Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art

Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art

by Silverman

Hardcover(1 ED)

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During the fall of 1888, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin lived and worked together in Provence. Until now, the Arles period has been interpreted in the light of the temperamental disparities between the two painters. In Van Gogh and Gauguin, Debora Silverman reinterprets their collaboration by focusing on how their art expressed the two painters' very different religious backgrounds. Through a careful look at their art and writings before, during, and after their time together at Arles, Silverman explores van Gogh's and Gauguin's divergent approaches to a pictorial practice seeking spiritual ends in the plastic means of paint and canvas -- of putting God in pigment. Van Gogh and Gauguin opens up an unmined terrain of central importance: the relationship between religion and modernism. A closely observed and beautifully illustrated study of each artist's quest to discover a modern form of sacred art, Van Gogh and Gauguin co-won the PEN/Architectural Digest Award for Literary Writing on the Visual Arts and was awarded Phi Beta Kappa's Ralph Waldo Emerson Award in the Humanities.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374282431
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 11/01/2000
Edition description: 1 ED
Pages: 576
Product dimensions: 10.32(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.39(d)

About the Author

Debora Silverman holds the Presidential Chair in Modern European History, Art, and Culture at UCLA. She is the author of Selling Culture and Art Nouveau in Fin-de-Siecle France.

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Chapter One


Vincent van Gogh had met Paul Gauguin when both painters were living in Paris. Van Gogh arrived in Paris in March 1886; he probably met Gauguin for the first time that fall, but it was in November 1887 that the two artists began to exchange work. Each of their careers was affected by their Paris friendship. For Gauguin, meeting van Gogh was a stroke of good fortune after a difficult period. Vincent introduced his brother, the art dealer Theo van Gogh, to Gauguin and his work, and it was due to Theo that Gauguin enjoyed a series of sales and notices in the Parisian art market and press. In December 1887 Theo chose four of Gauguin's paintings and five ceramic pieces on consignment for Boussod & Valadon, the gallery where he was employed, and sold one of the canvases, The Bathers, a few weeks later. In January 1888 Theo purchased three Gauguin paintings for the gallery and also exhibited there another, called Two Girls Bathing (Fig. 1), which received a favorable published commentary by the important avant-garde art critic Félix Fénéon. A few months later, Fénéon suggested that Gauguin's work was compelling enough to merit the planning of a small one-man show at the office of the Revue Indépendante.

    During the same period, such sales and publicity had eluded Vincent van Gogh. His arrival in Paris in 1886 followed a five-year apprenticeship in the Netherlands, with short interludes in Brussels and Antwerp. Van Gogh had come late to painting. It wasonly in 1880, at the age of twenty-seven, that he decided to become an artist, after spending a decade in other careers. Van Gogh had for seven years been an employee in the Goupil art-dealing company where his uncle was a partner, and then turned to a religious vocation, first as a teacher and Methodist lay preacher in England, then as a university divinity school trainee in Amsterdam, and finally as an evangelist among the destitute miners of the Belgian Borinage.

    In choosing to devote himself to art, van Gogh extended the goals of his religious evangelism, service and consolation, to his new calling. Along with them he brought to his new work a methodical exertion, approaching art as a rigorous craft. In The Hague between 1881 and 1883, van Gogh developed a program of disciplined self-instruction aimed at mastery of drawing; he patiently copied the lessons in popular art manuals and "how-to-draw" training books in anatomy, perspective, and figure composition. Initially placing his hopes on becoming a commercial illustrator, van Gogh honed his skills through dogged effort, submission to rules and relentless repetition, and a model of slow, steady progress.

