Between 15 May and 15 June 1886, Vincent (1853–1890) and Theo van Gogh (1857–1891) visited the eighth and final Impressionist Exhibition at 1 rue Laffitte in Paris. Besides the works of, among others, Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), Berthe Morisot (1841–1895), Georges Seurat (1859–1891) and Paul Signac (1863–1935), they had the opportunity to admire no fewer than twenty-one paintings and pastels by Armand Guillaumin (1841–1927). Guillaumin predominantly exhibited landscapes but also some figure pieces, including Portrait of a Young Woman. Vincent was greatly impressed by this work, as later letters would attest. Whether Theo and Vincent purchased it immediately at the exhibition is unclear, but in any event the painting came into their possession soon thereafter.
The Van Gogh brothers also owned a second portrait by Guillaumin, Self-Portrait with Palette from 1878. The exact details of when and how they acquired it remain unknown. According to G. Serret and D. Fabiani’s 1971 catalogue raisonné of Guillaumin’s oeuvre, the portrait, which depicts the artist in his atelier holding a palette, is one of his only five self-portraits, amongst the 847 paintings he made from 1869 to 1922, which are mainly landscapes. In the years since the publication of the catalogue raisonné, more work and a couple of further self-portraits have come to light. Like Portrait of a Young Woman, Guillaumin displayed Self-Portrait with Palette at an Impressionist Exhibition, namely the fifth edition in 1880. It was catalogued under number 72, as ‘Portrait de M.G.’, referring to Monsieur Guillaumin.
Bright colours and impastos
The model in Guillaumin’s Portrait of a Young Woman is seated in a wooden chair with floral upholstery against a background of wallpaper or a curtain featuring slightly bolder floral motifs. The shape of her mouth, among other facial features, suggests that this is the same sitter Guillaumin painted a year earlier in a work titled The Model, which was also shown at the final Impressionist Exhibition . In that painting, a woman is seated in a similar chair with a backdrop of the same type of floral curtain. It is likely that both works depict Guillaumin’s atelier; a framed picture on the wall can be seen in the background of The Model. The curtain and chair also make an appearance in Mademoiselle Guillaumin Reading , painted in 1907, almost twenty years later, for which Guillaumin’s eldest daughter, Madeleine, posed.
Guillaumin began Portrait of a Young Woman by sketching the contours of the figure on the canvas using diluted pale blue, dark blue and pink oil paint. He then proceeded to paint the portrait in two or three stages, employing both a wet-on-dry and a wet-on-wet technique. The paint bled through visibly onto the back of the canvas, which was never lined. The dark blue dress is enlivened with bright colours such as red, orange and green. Guillaumin further accentuated the face with pronounced pink, green, yellow, blue, purple and red highlights. The work is signed and dated in red, as is the Self-Portrait with Palette.
Contemporary reviews often praised Guillaumin’s intense use of colour. For instance, Félix Fénéon (1861–1944) referred to him as a ‘furious colourist’ (‘coloriste furieux’) and commended his broad impasto technique. Paul Adam (1862–1920) wrote of the Portrait of a Young Woman: ‘If Mr Guillaumin still retains a certain fondness for blending [colours] on a palette, his colouration now pulsates with even greater intensity.’ The Van Gogh brothers also appreciated Guillaumin’s impasto and colour choices. For example, Theo wrote: ‘one always finds his same pink, orange and violet blue patches again, but his touch is vigorous and his view of nature is quite broad’.
The colour scheme of Self-Portrait with Palette might initially appear subdued, but upon closer inspection it becomes evident that Guillaumin masterfully employed a myriad of colours, sometimes even in a single brushstroke. For instance, in the Portrait of a Young Woman, the skin of the face is painted with a rich tapestry of hues. As one of the pioneering impressionists, Guillaumin juxtaposed these colours side by side, creating an optical blend when viewed from a distance that imbued his paintings with a shimmering effect. Both portraits ultimately achieve a harmonious balance of colours across the canvas. In 1880, the author and art critic Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848–1907) described this effect as follows: ‘Mr Guillaumin, too, is a colourist, and a ferocious one at that. At first sight, his canvases may appear as a chaotic clash of tones and restless contours, with a mass of vermillion and Prussian blue streaks. But take a step back and blink: harmony prevails, everything falls into place, the planes gain clarity, the shrieking tones find tranquillity and the antagonistic colours reconcile. One is astonished by the unexpected delicacy that certain parts of these canvases take.’
Examination of paint samples reveals that the cobalt blue paint used by Guillaumin was sold in the art supply shop of Julien ‘Père’ Tanguy (1825–1894). This shop was popular with young painters; Signac and Van Gogh also bought materials there. Moreover, Tanguy exhibited and traded works by these artists. He was the main dealer for Guillaumin until 1870, after which Paul Durand-Ruel (1831–1922), Eugène Blot (1857–1938) and Alphonse Portier (1841–1902) also sold his works. The latter possibly introduced Guillaumin to the Van Gogh brothers.
Guillaumin and the Van Gogh brothers
Van Gogh considered Guillaumin to be one of the painters of the ‘Petit Boulevard’, a term he used to describe a group of young artists, contrasting them to the ‘Grand Boulevard’ painters among whom he included Claude Monet (1840–1926) and Camille Pissarro (1830–1903). However, it is worth noting that Guillaumin did belong to the older generation. As early as 1861, he had attended classes at the Académie Suisse in Paris, where he forged friendships with Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) and Pissarro. Guillaumin’s financial circumstances were not always favourable for pursuing his artistic aspirations. Pissarro described how Guillaumin often was forced to work late into the night to support himself, undertaking various jobs, for instance with the French railways and later for the department of bridges and roads (Pont et Chaussées). These undeniably impacted his artistic interests: he regularly painted the industrialization of the landscape. Only in 1891, when Guillaumin won 100,000 francs in a lottery, did he become free from financial worries and able to devote himself entirely to art.
