Van Gogh and Gauguin exchange portraits

I’ve just seen the Van Gogh Bedrooms exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago.  The paintings are from Van Gogh’s brief stay in a house in Arles, where he hoped to found an artist colony “of the South.”  He wrote enthusiastic letters to Paul Gauguin, inviting him to join him.  Gauguin was suffering a gastrointestinal illness of some kind which caused cramps and bleeding and was not yet able to come, but the two artists sent each other self-portraits in which they explored their identities and aspirations.

While at the Art Institute, I bought a book called The Yellow House:  Van Gogh, Gauguin and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Provence by Martin Gayford, from which I’m drawing this material.  Like many people, I’ve looked at Van Gogh and Gauguin paintings for years, not knowing much about the actual men, except that Van Gogh’s closest friend was his brother, Theo, that he only sold one painting in his life, and that Gauguin had a wife and family, but left France for years in Tahiti regardless.  These facts don’t, of course, tell the story (and I apologize if they are not even exactly true).  I was charmed by the painting “notes” at the Exhibit and bought this book to flesh out the details.

What especially charmed me was Vincent’s desire to live and work with other artists, something that I myself long to do.  He acquired the Yellow House, then set about decorating it to stimulate both himself and Gauguin whenever that superior (in Vincent’s eyes) person should arrive.  Vincent wanted to create “an Artist’s House,” one that reflected their avant garde movement. but also nurture them individually.  I can so identify!  The story behind the portraits is also a revelation.  Both artists read novels avidly.

Gauguin chose to portray himself as Jean Valjean, the hero of Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables.  He even scrawled the allusion on the painting — Valjean was an outcast and a martyr — and to flesh it out and make sure his meaning wasn’t missed, wrote to Gauguin, “The face of a bandit like Jean Valjean, strong and badly dressed, who has a nobleness and gentleness hidden within.  Passionate blood suffuses the face as it does a creature in rut, and the eyes are developed by tones as red as the fire of a forge, which indicate the inspiration like molten lava which fills the soul of painters such as us.”  Like these modern painters, Valjean was poverty-stricken, victimized by society — boys threw fruit at Van Gogh in Arles, because he was so odd — but they remained devoted to their vision and pure artistically.  This purity is supposed to be conveyed by the floral wallpaper behind, as if from a young girl’s bedroom.  Gauguin’s description of a creature in rut doesn’t seem to chime in, but oh well…..

When Les Miserables was published, people around the globe apparently felt that it was their own story, including both sides of the US Civil War, so it is not so strange that Gauguin should see their creative journey paralleled in the Hugo character.

Vincent, on the other hand, portrayed himself as a Buddhist monk, drawing the idea from a best-selling novel, Madame Chrysantheme by Pierre Loti, about a French naval officer who takes a Japanese mistress and later abandons her, inspiring the opera Madame Butterfly by Puccini.  The monks are incidental characters, but as is so often the case, a reader may identify with a secondary or tertiary character, or a place, or a house.   Vincent saw himself as an acolyte, a humble associate of Gauguin’s.

The purely personal and mysterious origins of paintings fascinate me.  As one who has always identified with characters in novels and grew up illustrating my favorite (if obscure) stories, I am looking forward to continuing with the story of The Yellow House!