Works Collected by Theo and Vincent van Gogh


Charles Laval

Charles Laval (1861–1894) always plays a secondary role in the historiography of the Pont-Aven School and the stylistic breakthroughs achieved there in 1888. Almost without exception, art historical praise is bestowed upon his better-known colleagues Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) and Emile Bernard (1868–1941), whose monumental works Vision after the Sermon (1888, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh) and The Pardon (1888, Musée d’Orsay, Paris), respectively, command all attention. This Self-Portrait, which Laval sent from Brittany to Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) in the south of France in the autumn of 1888, as Gauguin and Bernard had done, also tends to receive less recognition in accounts of the artistic exchange between Pont-Aven and Arles. However, this may not represent a fair assessment of the work. From Van Gogh’s perspective, Laval was possibly just as talented as Gauguin and Bernard. The fact that he had never met Laval personally or corresponded with him did not alter his opinion.

Laval enters the picture

Van Gogh first learned about Laval through his correspondence with Gauguin, who regularly mentioned the younger artist. Laval and Gauguin had become good friends after meeting in Pont-Aven in 1886. In April 1887 they travelled together to Martinique, following which Gauguin returned to Paris in November 1887 while Laval stayed on for another six months. When Laval rejoined Gauguin in Pont-Aven in mid-July 1888, Gauguin reported to Van Gogh: ‘My friend Laval is back from Martinique; he brought some very curious watercolours. I’ll have you look at some that you’ll like, they’re art.’ Gauguin also informed him that Laval, along with Bernard, would be joining him in Arles so that all four of them could work together in the so-called Studio of the South. From that point onward, Laval became a part of Van Gogh’s artistic exchange with Pont-Aven, and figured in the plans for a future communal artists’ studio in Arles.

Upon receiving the self-portraits of Gauguin and Bernard in early October 1888, Van Gogh expressed his gratitude by sending several of his paintings to his friends in Pont-Aven, one of which was intended for Laval. While it is unclear which one Laval chose for himself, his self-portrait for Van Gogh in turn served as a token of appreciation. When Van Gogh received it on 11 or 12 November 1888, he had the chance to compare it with Gauguin’s and Bernard’s likenesses. Van Gogh had nothing but praise for the portrait. In a letter to his brother Theo van Gogh (1857–1891) he wrote: ‘The portrait of Laval is very self-assured, very distinguished, and will be precisely one of the paintings you speak of, which one takes before the others have recognized the talent.’ Van Gogh was genuinely impressed with the potential he discerned in it and even made a letter sketch to give Theo an idea of the work . In addition, he sent Laval a self-portrait to thank him for the painting, inscribed ‘à l’ami Laval’ (to my friend Laval) . Evidently, Van Gogh deemed the quality of Laval’s self-portrait to be such that he felt that the painting Laval already had by him was insufficient compensation for the likeness. Interestingly, Van Gogh did not express the same level of enthusiasm upon receiving the self-portraits of Gauguin and Bernard. This might be because he was more familiar with their work and had higher expectations.

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait, 1888, oil on canvas, 46 × 38 cm, private collection

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait, 1888, oil on canvas, 46 × 38 cm, private collection

Great promise and a distinct style

The promise Van Gogh discerned in Laval’s self-portrait was certainly not unfounded. Indeed, the portrait ‘holds its own’ alongside those of Gauguin and Bernard, showing that Laval did not merely imitate their style, as some have accused him of doing, but rather sought his own path within the manner of painting they had collectively adopted. Since meeting Gauguin in 1886, Laval’s art had undergone a rapid development. While there are no known works by Laval from that year, according to Henri Delavallée (1862–1943) Laval then painted in the manner of Edgar Degas (1834–1917). Although the works he created in the company of Gauguin in Martinique the following year indeed betray the influence of the elder artist, thirteen years his senior, Laval managed to infuse his paintings with a personal touch at the same time. He delved deeper into his distinctive style in 1888, when he was in Pont-Aven with Gauguin and Bernard. During this period, he produced two particularly interesting works in addition to the self-portrait: Going to Market, Brittany and Women Bathing ( and ).

These three paintings all feature short, loose brushstrokes, applied by Laval with superb dexterity. Unlike Gauguin and Bernard, who used areas of colour filled in with parallel strokes following the example of Paul Cézanne (1830–1903), Laval employed the agility of his brush to infuse dynamism into his work. This can be seen in his rendering of faces in Going to Market, Brittany and the tree in his Self-Portrait, but it is especially pronounced in the portrayal of the seawater in Women Bathing. Laval further enhanced this dynamic quality by greatly varying the colour of his daubs, which is evident in all three paintings. This combination gave Laval’s paintings a distinctive panache and set them apart from Gauguin’s and Bernard’s work.

