The Portrait of Joseph-Michel Ginoux and Vincent van Gogh Painting Sunflowers are the only oil paintings produced by Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) in Arles that are now in the collection of the Van Gogh Museum. Not only do the two portraits differ considerably in terms of format and degree of finish, they also rest on very different foundations. Whereas Vincent van Gogh Painting Sunflowers is a carefully composed ensemble of elements that combine to evoke the character of Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), Portrait of Joseph-Michel Ginoux is a straightforward, rapidly painted work. Examination of the build-up of the paint clearly shows that the canvas is unfinished: in the upper right-hand corner, the cream-coloured ground remains visible and is only partially covered with a few swiftly painted, individually distinguishable brushstrokes. The canvas is neither varnished nor relined.
An acquaintance of Van Gogh
While Joseph-Michel Ginoux posed, Gauguin and Van Gogh sat side by side and painted his likeness. Van Gogh’s portrait shows Ginoux en face , whereas Gauguin portrayed him diagonally from the right. Gauguin must therefore have been sitting to the left of Van Gogh. In both portraits, Ginoux has an air of haughtiness. Leaning his head back slightly but holding himself stiffly upright, he looks down arrogantly, with half-closed eyes, at what is taking place before him. Ginoux’s clothing contributes to his supercilious, dandyish appearance. He wears, for example, a double-breasted jacket and a cravat à la Byron.
For a long time there was uncertainty as to the identity of the man who sat for these two portraits, which were often referred to as the Portrait of a Man or the Portrait of an Actor. However, Ronald Pickvance identified the model in 1989 as Joseph-Michel Ginoux. Together with his wife, Marie, Ginoux ran the Café de la Gare on Place Lamartine, at a stone’s throw from the Yellow House where Van Gogh and Gauguin lived. Pickvance did not provide conclusive proof of this identification, but considering that the sitters in all the portraits the two artists painted in the autumn of 1888 came from Van Gogh’s immediate circle, it is reasonable to assume that the sitter is Ginoux.
During his stay in Arles, Van Gogh became well acquainted with the Ginoux. Before mid-September 1888, when he began to use the Yellow House not only as a studio but also as his living quarters, he had spent five months in lodgings above the Café de la Gare. Moreover, it was the Ginoux who told him about the possibility of renting the Yellow House. Van Gogh was very keen to have Marie and Joseph pose in the studio, but he lacked persuasiveness and needed Gauguin’s help to make it happen.
Marie’s portrait was painted at the beginning of November 1888 but it was probably mid-December before Joseph came to the Yellow House. When Marie Ginoux was sitting for her portrait, it became clear that Gauguin’s approach differed from Van Gogh’s usual working method. While Van Gogh worked up the portrait with great speed , applying his oil paint directly to a large canvas of standard format (figure no. 30, measuring 93 × 74 cm), Gauguin sat intently drawing a portrait study . He later used this drawing for a more complicated ensemble, Night Café, Arles (1888, Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow). In contrast to Van Gogh, portraying a model was for Gauguin not so much an end in itself as a way of gathering motifs for use in future work.
Portrait painting à la Van Gogh
When Joseph-Michel Ginoux came to pose in mid-December, Gauguin decided to adopt Van Gogh’s working method for once, so he painted the model directly on the canvas. The naked eye, the stereomicroscope and infrared reflectography have all failed to detect an underdrawing, something that was usually standard practice for Gauguin. Perhaps Van Gogh had urged him to skip the underdrawing, or perhaps Gauguin did it because he was only a casual participant in this portrait session. Then again, Ginoux might not have had much time, forcing Gauguin to work quickly. First he laid in the model’s contours in diluted dark blue paint, whereupon he coloured in the face and the background, wet-in-wet, with what were for him unusually coarse brushstrokes. The background in particular is very coarsely painted, in a way that recalls Van Gogh’s manner of painting. Finally, Gauguin used undiluted dark blue paint to go over the most important contours either partly or completely, and to accentuate the eyes and eyebrows. This gives the portrait an oddly caricatural appearance. Indeed, the face looks almost like a mask. Around the head Gauguin placed a yellow circle, suggestive of an aureole and comparable to the sun in The Sower , which Van Gogh had painted several weeks earlier. Gauguin had initially intended to make the circle bigger, as is apparent from the dark blue vertical lines at the upper edge of the canvas, but in the end he chose this smaller variant.
The background is divided in two by a diagonal line. This was probably a compositional device intended to prevent the background from becoming monochrome, as was the case with the backgrounds in many of Van Gogh’s portraits of this period. Gauguin adopted a similar strategy in several other portraits that he made in the Yellow House, such as Vincent van Gogh Painting Sunflowers and the Madame Roulin . In these works – just as in the Portrait of Joseph-Michel Ginoux – Gauguin applied light blue below the line and a combination of green and yellow above it. He also used the strong diagonal a year later in the Portrait of Meijer de Haan (1889, Museum of Modern Art, New York). Both Gauguin and Van Gogh used imaginary colours for the backgrounds of the portraits they painted in the Yellow House. Van Gogh had said in a letter to his brother Theo that the interior walls of the Yellow House were white; only one of the portraits Van Gogh painted there has a white background.
In addition to painting the portrait directly on the canvas, as Van Gogh did, Gauguin also used Van Gogh’s more finely woven linen canvas with a commercial ground instead of the coarse jute he used a great deal in Arles. In all likelihood Van Gogh had received a roll of this linen canvas in mid-November through Theo in Paris, since he used it for such works as the extensive series of portraits of the Roulin family, which he painted in late November and early December. The irregular way in which the tacking edges of the unlined canvas were cropped suggests that Gauguin painted this portrait on a support cut from a larger piece of commercial primed canvas: Van Gogh’s roll of linen canvas.
Gauguin was presumably dissatisfied with both the direct working method and the linen canvas, because he abandoned the painting before it was finished. The best evidence of this, of course, is the upper right-hand corner, which remained unpainted, but Gauguin’s atypical handling of paint is another indication. Whereas Gauguin’s finished paintings are often built up of numerous paint layers, painstakingly applied with a view to the end effect, this work has only one layer, which was applied with unusually coarse brushstrokes. Not only does it illustrate Gauguin’s hasty and uninspired approach to this work, but it could also be evidence of his impatience and dissatisfaction at having to paint a portrait in this way. The half-hearted execution of this portrait therefore contrasts with Van Gogh’s version, which was done with bravura and devotion.
Gauguin did not take this small portrait along when he left Arles, which suggests that he considered it a mere study and did not attach much importance to it. This idea is supported by the fact that the work was never signed, making it one of the three unsigned paintings of the series of seventeen that Gauguin produced in Arles. Shortly before moving to Saint-Rémy, in May 1889, Van Gogh finally put the work in the last large shipment of paintings he sent from Arles to Paris. The work was never returned to Gauguin. Later he wrote to Van Gogh: ‘Don’t bother yourself with the studies that I deliberately left in Arles as not being worth the trouble of transporting them.’
Joost van der Hoeven