In the first week of December 1888, by which time Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) and Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) had spent some six weeks together in the Yellow House in Arles, Vincent wrote to his brother Theo van Gogh (1857–1891): ‘[Gauguin] is working on a portrait of me which I don’t count as one of his undertakings that don’t come to anything.’ Gauguin had probably just begun his painting, because in a letter written around 20 December, he told Theo that he had finished the portrait.
Convergence of elements
The portrait shows Van Gogh bringing his brush to the canvas, which stands on a field easel, as he works on a still life of five sunflowers in a vase. The colour scheme in the background seems to represent a painting by Gauguin. The use of larger areas of colour with no recognizable, atmospheric perspective is comparable to what we see in Blue Trees: Your Turn Will Come, My Beauty! and Arlésiennes (Mistral) (1888, Art Institute of Chicago). Moreover, the depiction of blue and red roofs is reminiscent of several works that Gauguin painted in Pont-Aven in early 1888, such as Landscape of Brittany . Even so, the supposed painting in the background cannot be linked to any of Gauguin’s known works.
Other elements in this portrait, such as the chair with a wicker seat and the dark blue vase standing on it, are objects in the Yellow House that Van Gogh had previously depicted himself. The chair, for example, appears in both Van Gogh’s Chair and The Bedroom ); the vase can be seen in a number of Van Gogh’s flower still lifes, such as Still Life (Nature morte) . Even the painter’s coat Van Gogh wears is familiar from his own Self-Portrait Dedicated to Gauguin . Yet despite these striking similarities, it cannot be stated unequivocally that Gauguin intended to incorporate allusions to Van Gogh’s paintings in his portrait. After all, these objects were simply among the household effects.
This does not hold true, however, for the sunflowers in the vase. Gauguin could not have painted these flowers from life, because they do not bloom in December. In fact, the flowers are a reference, painted from memory, to the series of still lifes that Van Gogh had produced at the end of August 1888. The eye that Gauguin painted in the largest sunflower appears to be an explicit reference to the version depicting fourteen sunflowers against a yellow background, which is now in the National Gallery in London . He later described this work by Van Gogh as ‘some sunflowers, with crimson eyes’. Van Gogh had in fact endowed these flowers with a kind of eye.
While awaiting Gauguin’s arrival, Van Gogh had made these sunflower paintings to decorate the Yellow House. He knew that Gauguin had been quite taken with the sunflower still lifes he had painted in Paris, two of which he had exchanged for On the Banks of the River, Martinique. In Arles, too, these paintings had made an impression on Gauguin, who reportedly said, shortly after his arrival, ‘that – … that’s … the flower’, referring to the true essence of the sunflower, which he thought Van Gogh had captured beautifully. After his stay with Van Gogh, Gauguin continued in this vein, describing these pictures as ‘your sunflowers on a yellow background which I regard as a perfect page of an essential “Vincent” style’.
In Gauguin’s eyes, The Sunflowers were the most powerful expression of Van Gogh’s artistry, works that encapsulated the essence not only of the sunflowers but also of Van Gogh’s personal style of painting. Gauguin therefore wished to immortalize his companion as ‘the painter of sunflowers’. His aim was not to produce a perfect likeness of his friend but rather to portray him in a symbolic setting that said something about his artistry. And just as Van Gogh’s paintings of sunflowers expressed the essence of both its subject and his personal style, Gauguin in turn captured the essence of Van Gogh the artist. As Gauguin wrote to Theo once he had completed the painting: ‘From a geographical viewpoint, perhaps it doesn’t resemble very much, but I think it conveys something intimate of his.’
Preparation and painting technique
In preparation for the painting, Gauguin took up the sketchbook he had with him in Arles and made two schematic studies: a sketch of Van Gogh’s facial features and another of the composition as a whole ( and ). A comparison of the latter drawing with the painting shows that Gauguin actually deviated little from his initial plan. From the very beginning, the composition of the piece was completely thought-out, which makes it unlikely that Van Gogh ever really posed in this position. That Gauguin devised his compositions beforehand and hardly deviated from his conception during the painting stage is confirmed by infrared images of Vincent van Gogh Painting Sunflowers, which reveal hardly any pentimenti. It has been alleged that Gauguin must have made, in addition to the above-mentioned sketches, a more detailed study, both because no underdrawing can be detected either by the naked eye or by means of infrared reflectography, and because the composition was applied to the canvas in one go, with hardly any modifications. No such study is known, however.