    For the next two years van Gogh continued his self-directed apprenticeship, moving now to the medium of painting. Redefining his goal, he emulated the mid-nineteenth-century French realist François Millet to become a painter of rural life and labor. Van Gogh adapted Millet's themes to the new settings and subjects of the countryside in the Brabant region of the Netherlands, where he returned in December 1883 to live with his parents. Here he developed an ambitious program of painting and drawing the full cycle of production of the local hand-loom weavers and subsistence potato cultivators at work. He depicted the latter in the activities of planting, bending, and digging their crop, and then partaking, as he commented, of the fruits of their labor, "honestly earned." The Potato Eaters of 1885 culminated his early efforts to devise a "real peasant picture" that would "teach something," representing what he celebrated as the redemptive burden and sanctification of lowly labor (Fig. 2). Van Gogh connected the arduousness of his own artistic labors—which he formalized in the painting by using a color he compared to a "dusty potato" and by putting in a coarse pigment crust—to the activities of dredging and digging that had produced the meal depicted, and to the worthiness of those who gathered at the table; such visual exertion might signal that he, too, had "honestly earned" and merited grace.

    Van Gogh was still struggling with the issues of earning and the value of his production when, through his brother, he began to sense that a new trend in painting had emerged. Wishing to see for himself what the so-called Impressionists were composing, he decided to move to Paris. By the time he arrived and moved in to Theo's apartment in Montmartre, the high period of Impressionism was already ending and the new generation of artists was seeking its way out of Impressionism, pursuing a number of different directions. Van Gogh responded to this animated and transitional world with voracious energy, experimenting in all directions while adapting new lessons to his own idiom. Absorbing Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism simultaneously, he produced canvases as visual dialogues or conversations with the works of other artists. In this context van Gogh welcomed his burgeoning friendship with Gauguin, himself an ambitious artist seeking to make his own mark on the Parisian artistic community.

    Gauguin too had come late to painting, choosing a career in art after jettisoning one with more financial security. But the world that Gauguin gave up was very different from Vincent van Gogh's. From 1872 to 1883, Gauguin had lived in Paris at the center of an elite nexus of high finance and progressive art. Through his legal guardian, Gustave Arosa, a wealthy investor and art collector, Gauguin had been placed as a stockbroker's agent in the Paul Bertin Company. Here he prospered as an able employee who quickly learned the benefits of trading on the side: in each of his first four years on the job, he more than doubled his yearly salary in bonuses from canny deals. In 1879, now working in another brokerage house, Gauguin earned 30,000 francs, "a fortune at the time."

    Throughout the period from 1872 to 1883, Gauguin combined his work as a stockbroker with collecting and practicing art. He became an early champion and patron of emergent Impressionism, buying works by Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, and Paul Cézanne. He also grew serious about his own painting. He met and worked alongside Pissarro in 1879; he and Pissarro spent the summer holidays of 1881 painting with Cézanne. Always audacious, Gauguin submitted a small landscape to the annual state Salon of 1876, where, surprisingly, it was accepted, though it received no special notice. But Gauguin's early ambitions and alliances were with the innovators of the 1870s, the Impressionists. Central to the Impressionist circle as both patron and student, Gauguin was a regular at the Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes, where he joined Manet, Degas, Renoir, and Pissarro, among others, for evening discussions. He was invited to contribute to all five of the remaining yearly Impressionist exhibitions from 1879 onward. In 1881 Gauguin sold three of his own paintings to the Impressionists' main art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, for which he was paid the hefty sum of 1,500 francs, at a time when a Monet sold for 35 francs and a Renoir for 31.

    By 1883 Gauguin was listing his occupation as artist-painter, and had left his position in the Bourse altogether. The crash of the Banque de l'Union Générale and the French financial crisis of 1882 may have been a catalyst to the shift, but Gauguin was already engaged in a double career by that time and indeed, according to some writers, was using his employment as a way to support his painting. He quickly descended from his elite world to near destitution. The crash sent Durand-Ruel abroad in search of new clients, and the internal art market, like the stock market, collapsed.

