Thursday, May 5, 2011

Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin - Self-Portraits Dedicated to Each Other

Paul Gauguin, Self-Portrait (with portrait of Emile Bernard)
dedicated to Van Gogh, (Les Miserables)
(Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)

Vincent Van Gogh, Self-Portrait dedicated to Gauguin, 1888
(Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University)

Emile Bernard, Self-Portrait with Portrait of Gauguin,1888
(Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)
Van Gogh was trying to get Gauguin to come down to Arles in order to establish his vision of an artist's colony there, he even wrote to Gauguin "...think of yourself as the head of this studio."  Van Gogh's brother, Theo was going to pay for Gauguin to come down to visit him.  The dialog between the two artists, at one point culminated in an exchange of self-portraits.  He desperately wanted this exchange of artistic ideas.  As a matter of fact, there is a third self-portrait in this exchange that Emile Bernard sent to Van Gogh with a portrait of Gauguin hanging on the wall behind him.  Van Gogh ultimately wanted to get Emile Bernard and all their artist friends to come down to Arles as well but he decided to start by luring Gauguin first.

Gauguin was the first one to send his portrait to Van Gogh.  In his Self-Portrait dedicated to Van Gogh, Gauguin also included on the back wall a portrait of his artist friend Emile Bernard whom he was working near in Normandy at that time.  In a way it was a commentary on his situation of already being established in an artist's colony and his expression of looking askance as if to say "can you do this?" added to the overall effect of being in a better situation.

The wallpaper behind Gauguin with the white flowers is the same bright yellow as Van Gogh's Sunflowers. Van Gogh in turn responds with color, to Bernard's portrait on the wall behind Gauguin.  It is an incredibly hard to reproduce color, Veronese green, which is not available today because of its arsenic containing toxic quality. With the colors, he uses, Van Gogh represents his meditative side.

Instead of a centered composition of the portrait format, Gauguin puts himself off center and breaks away from tradition. He has put an inscription at the bottom of his painting 'Les Miserables' - with this he is referencing Jean Valjean, the main character who is an ex-convict from Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. Gauguin liked the idea of himself as the passionate man who doesn't quite fit into bourgeois society.  He has also depicted half his face in dark while the other half is in light, which pronounces his good and evil sides.  Van Gogh must have picked up on these allusions since he reports to his brother that Gauguin seems desperate and not at all serene.  As a response to this, Van Gogh paints himself as a Bonze, a Japanese Buddhist monk, he even goes as far as to slant his eyes as well as a shaved head in the portrait.  He paints an aura around his head to reinforce the element of spirituality.  He says that he wants to bring Gauguin back to serenity.  He also mentions to his brother that he painted himself not only as himself but as an Impressionist, someone who lives to paint.

In their respective self-portraits, while Gauguin is representing himself as a renegade, Van Gogh wants to represent himself as a serious, meditative monk. The composition, the colors, and the symbols all point out the message each one wants to convey to the other.  Van Gogh writes that when he put them side by side, he is happy with the outcome, that his portrait can hold its own...
The letter for Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo van Gogh, from Arles, dated October 7 1888 is below; in it one can find Van Gogh's inner thoughts and feelings... Also there is a very interesting video at the bottom of the page from

My dear Theo,
Many thanks for your letter. How glad I am for Gauguin; I shall not try to find words to tell you - let's be of good heart.
I have just received the portrait of Gauguin by himself and the portrait of Bernard by Bernard and in the background of the portrait of Gauguin there is Bernard's on the wall, and vice versa.
The Gauguin is of course remarkable, but I very much like Bernard's picture. It is just the inner vision of a painter, a few abrupt tones, a few dark lines, but it has the distinction of a real, real Manet.
The Gauguin is more studied, carried further. That, along with what he says in his letter, gave me absolutely the impression of its representing a prisoner. Not a shadow of gaiety. Absolutely nothing of the flesh, but one can confidently put that down to his determination to make a melancholy effect, the flesh in the shadows has gone a dismal blue.
So now at last I have a chance to compare my painting with what the comrades are doing.My portrait, which I am sending to Gauguin in exchange, holds its own, I am sure of that. I have written to Gauguin in reply to his letter that if I might be allowed to stress my own personality in a portrait, I had done so in trying to convey in my portrait not only myself but an impressionist in general, had conceived it as the portrait of a bonze, a simple worshiper of the eternal Buddha.
And when I put Gauguin's conception and my own side by side, mine is as grave, but less despairing. What Gauguin's portrait says to me before all things is that he must not go on like this, he must become again the richer Gauguin of the “Negresses.”
I am very glad to have these two portraits, for they finally represent the comrades at this stage; they will not remain like that, they will come back to a more serene life.
And I see clearly that the duty laid upon me is to do everything I can to lessen our poverty.
No good comes the way in this painter's job. I feel that he is more Millet than I, but I am more Diaz then he, and like Diaz I am going to try to please the public, so that a few pennies may come into our community. I have spent more than they, but I do not care a bit now that I see their painting—they have worked in too much poverty to succeed.
Mind you, I have better and more saleable stuff than what I have sent you, and I feel that I can go on doing it. I have confidence in it at last. I know that it will do some people's hearts good to find poetic subjects again, “The Starry Sky,” “The Vines in Leaf,” “The Furrows,”the “Poet's Garden.”
Bernard has again sent me a collection of ten drawings with a daring poem - the whole is called At the Brothel.
You will soon see these things, but I shall send you the portraits when I have had them to look at for some time.
I hope you will write soon, I am very hard up because of the stretchers and frames that I ordered.
What you told me of Freret gave me pleasure, but I venture to think that I shall do things which will please him better, and you too.
Yesterday I painted a sunset.
Gauguin looks ill and tormented in his portrait!! You wait, that will not last, and it will be very interesting to compare this portrait with the one he will do of himself in six months' time.
Someday you will also see my self-portrait, which I am sending to Gauguin, because he will keep it, I hope.
The head is modeled in light colours painted in a thick impasto against the light background with hardly any shadows. Only I have made the eyes slightly slanting like the Japanese.
Write me soon and the best of luck. How happy old Gauguin will be.
A good handshake, and thank Freret for the pleasure he has given me. Good-by for now.
Ever yours,

Letter courtesy of Web Exhibits

Van Gogh, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin from Smarthistory Videos on Vimeo.


  1. hello sadef! i am in your impressionism class and was reading your blog. i noticed a small inconsistency. in your notes that you said,

    "Gauguin was the first one to send his portrait to Van Gogh."

    you describe the portrait and then say,

    "As a response to this, Van Gogh paints himself as a Bonze..."

    but in vangogh's letter to his brother, he describes gauguin's self portrait that he received and then goes onto say,

    "So now at last I have a chance to compare my painting with what the comrades are doing. My portrait, which I am sending to Gauguin in exchange, holds its own, I am sure of that."

    so i think this is inconsistent with the notes you wrote in that the order of self-portrait receiving is different. according to the letter, gauguin sent his portrait first, not vangogh.

    or am i misinterpreting something or getting confused?

    but besides that, i love your blog! (: good luck studying!

    - lillyan

  2. AH! wait! ignore the last post. i am delirious!! hah, good luck studying, i obviously need it!

    - lillyan

  3. Don't worry I am sure you will be fine. Just read thorough everything and make sure to bring in the names and pictures of all the comparisons, I also put down the three points and then its very easy.

    Good Luck Tomorrow :)


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