For this portrait of Van Gogh, Gauguin first applied a thin ground layer containing lead white to a piece of burlap and then painted the composition very thinly. After arriving in Arles, Gauguin had bought a twenty-metre roll of this cloth, and during his stay with Van Gogh, both artists used it. Gauguin found the coarse, inexpensive cloth well suited to his ‘primitive’ approach to painting, and tended to leave the structure of the fabric visible in his paintings. Owing to the thin ground containing lead white, the subsequent paint layers were easily absorbed by the loosely woven, fibrous support. Not only did this produce a matte effect, but the structure of the cloth remains clearly visible. Gauguin’s intentions and his working method are easy to study in this work, because – by way of exception – it was never varnished or relined. The surface is therefore rather dirty, but matte, not darkened, and the work has generally not suffered from harmful interventions.
Differences between Gauguin’s and Van Gogh’s painting techniques
Van Gogh used the burlap too, but found its coarse structure a hindrance. In most of the works he painted on it, he drenched his brush and smeared paint over the cloth until its open structure was largely covered up, so that the network of threads is less visible than in Gauguin’s works. A prime example is Van Gogh’s portrait of Gauguin , which originated at almost the same time as Vincent van Gogh Painting Sunflowers. Van Gogh’s rather messy application of a large amount of paint could not be more different from the thin, matte layer applied by Gauguin, who used less paint and finer brushes. The brush that Van Gogh wields in the portrait was probably not his own but of the kind that Gauguin preferred. Gauguin’s paint layers are not entirely without texture, however. Raking light reveals some light impasto in Vincent van Gogh Painting Sunflowers, although it is much less pronounced than in Van Gogh’s work .
The artists’ disagreement about the application of paint emerges from the letters that Gauguin sent to Emile Bernard (1868–1941) during his stay in the Yellow House: ‘As to the colour, he [Van Gogh] sees the fortuitous effect of impasto in Monticelli’s [work], and me, I hate fiddling around, fabricating it, etc.’ In his portrait of Van Gogh, Gauguin demonstrated his disapproval of thick impasto, preferring instead to portray his companion in a finely executed and carefully thought-out composition.
Differing ideas about art
Van Gogh and Gauguin argued not just about technique but also about artistic concepts. Van Gogh preferred to paint from life, whereas Gauguin drew inspiration from the imagination and from his memory. The use of preparatory studies and previously made drawings and paintings was indispensable to his working method, of which Vincent van Gogh Painting Sunflowers is an excellent example. During the time they spent together in the Yellow House, Gauguin encouraged Van Gogh to abandon the visible world and to work from memory instead. To this end, Van Gogh ventured to make several paintings from the imagination, such as Memory of the Garden at Etten (1888, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg) and The Novel Reader (1888, private collection). He also asked Theo to return works he had sent to him earlier, in order to follow Gauguin’s example and build up an archive of motifs for use in future work.
Towards the end of November 1888, when it appeared that Van Gogh was having difficulty painting from the imagination, the problems that had been brewing between the two artists rose to the surface. Van Gogh abandoned his imaginary compositions and dedicated himself fully to a series of portraits of the Roulin family. With portraiture, at least, he was on a more secure footing. It became clear that their artistic ideas differed fundamentally, and their discussions about art became increasingly heated. Van Gogh refused any longer to adopt Gauguin’s approach, in which the visualization of an idea was almost more important than the image this produced. It was precisely at this tense time of increasing friction that Gauguin embarked on his portrait of Van Gogh.
In a letter to Theo, Vincent described the tense atmosphere in the Yellow House as ‘excessively electric’ (électricité excessive). He went on to say that after arguing, they were as empty as ‘an electric battery after it’s run down’. Nine months later Van Gogh referred to the portrait in a letter to Theo: ‘Have you seen that portrait he did of me painting sunflowers? My face has lit up after all a lot since, but it was indeed me, extremely tired and charged with electricity as I was then.’ As mentioned earlier, Gauguin’s aim in making that portrait had been to convey ‘something intimate’ about his companion. Vincent’s letter to Theo confirms that Gauguin had achieved his goal.
In fact, Gauguin captured not only Van Gogh’s mood but also the reason for it, namely Gauguin’s criticism of his ideas about art and their resulting quarrels. In the portrait, Van Gogh seems not just on edge but downright obsessed. He is completely engrossed in his motif, the sunflowers, which he stares at intensely with narrowed eyes. The sunflowers could well stand for reality and the canvas behind Van Gogh for the imagination, the starting point of Gauguin’s art. Seen in this light, it can be said that Gauguin portrayed Van Gogh as obsessed with the prosaic motif right in front of his nose, while ignoring the spiritual and intellectual depths to be plumbed in the inner self.
