Van Gogh and Gauguin: Electric Arguments and Utopian Dreams

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Although Vincent van Gogh's and Paul Gauguin's artistic collaboration in the South of France lasted no more than two months, their stormy relationship has continued to fascinate art historians, biographers and psychoanalysts as well as film makers and the general public. Two great 19th century figures with powerful and often clashing sensibilities, they shared a house, worked side by side, drank, caroused and argued passionately about art. Their brief venture together, richly documented in the artists' letters ...

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Boulder, Colorado, U.S.A. 2001 Hardcover New 0813335957. FLAWLESS COPY, PRISTINE, NEVER OPENED--280 pages; clean and crisp, tight and bright pages, with no writing or markings ... to the text. --TABLE OF CONTENTS: Illustrations vii Preface * 1 Van Gogh: Zundert to Paris * 2 Gauguin: Lima to Pont-Aven * 3 Van Gogh in Paris and First Encounters with Gauguin * 4 Jean Valjean and the Buddhist Monk: Van Gogh in Anticipation of Gauguin * 5 Electric Arguments: "Le Bon Vincent" and "Le Grieche Gauguin" * 6 Aftermath * Chronology * Notes * Selected Bibliography * Index 257. --DESCRIPTION: Explores the tumultuous relationship between two great masters of 19th century painting, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, and the impact of that relationship on their art. Although Vincent van Gogh's and Paul Gauguin's artistic collaboration in the South of France lasted no more than two months, their stormy relationship has continued to fascinate art historians, biographers and psychoanalysts as well as film makers and the general Read more Show Less

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Overview

Although Vincent van Gogh's and Paul Gauguin's artistic collaboration in the South of France lasted no more than two months, their stormy relationship has continued to fascinate art historians, biographers and psychoanalysts as well as film makers and the general public. Two great 19th century figures with powerful and often clashing sensibilities, they shared a house, worked side by side, drank, caroused and argued passionately about art. Their brief venture together, richly documented in the artists' letters and paintings, would be compelling enough even if it had not culminated in the catastrophe of van Gogh's life - his ear cutting. This traumatic climax to van Gogh’s and Gauguin’s weeks spent in the "Yellow House" in Arles has raised profound questions about the nature of their relationship and about their behavior before and after van Gogh's self-mutilation.Van Gogh and Gauguin will explore the artists' intertwined lives from a psychoanalytic perspective in order to draw a nuanced and sophisticated picture of the artists' dealings with each other. The book will also examine crucial art historical issues such as the aesthetic convictions that both united and divided the two men, and the extent to which they influenced each other's art.

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Editorial Reviews

James Beck
Rarely is a book on art history a page turner: this one is, and with enormous rewards for the reader.
Laurie Schneider Adams
In Van Gogh and Gauguin, Bradley Collins has written an insightful, readable, and highly original study of the artists and their work. The book is a successful synthesis of formalist, iconographic, and psychoanalytic methodology. It is a must for any student of 19th century art and for the general reader interested in the interplay between artists and between artists and their work.
Publishers Weekly
The oft-trod personal and artistic interactions of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin are given fresh dirt by journalist Collins, a Parsons School of Design professor, whose goal is to "introduce nuance and complexity into [the] polarized conception" of the artists as diametrical opposites taken by many previous writers. Debunking the notion of van Gogh as a primitive peasant, Collins points out that he read literature voraciously in three languages. Finding some truth in the myths of van Gogh and Gauguin as respectively "the innocent versus the rogue, the masochist versus the willful manipulator," the book's six brief chapters include examples of Vincent being unsympathetic (as in anti-Semitic letters) and Gauguin being noble, writing about his deranged friend, "I can't hold a grudge against an excellent heart that is ill, that is suffering, and that needs me." Admitting when we cannot know what was going on between the two men, such as when Vincent would approach the bed of the sleeping Gauguin, only to stand there silently until his friend awoke and shooed him away, Collins only briefly dips into psychoanalysis of van Gogh paintings like Gauguin's Chair: "By endowing the feminine chair with a phallus, Vincent turned it into a phallic mother." Collins's close, concise study succeeds, largely because of a restrained, commonsense approach whose general rationality contrasts strongly with the hysterical adulation that the two artists, especially van Gogh, still inspire in their fans. (Nov.) Forecast: The Art Institute of Chicago launches a major van Gogh/Gauguin exhibition on September 22. This book is one of six being published in conjunction with it, and should attract the more thoughtfulof the painters' fans, while the Westview imprint will attract scholarly library interest. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813335957
  • Publisher: Westview Press
  • Publication date: 9/30/2001
  • Pages: 280
  • Lexile: 1390L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Bradley Collins is an art historian and an instructor at the Parsons School of Design at The New School University. He has written on Renaissance as well as 19th and 20th-century art for Art Journal, Art in America, The Village Voice, and other publications. He is also the author of Leonardo, Psychoanalysis, and Art History. His has special interest in the psychoanalytic approach to art. He received his Ph.D. from Columbia University and his BA from Harvard University.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Van Gogh


