Clash of the Titans 
Van Gogh and Gauguin in Arles
By Lyn Bolen Rushton

From Gadfly September 1998

"Yellow was [van Gogh's] favorite color...symbol of that light of which he dreamt in hearts as well as in paintings." —Émile Bernard, 30 July 1889

"Oh yes! He loved yellow, did good Vincent, the painter from Holland, gleams of sunlight warming his soul, which detested fog. A craving for warmth." —Paul Gauguin, 1903

Yellow. Imagine for a moment "a different light," a "stronger sun," yellow fields of sunflowers, "immense meadows all abloom with countless buttercups—a sea of yellow." In a yellow house amidst this radiant setting of the Provencal French town of Arles place two artists—one a failed minister (because of his extreme empathy for the oppressed) the other a failed stockbroker—for a mere nine weeks in the last months of 1888. Two artists embarking on a journey which laid the foundation for much of modernist art to follow, especially Expressionism and Abstraction. Each had dreams of an artists' community; van Gogh was planning a "Studio of the South" with its headquarters in the Yellow House in Arles, a stop on the way to Gauguin's ideal "Studio of the Tropics." But this utopian dream quickly turned to tragedy, so much so that their shared short time (though to Gauguin it "seemed like a century") is commonly called "Tragedy in Arles."

Vincent van Gogh arrived in Arles from Paris on February 20, 1888, and stayed until May 8, 1889. This fourteen-month period in Arles was the dawn of his meteoric maturity (which lasted all in all only two years and four months). Intensely productive, it yielded over 200 paintings and as many letters, in addition to hundreds of drawings and watercolors. Of this period, the time between October 23 and December 26 spent with Paul Gauguin is the most difficult to reconstruct, yet the most resonant for the history of modern art. While van Gogh was in the habit of writing his brother Theo, an art dealer in Paris, almost daily before Gauguin arrived, we have only thirteen letters from the entire nine weeks the two artists spent together, and only three of these from the ten days leading to the legendary self-mutilation by van Gogh. By necessity we are forced to rely for details of that event mainly on the account Gauguin constructed 15 years later (three months before his own death) for our story. And this account is admittedly written for posterity and to set the record straight in his mind, or as he put it, "to put an end to a false rumor that has been going around in some circles" which blamed the "insanity" of the "two van Gogh brothers" on him.

Why did van Gogh choose Arles, this city in the south of France with its rich and still visible history dating back to its founding in 46 BC by Julius Caesar? He would write later to his brother that there were "a thousand reasons," among them, "[w]ishing to see a different light" and a "stronger sun." Even today, one feels dizzy from what van Gogh called "the gravity of great sunlight effect."

But just as unsettling and even oppressive is the commingling and clashing of what seems like the whole history of Western civilization—the imposing Roman arena (which was still being used for bullfights in van Gogh's time), the Roman theater and Gothic churches and monuments interspersed in what Gauguin called "the filthy" contemporary city, surrounded by sublime nature. It was and is a place that exudes civilization, brutality (in the ominous arena which stands almost next to the train station) and beauty (in the tree-lined streets and surrounding yellow fields which still recall van Gogh's paintings).

Van Gogh arrived in the snow, as seen in early works, such as Snowy Landscape with Arles in the Background. But the snow gave way to spring and to the buoyant blossoming of the orchards, the subject of fourteen paintings done in April alone. For van Gogh, "everything is at once reality and symbol." These works symbolize spring, rebirth and, in their inclusion of fences, also paradisiacal enclosures or Gardens of Eden. In these he took over the characteristics of Impressionism, the avant-garde movement to which he had recently been exposed in Paris. Working from nature as the Impressionists did, he also employed their visible brushwork, respect for the surface of the canvas, and compositional randomness. But he went further. Through his use of saturated complementary colors and quick succulent brushwork he seemed to strip away the Impressionist cloak of air and light in order to uncover an inner light, which in keeping with his Christian background, inhabited all of nature. Of the intended symbolism of his brushwork and complementary colors, he wrote: "I am always hoping to make a discovery there..., to express the love of two lovers by a marriage of two complementaries, their mingling and their opposition, the mysterious vibrations of kindred tones....To express hope by some star, the eagerness of a soul by a sunset radiance."

More than the Impressionists who relied on observing nature, van Gogh felt that he was actually in it or part of it, even "making love" to it. In countless letters, he describes his feeling of being "in the growing grass, in the blossoming orchards, in the flamelike striving cypresses, in all that was sensitive and kind in his sitters, in empty chairs, and in the glorious sun, stars and heaven above him." He called nature "his spouse," and "his beloved."