Charles Laval, Going to Market, Brittany, 1888, oil on canvas, 37.5 × 36 cm, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis

Charles Laval, Going to Market, Brittany, 1888, oil on canvas, 37.5 × 36 cm, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis

Nipped in the bud

Unfortunately, Laval’s creative streak could not be sustained. He suffered poor health due to tuberculosis, which may have afflicted him since 1887. The disease tragically claimed Laval’s life in 1894, when he was just thirty-three years old. His chronic health issues not only hindered his artistic endeavours but also dampened his desire to work. As a result, he was insecure as an artist and lacked the constant drive to create that Gauguin, Bernard and Van Gogh possessed. A year later, in October 1889, Gauguin complained to Bernard that Laval ‘did not touch a brush during his six months in Brittany’. A month later he lamented that ‘the poor fellow has been seduced into idleness.’ Bernard shared similar concerns during this period, complaining that Laval ‘doubts and dozes’ (doute et somnole) in a letter to his friend Emile Schuffenecker (1851–1934). Laval’s few surviving letters confirm his struggle with low self-esteem. For example, in 1887 he wrote to Gauguin after the latter had left him in Martinique: ‘I was in a dark place when you found me.’ In 1890 he wrote to Bernard: ‘Your existence is clear, mine hardly is: I’ve led a detestable life, and I’m deeply troubled to realise that I’ve never acted in a good way.’

Due to his fragile health, lack of motivation and untimely demise, Laval’s oeuvre is exceedingly small, with just over thirty-five known works by his hand. Moreover, the picture we have of his surviving body of work is incomplete. In a 1939 text, Bernard mentioned that after Laval’s death in 1894, his brother Eugène ‘Nino’ Laval had auctioned off all his work. In his later publications, Bernard portrayed Laval negatively, possibly to elevate his own role in the avant-gardes of the 1880s. This undoubtedly contributed to Laval’s relatively obscure place in art history, resulting in so little value being attached to his work, much of which has faded into obscurity.

Four self-portraits

Among the surviving works there are six portraits in total, four of which are self-portraits. Three of these self-portraits date from the period when Laval was frequently in the company of Gauguin and Bernard. The earliest one is the Self-Portrait in the Van Gogh Museum. Portrait of the Artist (Musée d’Orsay, Paris) and Self-Portrait ‘À mon bon Nino’ (for my good Nino) (whereabouts unknown) were both made in 1889. Like the self-portrait he painted for Van Gogh, these two versions were intended for individuals close to Laval. The latter work, as its title suggests, was meant for Laval’s brother, and Portrait of the Artist was given to Bernard, who later donated it to the Musée du Luxembourg, Paris.

The fourth self-portrait (whereabouts unknown) was created earlier, during his student days in Paris (c. 1880–84). Laval received his training successively at the Académie des Beaux-Arts and in the ateliers of Léon Bonnat (1833–1922) and Fernand Cormon (1845–1924). Regardless of the style or period in which Laval portrayed himself, his distinct narrow face and trademark pince-nez glasses always make him recognizable. In the four times Gauguin portrayed him – once in oil on canvas and three times in chalk on paper – and in the few photographs taken of him , he wore his pince-nez without exception.

Paul Gauguin, Portrait of Charles Laval, 1887, black chalk on paper, 20.3 × 26.7 cm, Tate, London. Photo: Tate

Paul Gauguin, Portrait of Charles Laval, 1887, black chalk on paper, 20.3 × 26.7 cm, Tate, London. Photo: Tate

A skilled portraitist

During his academic training, Laval had mastered the art of painting traditionally composed likenesses that closely resembled his subjects. This skill did not go unnoticed by his confreres. In his 1939 memoirs, Bernard noted that, ‘A student of Bonnat, Laval had painted some fine portraits in a black manner that revealed the finesse of his nature.’ By manière noire, Bernard probably meant a traditional method of portraiture that prescribes working from dark to light. Several such portraits were created by Laval’s teacher Bonnat. However, only one portrait en manière noire by Laval has survived (with some doubts). It depicts Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901) from their student days under the tutelage of Bonnat and Cormon.

Although Laval’s art had taken a different direction in 1886, by 1887 he found himself compelled to revert to his academic portraiture skills due to financial constraints. At that time, he and Gauguin were stranded in Panama, painting some portraits on commission to help cover their passage to Martinique. Gauguin wrote: ‘They must be done in a special and very poor manner, something I cannot do.’ Even though Gauguin looked down on Laval’s academic portrait skills, he was unable to execute such precise work himself. Unfortunately, as far as is known, none of Laval’s Panama portraits have survived.

While painted in a different, more personal style, Laval’s 1888 Self-Portrait still showcases his talent as a portraitist. He adeptly employed short and dynamic strokes to limn an expressive and authentic likeness of himself. This method of painting leaves less room for subtlety than academic fine painting, which demands that every stroke hit the mark. Laval first laid out the painting with general zones of thinly applied paint, then continued to work over it with thicker, short strokes. As a result, the ground tone of the face is relatively dark, but over it he applied short strokes in a rich variety of shades that reflect the changing light falling on the skin. He used white touches on the right side of his face to create highlights and dark blue tones for the shadowed side. Furthermore, the distinctive and clearly applied short strokes that Laval used to model his face, hair and beard are deliberately course and effectively reveal his signature style and lend the portrait a personal feeling.