Zundert to Paris


I


Although art historians have spent decades demystifying van Gogh's legend, they have done little to diminish his vast popularity. Auction prices still soar, visitors still overpopulate van Gogh exhibitions, and The Starry Night remains ubiquitous on dormitory and kitchen walls. So complete is van Gogh's global apotheosis that Japanese tourists now make pilgrimages to Auvers to sprinkle their relatives' ashes on his grave. What accounts for the endless appeal of the van Gogh myth? It has at least two deep and powerful sources. At the most primitive level, it provides a satisfying and nearly universal revenge fantasy disguised as the story of heroic sacrifice to art. Anyone who has ever felt isolated and unappreciated can identify with van Gogh and hope not only for a spectacular redemption but also to put critics and doubting relatives to shame. At the same time, the myth offers an alluringly simplistic conception of great art as the product, not of particular historical circumstances and the artist's painstaking calculations, but of the naive and spontaneous outpourings of a mad, holy fool. The gaping discrepancy between van Gogh's long-suffering life and his remarkable posthumous fame remains a great and undeniable historical irony. But the notion that he was an artistic idiot savant is quickly dispelled by even the most glancing examination of the artist's letters. It also must be dropped after acquaintingoneself with the rudimentary facts of van Gogh's family background, upbringing, and early adulthood.

    The image of van Gogh as a disturbed and forsaken artist is so strong that one easily reads it back into his childhood and adolescence. But if van Gogh had died at age twenty, no one would have connected him with failure or mental illness. Instead he would have been remembered by those close to him as a competent and dutiful son with a promising career in the family art-dealing business. He was, in fact, poised to surpass his father and to come closer to living up to the much-esteemed van Gogh name.

    The van Goghs were an old and distinguished Dutch family who could trace their lineage in Holland back to the sixteenth century. Among Vincent's five uncles, one reached the highest rank of vice-admiral in the Navy and three others prospered as successful art dealers. Van Gogh's grandfather, also named Vincent, had attained an equally illustrations status as an intellectually accomplished Protestant minister. The comparatively modest achievements of the artist's father. Theodorus, proved the exception, not the rule. Although Theodorus was the only one of grandfather Vincent's six sons to follow him into the ministry, he faltered as a preacher and could obtain only modest positions in provincial churches. It was for this reason that Theodorus and his new wife, Anna, found themselves in Groot Zundert, a small town near the Belgian border. Vincent was born a few years after their arrival.