Van Gogh's entire oeuvre was predicated upon "active melancholy," an idea formulated in a letter of July 1880 (called his "moral manifesto") to his brother, after being tormented about his dismissal from Christian service as a lay preacher because he took over the tragic plight of the miners to whom he preached. He cared for them too much. His asked: "How can I be of use in the world?...Can't I serve some purpose and be of any good?" He finally decided, despite his alienation, he must not give in to despair—he must still "love" and "act." He must bestow upon everyone and everything the selfless love that Jesus represented to him, and obey God's commandment to "love one another." He wrote, "all my paintings are a cry of anguish," and "all that I seek in my paintings is to make life bearable."

His "effort[s] to make life bearable" extended to others, including the conflicted Paul Gauguin, whom he had met and exchanged paintings with in November 1887. When he heard of Gauguin's physical and financial troubles in early March 1888, van Gogh set about trying to help his fellow artist. To Theo, he writes, "I want two things: I want to earn as much as I have already spent, so as to give it [back] to you, and I want Gauguin to have peace and quiet in which to produce, and be able to breathe freely as an artist." Soon his salvation was linked with his hopes for a brotherhood of artists who would live and work together in "peace and quiet." Its beginning would be a partnership, both financial and artistic, between himself and Gauguin.

Gauguin in contrast to van Gogh's Christ-like agape assumed another stance toward the world—that of separation and retaliation. After feeling rejection on many fronts—artistic, familial and societal—Gauguin intentionally "hardens his heart." He wrote to his wife Mette in August 1886, "My heart is as dry as the table and now that I am hardened against adversity, I think only of work, of my is still the only thing that does not betray us." Gauguin took on the guise of God the creator; to "create like our Divine Master" was his goal.

It is hard for late twentieth century eyes to see the difficulties and hardships artists who are such household names as van Gogh and Gauguin could have felt, but at the time they were experimenting with the most revolutionary ideas in art. Late twentieth century minds imagine Braque and Picasso, the creators of Cubism, as the "mountain climbers" in their venture to overthrow the old ways of painting. However, the innovations made by Gauguin and van Gogh—painting from memory and the imagination and using the symbolism of color and form to go beyond mere mimesis—were crucial for the modernist movements to follow. Cubism itself, though stylistically dependent on late Cezanne, was grounded in the philosophy and aesthetics of van Gogh (whom Picasso worshipped) and Gauguin (whom Picasso studied). Just because van Gogh and Gauguin are now admired and revered the world over and have been commercialized beyond what they could ever have imagined, the terrain they were exploring in art after Impressionism was radically new.

Van Gogh seemed more aware of the dangers of the journey and of the possible losses along the way when eschewing the great traditions in art. He wrote to Theo, "He who dances must pay the fiddler. I'm afraid, Theo, that many who have sacrificed the old for the sake of the new will end by greatly ruing this, especially in the domain of art." Van Gogh felt it would be easier to work together with other artists, nostalgically writing of a time when "painters, authors, artists, who were united, notwithstanding their differences, were a force. They did not walk in the dark but possessed this light:....The one supported the other; there was something strong there."

Still he had confidence in the lasting value of his work: "I cannot help it that my pictures do not sell....The time will come when people will see that they are worth more than the price of paint and my own living—very meagre, after all—that are put into debt is so great that when I have paid it, the pains of producing pictures will have taken my whole life from me, and it will seem to me then that I have not lived." Gauguin, on the other hand, was confident without reservation. "I know I am a great artist," he wrote. For each a utopian Studio of the South or of the Tropics offered hopes of solace and artistic freedom.

After renting on May 1, 1888, four rooms in the legendary Yellow House, van Gogh began to picture it as the Studio of the South. Because of its "very poor condition," it served first not as living quarters but as studio space. He wrote almost immediately to Theo, "Perhaps Gauguin will come south?"

As if to demonstrate his worth to Gauguin, van Gogh worked at a frantic pace. In the week of June 13-20, van Gogh produced his harvest paintings. He wrote to his friend Émile Bernard, a painter and art critic, on June 26: "I am writing to you in a hurry...greatly a morning in the fields. The landscapes yellow—old gold—done quickly, quickly, quickly and in a hurry, just like the harvester who is silent under the blazing sun, intent only on his reaping." The Sower is a prime example of what University of Virginia art historian Lydia Gasman has shown to be his Johannine principal themes—light, love, and life. Van Gogh describes the sky in The Sower as "chrome yellow, almost as bright as the sun itself." Throughout his art and writings, van Gogh equates light with Christ as selfless love. For example, in The Raising of Lazarus, he painted a glowing sun in the place of Jesus, clearly equating the Son with the Sun. Van Gogh also makes this connection in reference to the Sower: "I am still charmed by the magic of hosts of memories of the past, of a longing for the Infinite, of which the sower, the sheaf are symbols—just as much as before."

Three days later, van Gogh learns Gauguin's plans to join him in Arles. He believes his vision will finally become a reality. Of course, van Gogh's excitement ignored Gauguin's motives—his debts which Theo's art sales had helped to absolve, and also the offer of room and board for paintings, which would allow him time to work and save for his own dream of returning to Martinique and starting his own "Studio of the Tropics."