    With a wife and five children to support and no salary, Gauguin spent the years 1883-1887 in great uncertainty, which included episodes of moving the family out of Paris to an apartment in Rouen; selling his life insurance policy for cash; working as a traveling salesman for a French tarpaulin manufacturer; and joining his wife and children in his wife's family's home in Copenhagen, Denmark. After a miserable six months there in 1884 and 1885, Gauguin returned to Paris with one of his children, Clovis, and earned daily wages as a bill poster for an advertising company in city railway stations. He managed to assemble a large group of paintings to show at the 1886 Eighth Impressionist exhibition. But he was disturbed to find that Seurat and his Neo-Impressionist cohort had claimed the spotlight of public attention; they were celebrated by avant-garde critics, and many new painters rallied to the promise of a science of harmony applied to canvas. Intense professional rivalry also eventually led Gauguin to break with his former mentor and loyal supporter Pissarro. He resented Pissarro's enthusiasm for Neo-Impressionism and stopped associating with him, proceeding to cultivate and emulate Degas instead.

    In the spring of 1887 Gauguin pursued a brief, far-flung adventure, attempting to benefit from the spectacular fortunes reported to be attainable in the French project of building the Panama Canal; he and a friend and fellow painter, Charles Laval, set sail for Panama, where Gauguin's brother-in-law held an administrative position. But the canal project was already beset by scandal, false reports, and horrific jungle conditions. Not only was there no money to be made, but Gauguin survived only by working as a navvy, digging on the canal line with pickax and shovel. He and Laval left Panama to spend a few months painting in Martinique. Their ability to work, however, was impeded by illness; both men suffered there from dysentery and malaria. Gauguin returned to Paris that November and moved in with one of his friends. His hopes for success were raised only when Theo van Gogh chose some of his works for display at his gallery.

    These then were the circumstances that brought two men from different worlds, latecomers to art, to Paris. Neither remained in the city for long; within a few months they had each decided to leave for rural sites and subjects to paint. But their relationship would remain central to both, first through letters and then for a period, some months later, of living and working together.

    In February 1888, Gauguin left Paris for Pont-Aven, Brittany, the same month that Vincent van Gogh relocated to Arles in Provence. From this point on, it was Theo van Gogh who was primarily responsible for the financial support of both painters. As a devoted brother and the only source of funds for Vincent, Theo sent him monthly—or sometimes semimonthly or even weekly—payments in cash or postal orders, averaging 200 to 300 francs per month; Vincent also expected Theo to represent him for possible sales and gallery showings. For Gauguin, Theo acted as a commercial agent and art dealer. Their eventual quasi-contractual agreement was that Theo would send 150 francs per month to Gauguin in exchange for Gauguin's production of one painting, which Theo would then try to sell. In Brittany as in Paris, Gauguin covered the rest of his financial needs by periodically extracting funding or loans from among his circle of generous friends, especially the artists Emile Schuffenecker and Meyer de Haan.

    Vincent van Gogh first proposed the possibility of "combining" with Gauguin in a letter to Theo on May 28, 1888, in which he emphasized the practical advantage to Theo of sustaining only one artistic household for the two painters. From the beginning, van Gogh's plan for a joint studio opened out to a broader cooperative venture in which he envisioned a number of painters joining forces in a spirit of fellowship and collaboration. But his initial presentation to Theo of the plan to associate with Gauguin indicates not only Vincent's perceptive understanding of Gauguin's many talents but also a recognition of the latter's capacities for self-promotion and manipulation. Vincent's letters register a shrewd mixture of friendship and wariness in approaching Gauguin for their Arlesian collaboration; they also highlight the pivotal role of Theo as the mediating figure in their essentially triangular relationship.