    Van Gogh enjoyed a relatively uneventful childhood save for the birth of five siblings (three by the time he was six and two more by his fourteenth year) and his attendance at two different boarding schools. In rural Zundert he took long walks in the Brabant countryside and developed a naturalist's love of animals and plants. At his two boarding schools, he excelled at his studies and laid down the foundation for his lifelong facility in French and English. The family's decision to apprentice him at sixteen to Uncle Vincent's art gallery in The Hague was far from a nepotistic last resort. Uncle Vincent, called "Cent," had transformed an art supply store into a prestigious art gallery and had become a senior partner in Goupil et Cie., one of the largest art-dealing firms in Europe. Vincent had not better opportunity for advancement than working at The Hague branch of Goupil's. And it was a testament to Vincent's abilities that the childless "Uncle Cent" took a paternal interest in him and arranged for his position as Goupil's youngest employee.

    Vincent's duties progressed from record keeping and correspondence chores in the back office to dealing, if only in a subordinate way, with clients. This confronts us with the nearly unthinkable image of the "socially competent" Vincent. But such was the case at this stage in his life. The same man whose eccentricity would one day make young girls scream in fright dressed appropriately and charmed customers with his enthusiasm for art. Vincent also ingratiated himself with the local artists of The Hague School and earned his colleagues' respect. Although his status as Uncle Cent's nephew and protégé must have smoothed his way. Vincent appears to have been genuinely dedicated and effective at Goupil's. His boss, Tersteeg, sent home glowing reports and after four years at The Hague he was promoted to the London branch.

    By the time the twenty-year-old van Gogh settled in London, he possessed an exceptional knowledge of European art. Not only had he seen the contemporary paintings in Goupil's stock, but he had also exhaustively versed himself in the Golden Age of northern art by visiting museums in The Hague, Amsterdam, and Brussels. Added to this was his sojourn in Paris on his way to London. In Paris he thoroughly explored Goupil's three branches and other collections as well as the Louvre. The museums and exhibitions in London only deepened his exposure to pictures. Of course, his immersion in images extended beyond original paintings and drawings. He would have seen thousands of reproductions in the course of his work. Goupil's specialized in selling both engravings and photographic reproductions (Vincent, in fact, had been in charge of the photographic sales at The Hague). Although Vincent had not toured Italy, this constituted one of the few lacunae in his visual education. Nor were van Gogh's cultural interests limited to art. He voraciously read novels, poetry, and historical works in three languages (Dutch, French and English). After only a few months in London, he could already quote Keats in his letters. So much for van Gogh as a "primitive." The rawness that he later permitted in his appearance and cultivated in his art disguised a sensibility of extreme sophistication.

    Vincent's first year in London took him to a great height of euphoria from which he plunged precipitously. He was exhilarated by the city, his work continued to engage him, and, most important, he fell in love. He became smitten with his landlady's daughter. Eugénie Loyer. For months van Gogh quietly nursed his affections and assumed, on no basis whatsoever, that Eugénie reciprocated his passion. This irrational belief grew so firm that when he finally spoke to her of his romantic feelings he skipped all preliminaries and simply proposed marriage. The shocked Eugénie not only emphatically rejected the offer but disclosed that she was already secretly engaged to a previous boarder. Eugénie's response entirely derailed Vincent. He became distracted at Goupil's and sought consolation for his deep depression in religious fervor and manic Bible study. In the next and a half Uncle Cent and the other partners shuttled Vincent back and forth between Goupil's Paris and London branches in an attempt to jolt him out of his despair. Nothing worked and Goupil's finally dismissed him in January of 1876. From this point onward Vincent would never again succeed at a conventional occupation and would always remain a source of embarrassment to his family.

    Why was this romantic disappointment so catastrophic for van Gogh? Why couldn't he shake it off as so many young men do? A psychoanalytic explanation finds the answer, not surprisingly, in van Gogh's childhood. A startling fact of the artist's infancy is that he was preceded by a first, stillborn Vincent, who died exactly a year to the day before his own birth. The death of a first child deals a severe blow to any mother, but this loss would have been particularly harsh for the thirty-three-year-old Anna, who married late and eagerly wished for a family. The official mourning period extended beyond Vincent's birth and may have been more than a formality in this case. Vincent would have found himself with a mother consumed by her grief and unable to lavish undivided attention on him. Making matters worse. Vincent would continue to suffer displacement in his mother's affections first by is sister. Anna, born when he was two, and then by Theo's birth when he was four. These successive disappointments during the crucial first years of infancy may have formed a deep, unconsiousness reservoir of depression. Eugénie's rejection would have tapped into this reservoir and opened the floodgates.

