enjoy himself.’ Above all, Van Gogh thought it was important for Gauguin to hasten to Arles. As stated earlier, he had been trying for months to persuade Gauguin to come, but the sight of the self-portrait made this plan seem even more urgent. ‘What Gauguin’s portrait says to me, first and foremost, is that he mustn’t go on that way, he must console himself.’ Van Gogh was certain that Arles would provide Gauguin with that consolation.
For the rest, Van Gogh did share Gauguin’s conviction that the drawing of the nose and eyes was ‘Persian’, and in a letter to Theo he suggested, ironically, that the work would be perfectly at home in the Dieulafoy museum, a room in the Louvre that contained Achaemenid artefacts and had opened on 6 June 1888. ‘But’, wrote Van Gogh, ‘I belong neither to high society nor even to society..... and – I prefer both the Greeks and the Japanese to the Persians and Egyptians. For all that, I’m not saying that Gauguin’s wrong to work in the Persian style. But I’ll have to get used to it.’ In fact this difference of opinion, as well as Gauguin’s references to symbolism and abstraction, foreshadowed the increasing discordance between Van Gogh and Gauguin during their time together in Arles. Their discussions there became increasingly tense, until Van Gogh suffered a mental breakdown on 23 December 1888 and cut off his ear in a psychotic state.
In spite of everything that happened when the two artists were living together in Arles, Van Gogh later thought that Gauguin’s time in the south had done him a lot of good. As evidence of this, he referred to a more recent self-portrait of Gauguin , which had been painted during his last days in Arles. Van Gogh wrote: ‘Have you seen the portrait of me that Gauguin has, and have you seen the portrait that Gauguin did of himself during those final days? If you were to compare this portrait which Gauguin did of himself then with the one I still have of him, which he sent to me from Brittany in exchange for mine, you would see that all in all he grew more serene here, personally.’ Although the course of events tells a different story, it is difficult to say that Van Gogh was wrong in this regard. Gauguin looks considerably healthier in the later portrait. However, Van Gogh’s assessment reveals that the time the two artists spent together did nothing to change their opinions on self-portraiture. Van Gogh still valued the self-portrait as an expression of the subject’s state of mind at a given point in time, whereas Gauguin was bent on using his likeness to convey an idea.
Joost van der Hoeven