In suggesting his plan to Theo for a combined studio with Gauguin, Vincent adopted, uncharacteristically, the tone of the wise and watchful older brother, warning Theo not to yield to Gauguin's pleas for extra funding to pay off his extensive debts in Pont-Aven. "You can't send him what will keep him going in Brittany and what keeps me going in Provence," he pointed out. Though Gauguin had appealed to Theo for more funds to ease his illness and misery, Vincent cautioned Theo not to act out of compassion or as a healer; the most prudent plan, he advised his brother, would be for Gauguin to move to Arles. "Take the thing as a plain matter of business," Vincent urged Theo; if Gauguin joined him in Arles, the arrangement would be "advantageous" to all parties—to Theo, who would satisfy his wish to help Gauguin and "get him out of trouble" while also obtaining a canvas each month to offer for sale; to Gauguin, who would continue being supported; and to Vincent himself, A "comrade" would relieve his isolation and at the same time, as he noted to Theo, assuage some of his own worries that he spent "so much money on myself alone."

    Vincent continued to sound the note of mutual benefit when he broached the idea of collaboration to Gauguin. In a letter to his friend he discussed candidly the utility of shared costs, and the mutual advantages and obligations that the arrangement would entail. Here van Gogh approached Gauguin as an equal but also as a sober guardian of his own and his brother's shared interest. While he acknowledged that both he and Theo "appreciated" Gauguin's work and were "anxious to see you settled down," he also admonished him with the same fact he had noted in his original proposal to Theo: "My brother cannot send you money in Brittany and at the same time send me money in Provence ... If we combine, there may be enough for both of us, I am sure of it, in fact."

    Van Gogh cautioned Gauguin against repeating his entreaties to Theo for extra funds for Pont-Aven, noting that Theo "will only assure you that up to the present the only means we have found of coming to your aid in a more practical way is this combining, if it should appeal to you." He left unmentioned the attractions of Arles. Gauguin might or might not find that the Arlesian climate suited him; they would see to that later, "but business must come first." Part of that business, van Gogh notified Gauguin, was that if he did choose to come to Arles, he "must not forget the cost of moving and buying the bed" which would have to be paid for in pictures.

    Vincent's wariness intensified over the next few months. On May 29, in his second letter to Theo on the subject of the collaboration, he wrote that "it would be a great risk to take Gauguin, but we must aim at this" noting that being associated with him—"such a great talent"—would be beneficial for the van Gogh brothers, "a step forward for us." Here he again invoked the logic of pragmatic mutual advantage while also noting that attending to Gauguin was not without its difficulties. "Helping him would be a lengthy business" he wrote, but worthwhile in the long run. In June, Gauguin, believing he had found a wealthy investor to offer 600,000 francs to establish a new art gallery specializing in Impressionist pictures, wrote to Theo that he imagined him as its natural director. On learning of this, Vincent sent a letter to Theo belittling Gauguin's plan, which he considered delusional: "This hope is a fata morgana, a mirage of destitution, the more destitute you are—especially if you are ill—the more you think of such possibilities. To me this scheme simply looks like another proof of his breaking down."

    By September Vincent had become more caustic. While exchanging friendly letters with Gauguin about their respective painting projects, he was growing more impatient, for Gauguin, who had agreed in July to join him in Arles, had still not made specific plans for the move. In the meantime Vincent had set about renting and furnishing lodgings for a joint studio, which he called the Yellow House, and had increased his requests for funds from Theo accordingly. Gauguin continued to lament his debts and ordeals in Pont-Aven to both Theo and Vincent while also aggravating Theo with demands that he adjust the prices set for his pictures, even threatening to go to another dealer. It was during one of these episodes that Vincent wrote perspicaciously to Theo: "I feel instinctively that Gauguin is a schemer [un calculateur] who, seeing himself at the bottom of the social ladder, wants to regain a position by means which will certainly be honest, but at the same time, very politic." Vincent reiterated that Theo must be "very firm" and clear in his dealings with Gauguin and should resist Gauguin's manipulations concerning other agents. Van Gogh nonetheless remained ready to welcome Gauguin as a comrade, and partly excused his friend's penchant for "scheming" as not only the natural corollary of his outsider status but also the result of habits learned during his many years as a stock-exchange agent specializing in high-stakes ventures. "I cannot blame Gauguin," van Gogh commented, "speculator [boursier agent] though he may be as soon as he wants to risk something in business."