    That an unavailable mother lived on powerfully in van Gogh's unconscious is dramatically underscored by the type of woman to whom he invariably attached himself. Indeed, one would be hard put to find a more insistent case of repetition compulsion (that is, the compulsion to return to traumatic or painful situations). Eugénie was only the first in a line of preoccupied women on whom van Gogh became fixated. Eugénie had lost her father in her childhood and now had her secret engagement to the boarder to fill her thoughts. A surviving photograph reveals her as a forbiddingly severe latter-day replacement for the once-distant Anna. Kee Vos-Stricker, who had lost both an infant son and her husband, would eventually succeed Eugénie in this role of unattainable love object. Yet even at the early stages of Vincent's infatuation with Eugénie he had already come across an image of a mourning woman that held him in thrall. One of his favorite authors, Jules Michelet, had written evocatively of a portrait in the Louvre, then attributed to Philippe de Champaigne, that depicted a woman dressed in black mourning clothes. Vincent hung an engraving of the painting on his wall and quoted Michelet's words in a letter to friends in The Hague:


... who took my heart, so candid, so honest, sufficiently intelligent, yet simple, without the cunning to extricate herself from the ruses of the world. This woman has remained in my mind for thirty years, persistently coming back to me, making me say: "But what was she called? What has happened to her? Has she known some happiness? And how has she overcome the difficulties of the world?"


    When one views the actual portrait, the sitter appears as an extremely unlikely source of devotion for a twenty-year-old man. She is markedly dour, middle-aged and plain. It is resounding evidence—almost too good to be true—that Vincent's mother stood behind his obsession with mourning women. And Michelet's account of a female figure who "has remained in my mind ... persistently coming back to me," strikingly mirrors the stubborn presence of the grieving Anna in Vincent's unconscious.

    If we can trace the roots of van Gogh's attraction to Eugénie and his subsequent devastation to his childhood, we can also see his means of recuperation as a legacy of his early years. Vincent embraced Theodorus's world of religious piety just as he may have turned as a child from rageful ambivalence toward his indifferent mother to yearning for his father. Vincent's letters to his brother Theo disclose the growing momentum of his religious mania. It starts with occasional quotations from New Testament a few months after his failed proposal and moves on to three separate exhortations to Theo to destroy his books and read nothing but the Bible—a remarkable proscription from the bibliophilic Vincent. The intense spiritual preoccupations reach a crescendo with a multipage letter, written almost a year after his dismissal from Goupil's, that consists of a relentless and unorganized flow of citations from Scripture, sermonizing admonitions, and outpourings of faith. The letter contrasts so greatly with Vincent's usual cheeriness, descriptions of paintings and scenery, and warm solicitousness toward his brother and other family members that it must have disturbed Theo.

    Vincent's second job after leaving Goupil's gave him an outlet for his feverish religiosity. A Methodist minister, Reverend Thomas Slade-Jones, hired him as an assistant and as a teacher in his day school in Isleworth. Jones encouraged van Gogh's ambition to preach the gospel and even arranged for him to give his first sermon in a Wesleyan chapel in Richmond. The text, which Vincent transcribed for Theo, unifies many of his concerns and offers both intentional and unintentional glimpses into his psyche. He begins with a quote from Psalm 119—"I am a stranger on the earth." This passage enunciates the sermon's theme of man as a wayfarer passing through his mortal existence but must also have been an expression of Vincent's own sense of isolation from his former colleagues and friends. He ends with an elaborately described recollection, which appears more like a fantasy than an actual memory of a "very beautiful picture." It is an allegorical painting in which a pilgrim seeks knowledge about the journey of life from "a woman, or figure in black, that makes one think of St. Paul's word: As being sorrowful yet always rejoicing." Here, Vincent not only brings together his twin loves of religion and art but also presents two of the strongest currents in his inner world the image of the mourning woman and the attitude of being "sorrowful yet always rejoicing" (a phrase that recurs dozens of times in his letters of this period). The image and the phrase are, of course, intertwined. The "lady in black" his grieving mother creates sorrow that must always be met with rejoicing, just as Vincent must always answer his depression with manic activity.