Gauguin emphasized his point through the convergence of Van Gogh’s hand, brush, canvas and a sunflower petal. This seems to suggest that Van Gogh is re-creating his sunflowers, as it were, but neglecting to produce an original work of art. In this period, moreover, Van Gogh painted a copy of his own Sunflowers (1888, Sompo Museum of Art, Tokyo), thus providing Gauguin with another reason to paint his companion re-creating instead of creating. Gauguin, by contrast, did not need real sunflowers or even a painting of sunflowers to create the specimens in this painting. In fact, there were no sunflowers available in December, when Gauguin painted this portrait. One of his sunflowers displays an eye, which, as mentioned earlier, could have been borrowed from Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, though it might also refer to Odilon Redon’s (1840–1916) lithograph There Was Perhaps a First Vision Attempted in the Flower . Gauguin owned an impression of this lithograph, which in his view stood for dreaming and for visualizing in the mind’s eye. A reference to Redon would fit in perfectly with the series of critical symbols that Gauguin incorporated in his composition.
Nevertheless, it is remarkable that Gauguin chose The Sunflowers as the vehicle of his supposed criticism of Van Gogh. As mentioned above, Gauguin had praised this work as ‘a perfect page of an essential “Vincent” style’. Later he even tried to get hold of one of the versions Van Gogh had made in Arles. Could the portrait have been intended both to celebrate and to criticize Van Gogh’s artistry? This dichotomy seemed to surface again in 1901, when Gauguin painted sunflowers again. Even though these paintings are seen as a homage to Van Gogh, Gauguin again painted several flowers with an eye, which could be one more reference to their great bone of contention .
Present for Theo
The tension between the two artists finally came to a head on the evening of 23 December 1888, when Van Gogh, after yet another highly charged argument with Gauguin, suffered a nervous breakdown and, in a psychotic state, cut off his ear. Gauguin informed Theo, who travelled post-haste from Paris to Arles on 24 December to see with his own eyes the state his brother was in. Because of the Christmas rush at Boussod, Valadon & Cie, Theo had to return to Paris the next day. Gauguin hastily packed his things and went with him. Sometime after they departed, Gauguin presented Theo with his portrait of Vincent.
It is possible that feelings of guilt prompted Gauguin to give this work to Theo. After all, he was partly to blame for the fact that Theo, who was already overburdened with responsibility, now had even more worries. Moreover, Gauguin could certainly be counted on to calculate the strategic value of this gift. After all, Theo, in his capacity as branch manager at Boussod, Valadon & Cie had successfully marketed Gauguin’s work since 1887, and if he were to discontinue this business relationship because of what had happened in Arles, Gauguin would suffer a significant loss of income. With this gift Gauguin hoped to repair the rift, and he succeeded. A week later Theo wrote to his fiancée, Jo Bonger (1862–1925): ‘Gauguin painted a portrait of Vincent during the last days he spent with him & gave it to me as gift. It is a great work of art & the best portrait that’s been made of him in terms of capturing his inner being.’ Nine months later, Vincent expressed a similar opinion of Gauguin’s portrait, admitting that ‘it was indeed me’. If in fact the portrait had been intended as criticism of Van Gogh, Gauguin would have concealed this from Theo, who apparently thought it better than the successful portraits of Vincent by John Peter Russell and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec – indeed a great compliment.
The portrait in Gauguin’s writings
In some of his later articles and manuscripts, Gauguin discussed his portrait of Van Gogh, but presented the work as testimony of Van Gogh’s mental state and not as a product of the artistic schism between the two. In the manuscript ‘Avant et après’, in which Gauguin gave a lengthy account of his stay in the Yellow House, he wrote the following about the portrait: ‘I had the idea to portray him while painting the still life, [he] loved sunflowers so much. And [when] the portrait [was] finished, he said to me: “This is me, certainly, but me gone mad”.’ Whether Van Gogh actually said this cannot be verified. In an earlier essay, titled ‘Natures Mortes’ (Still Lifes), Gauguin did not put these words into Van Gogh’s mouth, but wrote plainly in the first person: ‘And me … I became him – Vincent – who suddenly drew with his yellow brush on the purple wall: I am the Holy Spirit … whole in spirit. Definitely, this man was mad.’ The anecdote about Van Gogh writing on the wall occurs more than once in Gauguin’s writings. He used it as an illustration of the tipping point in Van Gogh’s mental health, which worsened until he finally became the ‘mad man’ whom Gauguin portrayed.
To distance himself from his own role in the events that marked – and marred – their time together in Arles, Gauguin described a situation in which Van Gogh’s mental health steadily deteriorated, while he himself merely observed and analysed. In this context, he therefore presented the portrait as an analytical likeness and invariably kept silent about any criticism it might have contained. In his narrative, Gauguin led the discussion away from the original intention of the portrait, which was at once a celebration and a critique of Van Gogh’s artistry.
Joost van der Hoeven