The sharp edges of van Gogh's presentation of Gauguin's ambitious maneuverings dissolved when he responded to a self-portrait Gauguin sent him, entitled Self-Portrait: Les Misérables. Even before he received the actual painting on October 7 or 8, van Gogh was overcome with awe when he read Gauguin's explication of the canvas in his letter of September 25. In fact, he was so powerfully affected by Gauguin's description of the picture that he enclosed it in his letter to Theo, noting that Gauguin's was "a very, very remarkable letter" and that Theo should preserve it as "a thing of extraordinary importance." Van Gogh now proceeded to assign a new priority to Gauguin in his proposed association, asserting for the first time that the community of artists would need a governing master: "When it is a question of several painters living a community life, I stipulate at the outset that there must be an abbot to keep order, and that would naturally be Gauguin." The new role being planned for Gauguin deepened still further as van Gogh assigned him—in the letter to Theo—the position of chef de l'atelier, "head of the studio." In this capacity, wrote van Gogh, Gauguin could "control the money as he thinks fit," as well as shape the tone and future direction of the community. Gauguin's dominating presence, as expressed in his letter about the self-portrait, confirmed his stature as what van Gogh termed "a very great master, and a man absolutely superior in character and intellect."

    Now van Gogh's wariness about Gauguin's capacity for manipulation gave way to an attitude of devotion to the master. Vincent enlisted Theo, whose funding he expected to support the community studio, in the role of "dealer-apostle," urging him to be fully "committed to Gauguin body and soul." Van Gogh's own role, as a fellow artist, was now to insure that comfort and solace be provided for Gauguin. The letter conveyed his eagerness to be the reverent helpmate to Gauguin, noting, for example, that he was readying the studio and the Yellow House with great anticipation, in the hope that it would "make a good impression on him from the moment he arrives," that he would "feel it" to be "all harmonious"—"a setting worthy of the artist Gauguin who is to be its head." The goal of collaborative production van Gogh had articulated in July now ceded to an idea of collective obligation to restore Gauguin to his full capacities as a painter and a leader. He wrote to Theo:

The more Gauguin realizes that when he joins us he will have the standing of the head of the studio, the sooner he will get better, the more eager he will be to work.

Now the more complete the studio, the more solidly established it is ... the more inspiration he will have, and ambition to make it a living force.

    In this full flush of admiration, van Gogh wrote to Gauguin, too, urging him in a new voice to come south. Now less the sober advocate of the cost-sharing plan than the deferential supplicant extending offers of hope, encouragement, and relief from misery, van Gogh prodded Gauguin to hasten his arrival; he assured him that he would discover restoration for both body and soul. The "refuge" and "shelter" of the studio in Arles would allow Gauguin, van Gogh wrote, "to feel more or less comforted after the present miseries of poverty and illness," and his material needs would be safeguarded. Van Gogh also tried to boost Gauguin's spirits, so dramatically wracked by external and internal anguish, by rather reticently noting that he himself had moved from despair to hope during the time in Arles:

I left Paris—seriously sick at heart and in body, ... my strength failing me—.... without the courage to hope!

Now, however, hope is breaking for me vaguely on the horizon—that hope in intermittent
flashes, like a lighthouse ... And now I am longing to give you a large share in that faith.

    Van Gogh concluded his letter with affirmations of Gauguin's special status. Having described the room and decoration he had prepared, van Gogh reminded him that Provence was the land of the poet Petrarch, and pointed out that it was he, Gauguin, who would be the modern equivalent of the ancient master when he relocated to Arles. And van Gogh celebrated Gauguin's mastery in contrast to what he characterized as his own "sincerity" mixed with clumsiness:

I always think my artistic conceptions extremely ordinary when compared to yours ... I forget everything in favor of the external beauty of things, which I cannot reproduce, for in my pictures I render it as something ugly and coarse, whereas nature seems perfect to me. The result of this is a sincerity, perhaps original at times, in what I feel, if only the subject can lend something to my rash and clumsy execution.