    Vincent's religious utterances also reveal both a symbolic and explicit love of his father. In the letter to Theo mentioned above, in which Vincent becomes so frenzied that he seems to write in tongues, he recalls Theodorus's visit to his boarding schools:


... I was standing in the corner of the playground when someone came and told me that a man was there, asking for me; I knew who it was, and a moment later I fell on Father's neck. What I felt then, could not it have been "because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father". It was a moment in which we both felt we had a Father in heaven: for Father too looked upward, and in his heart there was a greater voice than mine, crying, "Abba, Father."


    This passage provides one of the best examples of the nearly indistinguishable nature for Vincent of his own "father" and his "Father" in heaven. Such outpourings of filial piety are accompanied in the letters by an impassioned idealization of Theodorus as well as an identification with his calling. Van Gogh's father is "more beautiful than the sea" and "enrich[es] our lives with moments and periods of higher life and higher feeling." His sermons are "beautiful," and a day spent with him is glorious." Theodorus even takes his place in Vincent's pantheon alongside exalted figures such as Jules Breton, Millet, and Rembrandt. These artists, Vincent wrote, resemble Theodorus, but Vincent "value[s] Father higher still." Van Gogh's worshipful stance appears especially striking as Theodorus, who belonged to a moderate wing of the Dutch Reformed Church, reacted more with concern than encouragement to his son's religious enthusiasms. It is as if Vincent's vision of his father remained completely immune to Theodorus's actual accomplishments, religious views, and treatment of Vincent himself. This same capacity for extreme idealization would recur in van Gogh's later relationships with father figures such as Anton Mauve and Paul Gauguin (as would the attitude's flip side: angry rebellion and denunciation).

     Van Gogh's religious fanaticism was coupled with, and provided a rationalization for, self-denying behavior of an often drastic and bizarre nature. He shocked family members with his shabby clothes, unkempt hair, and a frailty that resulted from weight loss and sleep deprivation. A fellow boarder in his Dordecht rooming house recalls that at dinner Vincent "said lengthy prayers and ate like a penitent friar: for instance, he would not take meat, gravy, etc." His tutor in Latin and Greek, Mendes da Costa, reported traits that went well beyond adolescent otherworldliness and clearly entered the realm of masochism:


... Whenever Vincent felt that his thoughts had strayed further than they should have, he took a cudgel to bed with him and belabored his back with it; and whenever he was convinced he had forfeited the privilege of passing the night in his bed, he slunk out of the house unobserved at night, and then, when he came back and found the door double-locked, was forced to go and lie on the floor of a little wooden shed, without bed or blanket. He preferred to do this in winter, so that the punishment ... might be more severe (no. L122a).


    Vincent took these self-flagellating measures to even more spectacular lengths in the Borinage, where he gave away his money, clothes, and bed; allowed himself to become black with coal dust; and abandoned his boardinghouse for a miner's hut.

