Andy Royston takes a look at Vincent van Gogh’s Chairs of 1888, and a fraught relationship with his houseguest, Paul Gauguin.
‘At the bottom of our hearts good old Gauguin and I understand each other, and if we’re a bit mad, so be it, aren’t we also a little sufficiently deeply artistic to contradict anxieties in that regard by what we say with the brush?‘
Vincent Van Gogh – letter to Theo van Gogh. Arles, Monday, 28 January 1889
Vincent van Gogh first met Paul Gauguin when he visited his Paris studio accompanied by his brother Theo. A little later Gauguin attended a small exhibition Van Gogh held in a small café in Paris. Gauguin was very taken by van Gogh’s work at the exhibition and was able to prize Two Sunflowers,( an early impressionist work) from him by swapping it for one of his own.
Neither men were cut out for Paris – both were full of opinion about the rich and vacuous art world (Gaugin) and the busy and crowded way of life (Van Gogh) and both were considered curiosities by the hipper Impressionist clique. Gaugin was tolerated as an amateur – a tame primitive who specialized in tropical exotica. Van Gogh, though, was smitten by Gaugin’s tall tales and cynical opinions and saw a kindred spirit. They both hated the city and talked of setting up an artist’s colony where painters would work side by side free from the vanity and backbiting they saw in Paris. In 1888 both men left for the country.
Gauguin moved to Brittany, where the rugged landscape and peasant life appealed to a desire for a more “primitive” existence. Van Gogh followed the sun to the south of France, where the warmth and light offered a real opportunity to explore color.
Vincent with the help of his brother rented a home he called the Yellow House which he figured would act as a ‘Studio of the South’. He swapped letters with Gauguin, who after much deliberation finally arrived in Arles in the fall of ’88 (on a ticket paid for by Theo van Gogh) just as Vincent was giving up on him. .
At first they got on well, though Paul wasn’t enamored of Arles – “everything small and mean” he wrote. Gaugin found the friendly competition a challenge at first, and they took daily trips to cafes, dance halls, parks and fields in their search for subjects. Tensions began to mount, though, as the differences between the two characters began to surface.
Towards the end of November, as the weather began to drive the two painters indoors, Vincent van Gogh made two paintings of their respective chairs. Gauguin’s is red, baroque, with a bookstand and a burning candle, whilst his own was simple and unpretentious.
“It was a gesture of wishful comradeship. Gaugin’s chair has something nocturnal about it – gaslit, flamboyantly carved with open books as befitting the intellectual titan van Gogh though he was. Vincent’s chair catches the morning – sunlight warming the straw seat with its waiting pipe and wad of tobacco. Given what was happening the statement is unavoidably poignant, and one or other of the pictures may have been done in solitude after a row.” Simon Schama – The Power of Art
What was happening, was that Gauguin was failing to cope with the symptoms of Vincent’s alternating mood swings. Bipolar, epileptic and prone to disappearing into a bottle of absinthe when he wasn’t turning out masterpieces by the day, van Gogh was tough company. Gaugin was hardly a mild manner character himself. The pair had long arguments about art – “the arguments increasingly electric” van Gogh wrote.
The chairs were indeed as different as night and day. It’s easy to interpret these chairs as representing Van Gogh’s own perception of himself as opposed to Gauguin, the stockbroker, with his french novels littered around the place.
The two paintings also act as a stark reminder of that fateful night in December when Van Gogh and Gauguin’s relationship finally reached breaking point.
And oh, the emotion. Perhaps Gauguin should have worried about what his friend was feeling when he portrayed both of them like this – gone, vanished, leaving only their old familiar chairs. Jonathan Jones – The Guardian
On December 23 1888, Gauguin, was walking in a public garden only to be confronted by Vincent with a razor. The accepted story was that Paul talked his friend out of attacking him, but decided to stay in a hotel. Later that night van Gogh appeared at a local brothel to present his severed ear to a prostitute named Rachel before going back to the yellow house.
The story has recently been plausibly challenged by two German art historians. After 10 years reviewing investigations, witness reports and artists’ letters, came to the conclusion that Gauguin, a fencing ace who likely sliced off Vincent’s ear with his sword during an argument, and the two agreed to hush up the truth. The historians said it was not clear if it was an accident or an aimed hit, but if it is true it confounds the accepted story of Van Gogh as being a tortured soul of madness and genius. Here Vincent emerges mentally fragile and a quarrelsome drunkard – but also as a loyal friend who took Gauguin’s secret to his grave.
“Fortunately Gauguin and I and other painters are not yet armed with machine guns and other very destructive implements of war. I for one am quite decided to go on being armed with nothing but my brush and my pen. But with a good deal of clatter, Gauguin has nonetheless demanded in his last letter “his masks and fencing gloves” hidden in the little closet in my little yellow house. I shall hasten to send him his toys by parcel post, hoping that he will never use more serious weapons.” Vincent Van Gogh – letter to Theo van Gogh. Arles, 17 January 1889
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