    As he continued the final preparations for Gauguin's arrival, anxious that nothing displease the admired chef de l'atelier, van Gogh redoubled his own efforts to produce canvases, assuming the stance of the apprehensive apprentice longing for the master's approval. He admitted to Theo: "Yes, I am ashamed of it, but I am vain enough to want to make a certain impression on Gauguin with my work, so I cannot help wanting to do as much work as possible before he comes."

    By October 1888, then, van Gogh aspired to heal and comfort Gauguin, offering him hope and refuge in the warm sun of Provence, underwritten by Theo's money. Now Vincent's impression of Gauguin as a "schemer" and "speculator" gave way to an image of him as an abbot and master; the pragmatic assessment of reducing costs and sharing expenses in a brotherhood of mutual advantage and reciprocal obligations ceded to the unconditional privilege of receiving and obliging the new chef de l'atelier. The terms of van Gogh's previous stance of vigilant restraint, protecting his brother's finances from Gauguin's presumptuous requests, and the judicious strategies of what he called pursuing "an art and a business method," were now reversed. As van Gogh enlisted Theo to join him, "body and soul," for Gauguin's recovery in Arles, he emphasized that while economizing might succeed or fail, it was "the human, not the material side" that took priority. Risks and expenses were now tolerable, even if imprudent, and van Gogh found reassurance in invoking a maxim he had earlier used during other periods of uncertainty: it will be endurable, he noted, "because one grows in the storm."


What were the qualities of Gauguin's self-portrait and his description of it that provoked such a powerful reaction in van Gogh? And how did van Gogh maintain his own distinctive self-definition and stylistic practice as he deferred to his newly venerated comrade? The answers begin to emerge in a second element of van Gogh's response to the Misérables picture: he sent off to Gauguin one of his own recent self-portraits, of himself as a bonze (a Japanese priest). The canvas, entitled Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin (Fig. 3), extended to Gauguin an exemplary image of what van Gogh considered a sacred Japanese brother band devoted to a religion of nature. He inscribed the canvas "à mon ami Paul Gauguin" across the top and signed it "Vincent" along the bottom right. Gauguin's Self-Portrait: Les Misérables (Fig. 4), by contrast, presented the artist as an exalted bandit, a victim of social oppression and an ecstatic cultivator of his own agonistic creativity. He brushed in the lower right his dedication "à l'ami Vincent" and signed it below. Van Gogh's account of his self-portrait invoked calm, self-offering service; Gauguin's celebrated a tormented genius, burned by the lacerating heat of inner vision. I want now to look more closely at these two self-portraits that van Gogh and Gauguin exchanged just before they began to live and work together in Arles, and at the expressive patterns of form and content that distinguish them. The self-portraits set the tone of the artists' relationship while also suggesting the different models of self, community, and divinity that shaped the broader tensions in their collaboration.


Table of Contents

Part 1Toward Collaboration15
Part 2Peasant Subjects and Sacred Forms47
2.Van Gogh's Sower49
3.Gauguin's Vision After the Sermon91
Part 3Catholic Idealism and Dutch Reformed Realism119
4.A Seminary Education121
5."A Passion for Reality"144
Part 4Collaboration in Arles181
7.The Alyscamps Paintings197
8.Grape Harvests223
9.Remembered Gardens249
Part 5Theologies of Art After Arles265
10.Gauguin's Miseres267
11.Van Gogh's Berceuse313
Part 6Modernist Catechism and Sacred Realism371
12.Gauguin's Last Testament373
13.Van Gogh's Metier392
Biographical Outline of the Two Artists425

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