Compared to the self-portraits by Gauguin and Bernard

As mentioned above, Laval’s clearly applied strokes are among the most striking distinguishing elements in relation to Gauguin and Bernard. The same is true when comparing the self-portraits they all sent to Van Gogh. Bernard focused on even areas of colour in his self-portrait, while Gauguin painted himself in a finer painterly style. Consequently, Laval’s self-portrait conveys more directness than those of his colleagues. This must have been the quality that so appealed to Van Gogh. According to Van Gogh, this also translated into Laval’s gaze, which he described as ‘honest’.

Additionally, Laval’s composition set his portrait apart from those of Gauguin and Bernard. By positioning himself in front of a window overlooking a garden, rather than against a plain wall, he introduced a sense of space into the scene. This allowed Laval to convey something about his artistry in the broadest sense. By placing himself before a landscape, he communicated to Van Gogh that he was not only a portrait painter but also adept at landscapes.

The technique Laval used to depict his face is also applied, in part, to the garden behind him. Particularly the area beyond the window, directly to the left of Laval, is covered with distinct parallel strokes. He used shorts daubs of different colours to work out the tree, creating a varied and colourful representation of the foliage that beautifully reflects the autumnal mood of the season when the work was created. Laval added contours to some leaves almost randomly. This was a significant departure from Gauguin’s style, whose work – according to Bernard and others – Laval imitated too slavishly.

Laval and Bernard together in Pont-Aven

Interestingly, it is precisely the depiction of the tree that bears similarities with Bernard’s work. For instance, the rendering of the trees in Bernard’s painting House among Trees, Pont-Aven , which, like the self-portrait, was produced in the autumn of 1888, is very similar to Laval’s tree: they both feature distinct branches and loose strokes for the autumn foliage. Furthermore, the location of both paintings is likely the same, with Bernard’s work showing the Pension Gloanec in the background, where the painters lodged. Laval portrayed himself in front of one of the inn’s windows, with the same garden in the background as seen in Bernard’s painting. This garden belonged to the inn.

When Laval and Bernard painted Self-Portrait and House among Trees, Pont-Aven, respectively, Gauguin had already left for Arles to join Van Gogh, leaving the two younger painters to rely on each other. Initially, their collaboration faced some challenges, and Bernard must have aired some complaints about Laval in a (now unknown) letter to Gauguin. The latter felt compelled to write to Bernard, ‘be friends with Laval, he has a fine and noble nature.’ Their being thrown together like this, however, might explain the stylistic affinity between these two works. Bernard may have set the example, as he already used this manner of painting trees in Red Poplars (1887, private collection) earlier that autumn. He, in turn, was inspired by Cézanne.

Emile Bernard, House among Trees, Pont-Aven, 1888, Van Gogh Museum

Emile Bernard, House among Trees, Pont-Aven, 1888, oil on canvas, 73 × 92.5 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (State of the Netherlands)

Sufficiently finished

While Laval painstakingly rendered the tree, his own face, and parts of the background with loose brushstrokes over the general layout of his composition, he left significant portions of his thin underlayer visible. This is especially noticeable in the grass and Laval’s clothing. In some sections, the paint is applied so thinly that the primer of the canvas shines through it.

Also visible are several sketchy lines in dark blue paint, suggesting the beginning of further elaboration, but left as they were. Or perhaps these lines were painted over, albeit indifferently, with a very thin and transparent layer. Although the work could be read as not entirely finished, Laval signed and sent it to Van Gogh, indicating that he may not have put much value in the traditional notion of finish. The other two paintings from this period, Going to Market, Brittany and Women Bathing (see and ), also appear incomplete. For example, the figure at the upper right in Going to Market, Brittany seems unfinished, as is the figure at the lower right in Women Bathing. Yet these works are also signed, suggesting Laval’s satisfaction.

As mentioned above, this trio of paintings clearly demonstrates that Laval was hardly inferior to Gauguin and Bernard as an artist. He undeniably made a significant contribution to the fruitful artistic exchange between these three painters. The rhythm and personality of his brushwork, his remarkably keen eye for colour and composition, and his skill in portraiture are all qualities in which Laval’s sparse body of work excels. Van Gogh recognized Laval’s exceptional talent based on this self-portrait alone.

Joost van der Hoeven
January 2024


Joost van der Hoeven, ‘Charles Laval, Self-Portrait, 1888’, catalogue entry in Contemporaries of Van Gogh 1: Works Collected by Theo and Vincent, Joost van der Hoeven (ed.), Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum, 2023.

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