Guillaumin resided and worked at 13 quai d’Anjou, on the Île Saint-Louis on the Seine, in the former atelier of Charles-François Daubigny (1817–1878). Van Gogh visited him there in 1887, and Guillaumin in turn paid a visit to Van Gogh to see his work. Later, after Van Gogh had left for Arles, the two artists entertained the idea of exchanging works. Guillaumin is said to have left a beautiful painting of a sunset at Tanguy’s for Van Gogh and, in return, expressed interest in one of Van Gogh’s paintings of the Alpilles mountains. However, it is unclear whether this exchange ever took place. It is worth noting that besides the two painted portraits and a pastel , which are still in the Van Gogh Museum today, there was originally another work by Guillaumin in Theo and Vincent’s collection, which may very well have been the sunset painting. The inventory list of June 1891 records four works by Guillaumin.
Guillaumin had married Marie-Josephine Gareton in 1887, and she and Theo’s wife, Jo van Gogh-Bonger (1862–1925), maintained a cordial correspondence after Vincent’s death and during Theo’s illness. In 1897, Ambroise Vollard (1866–1939) expressed interest in buying works by Guillaumin from Van Gogh-Bonger, eventually leading to the transaction taking place in 1899.
Incidentally, Theo not only bought pieces by Guillaumin for his own collection but would also start to deal in them. Vincent also played a role in promoting Guillaumin, teaming up with Theo to successfully pique the interest of the Scottish dealer Alexander Reid (1854–1928) and the Australian artist John Peter Russell (1858–1930) in Guillaumin’s work.
Portraiture occupies a relatively minor place within Guillaumin’s painted oeuvre, as he primarily focussed on landscapes and cityscapes. If he did venture figure pieces or portraits, they were mostly of his wife, their children or himself. Therefore, the fact that the Van Gogh brothers bought two portraits by Guillaumin speaks more to Vincent’s personal artistic aspiration for modern portraiture than to Guillaumin’s prominence in this particular genre. In September 1889, Van Gogh wrote to Theo: ‘Afterwards, what are we beginning to glimpse timidly at the moment that is original and lasting – the portrait. That’s something old, one might say – but it’s also brand new. We’ll talk more about this – but let’s still continue to seek out portraits, above all of artists, like the Guillaumin and Guillaumin’s portrait of a young girl, and take good care of my portrait by Russell, which means a lot to me.’ For Van Gogh, the portrait was a cornerstone of modern painting. He not only painted and drew numerous self-portraits, he also collected portraits by other artists, such as Gauguin, Emile Bernard (1868–1941) and Russell.
In a letter to his sister Willemien van Gogh, also from dating to September 1889, Van Gogh wrote: ‘Did you see at Theo’s the portrait of the painter Guillaumin and the portrait of a young woman by the same? That really gives an idea of what one is searching for. When Guillaumin exhibited his portrait, public and artists laughed at it a great deal, and yet it’s one of the rare things that would hold up alongside even the old Dutchmen Rembrandt and Hals.’ Van Gogh frequently referred to Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) and Frans Hals (1582–1666) as the true masters of portraiture, considering their work as the benchmarks of excellence in this genre. Interestingly, in 1880 the critic Paul de Charry also made a comparison between Guillaumin and Rembrandt, albeit his tone was less complimentary: ‘we will forget the portraits by Rembrandt and become ecstatic before those by Mr Guillaumin […]. With a profusion of blue, red, and green, Mr Guillaumin gives us a series of paintings as impressionistic as possible. Among them is a portrait of the painter, who in a moment of distraction, no doubt while seeking inspiration, violently applied his newly prepared palette to his face. He was stunned and shared his amazement with the public.’
Charry’s critique of Guillaumin’s portraits mainly centred on the artist’s bold and unconventional use of colour. Other critics also disparaged the colours in Guillaumin’s self-portrait. Armand Silvestre (1837–1901), an important writer of the time, went so far as to describe the work as ‘nothing short of monstrous’, and the Paris-Journal spoke of ‘a gentleman who has fallen on his palette and glares at the viewer, who is stunned to see so many reds, greens, blues, violets, and yellows grouped together on a single surface’. This penchant for using vivid and intense colours extended beyond his portraits and could also be observed in his landscape paintings. Guillaumin’s excessive use of pink, purple and blue brushstrokes in his work invited constant criticism. Van Gogh was evidently aware of these harsh reviews from 1880, as indicated in the letter he wrote to Willemien quoted above. Nonetheless, Van Gogh appreciated Guillaumin’s portraits for their sincerity and authenticity. He recognized the depth of emotion and feeling (‘a thing of feeling’) in Guillaumin’s work, which he also admired in Rembrandt’s portraits and which he himself was seeking as an artist. Although Guillaumin did not achieve the same level of recognition in art history as some of the prominent impressionist painters, his intense use of colour left a lasting impression on Van Gogh. To Van Gogh, Guillaumin was an inspiring contemporary artist.
Maite van Dijk, Nina Reid and Sara Tas