    One of the stranger paradoxes of this period is that van Gogh's extreme piety and self-sacrifice coexisted with irresponsibility and defiance of authority. Despite letters to Theo in which he declared that "duty sanctifies and unifies everything," he ran through four jobs in little more than a year. After leaving Goupil's, he abandoned a short-lived teaching position in Ramsgate, did not return to Reverend Jones in Isleworth after visiting his family for Christmas, and then took only a few months to lose his new job as a bookstore clerk. His religious obsessions seem to have transcended every other concern and justified a stubborn refusal to surrender himself to his work. Perhaps the best example of van Gogh's religiosity as a covert means of insubordination occurred after his family found him employment in a Dordecht bookstore, Blussé & Van Braam. While supposedly taking orders at his desk, he would secretly translate the Bible into three languages, using a ruled page with columns for French, English, German, and the original Dutch. Yet this was only one instance of many subtle and some explicit acts of aggression. He precipitated his dismissal from Goupil's by leaving for home during the busy holiday weeks. Although he possessed great skill with languages, he resisted learning the Greek and Latin required for admission to the seminary. And at the school for evangelists in Belgium he not only mocked his teachers but struck a fellow student who teased him.

    Fired from the Dordecht bookstore, van Gogh piled failure upon failure. In what should have been a glorious opportunity, Theodorus arranged for Vincent to study for the entrance exams to the seminary. Now he could finally pursue a career of his own choosing, emulate his saintly father, and serve God. He might also redeem the disappointments of the preceding years, which seemed to have resulted from his preoccupation with his true calling. While Vincent prepared for the exams, his uncle the vice-admiral put him up in his comfortable lodgings in Amsterdam, and another relative, the respected and well-connected Reverend Johannes Stricker, secured two of the best instructors. Yet Vincent could not, or would not, make sufficient progress in his Greek and Latin. He famously asked of Mendes da Costa, his classics tutor: "Mendes, do you seriously believe that such horrors [Greek verbs] are indispensable to a man who wants to do what I want to do: give peace to poor creatures and reconcile them to their existence here on earth?" Halfway through the course of preparations. Mendes, Vincent, and Theodorus all agreed that he should give up. Although his father had attained only relatively humble clerical positions, van Gogh had eliminated any possibility of reaching even that level. What is more, he had squandered not only a year in a fruitless endeavor but also his family's generosity and extensive string pulling.

    Although Vincent threw up his hands in the face of the entrance exams, he remained undaunted in his desire to become a pastor of some sort. One solution was to enter an Evangelical school in Brussels. The program consisted of only three years of study as opposed to six at the university seminary, and the ultimate vocation—doing missionary work among the miners—appealed to Vincent's already aroused social conscience. But Vincent spoiled this chance as well. He acted eccentrically, spoke defiantly to his teachers, and did not even survive the three-month trial period. Only after Theodorus's intervention did the Evangelical committee allow him to go to the Borinage on a provisional basis as an unpaid assistant. This led to his solitary triumph—a temporary nomination for six months. Vincent, however, sabotaged this victory by appearing so odd and ragged at the end of the probationary term that the committee's inspector, a man with the upright name of Rochedieu ("rock of God"), promptly wrote a negative report. Still persistent, van Gogh trekked on foot to Brussels and pleaded with the most sympathetic member of the committee, a Reverend Pietersen, who suggested he return to the Borinage once again as an unpaid and unassigned assistant. Van Gogh did so, but the situation remained hopeless, and despite his staying more than a year in a miner's household, the committee made no other offer. By now he had spent a total of three years in useless study for the seminary and in a vain attempt to achieve the lowest possible clerical vocation. Van Gogh had become a success at failure.

(Continues...)


Excerpted from Van Gogh and Gauguin by Bradley Collins. Copyright © 2001 by Westview Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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Table of Contents

Illustrations vii
Preface xi
1 Van Gogh: Zundert to Paris 1
2 Gauguin: Lima to Pont-Aven 39
3 Van Gogh in Paris and First Encounters with Gauguin 65
4 Jean Valjean and the Buddhist Monk: Van Gogh in Anticipation of Gauguin 85
5 Electric Arguments: "Le Bon Vincent" and "Le Grieche Gauguin" 129
6 Aftermath 193
Chronology 233
Notes 237
Selected Bibliography 253
Index 257
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