Van Gogh immediately began improvements to the Yellow House and planned a series of six paintings of sunflowers to decorate Gauguin's room. These would show his gratitude to Gauguin for joining him in Arles. Van Gogh wanted his sunflowers to give the effect "of stained-glass windows in a Gothic church" from which "the raw or broken chrome yellows will blaze forth on various backgrounds." Sunflowers, the closest plant analogy of the Sun, were symbolic not only of "gratitude," but also, as "torches or candelabra," of his philosophy and quest for light.

On September 16, van Gogh slept in the Yellow House for the first time, and "feel[s] very happy in it." About this same time, to consolidate his feelings of communion with the artists he admired, he wrote Bernard and Gauguin in Pont-Aven to suggest that they send him portraits of each other. Instead they sent self portraits dedicated to Vincent. Gauguin said of his Self Portrait: "Les misérables,": "it is the face of an outlaw, ill-clad and powerful like Jean Valjean...whom society has oppressed, cast out....[I]s he not equally a symbol of the contemporary impressionist painter?" Appropriate to all accounts of Gauguin's fiery personality, "the face is flushed, the eyes accented by the surrounding colors of a furnace represent the volcanic flames that animate the soul of the artist." And in defense of his own "abstract symbolic style," he compares the "line of the eyes" to "the flowers in a Persian carpet." He finishes the symbolic description: "In endowing him with my own features I offer you—as well as an image of myself—a portrait of all wretched victims of society who avenge us by doing good."

What van Gogh saw, on the other hand, was "a prisoner. Not a shadow of gaiety....Gauguin looks ill and tormented.!" Of his Self Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin, van Gogh writes: "I also exaggerate my personality, I have in the first place aimed at the character of a simple bonze worshipper of the Eternal Buddha." Comparing himself earlier in the summer to the fifteenth century Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes (who went mad and entered a monastery): "like [him] I have a kind of split personality, being both something of a monk and a painter." If in the "flushed" face and burning eyes Gauguin's volcanic powerful and determined personality shine through, we see in van Gogh's deliberately slanted (Eastern) eyes, shaven head and staid countenance the ascetic monk. The strokes of lighter green form a halo around his "ashen" face, and his rough coat becomes a religious robe held together by a ceremonial brooch.

Van Gogh the "monk" and "painter," Gauguin the "outcast" and "avenger" would soon meet. Van Gogh in the meantime was getting more and more anxious, writing in mid-October: "My whole set on Gauguin now. It is high time that he came."

On October 23, Gauguin arrived. It was a crisp, fall night. After "wait[ing] for dawn in a little all-night café" (where the proprietor recognized him from the self portrait he had sent van Gogh), Gauguin set out to meet van Gogh.

The long anticipated Studio of the South began on an optimistic note. Gauguin later remembered the Yellow House:

In my yellow room, sunflowers with purple eyes stand out against a yellow background; the ends of their stalks bathe in a yellow pot on a yellow table....And the yellow sun, coming through the yellow curtains of my room, floods all this flowering with gold, and in the morning, when I wake up in my bed, I have the impression that it all smells very good.

The two artists at first shared models and city and landscape motifs; van Gogh did the shopping and Gauguin the cooking. Although a seemingly idyllic arrangement, Gauguin in his account hints at the coming tragedy, "Between two such beings as he and I, the one a perfect volcano, the other boiling too, inwardly, a sort of struggle was preparing." He lamented the "disorder" in which van Gogh lived, yet gives van Gogh some credit as well: "In spite of all this disorder, this mess, something shone out of his canvases and out of his talk, too. Daudet, Goncourt, the Bible fired his Dutch brain...."

The harmony quickly turned into discord. By mid-November, the artists in the Yellow House were no longer working and eating together. Their personalities clashed, and their fundamental artistic differences became more pronounced. Gauguin was committed to conceptual work and urged van Gogh to follow his lead. And although he tried at first to paint in a manner that would make Gauguin happy, van Gogh could not change his own reliance on nature. Lydia Gasman best pinpoints their radically different temperaments reflected in their art:

Gauguin, guided by the principle of talionic retaliation—a tooth for a tooth—rejected, that is annihilated in his conceptual and imaginative symbolist art, observational realities b/c, in life, they appeared to reject him. Van Gogh, guided by lofty moral ideals—by a Christ-like forgiveness—on the contrary, accepted, that is mirrored in his version of symbolism, the observed and heightened realities of the external world, where in his life, he chronically experienced alienation and the despair it entails.

Paintings of the two artists' chairs by van Gogh done in mid-November reveal these differences and foreshadow the events which followed. Why did van Gogh choose as his subject the chairs and not the men? Perhaps Gauguin, described as "a man to be placated rather than aroused," intimidated van Gogh, as he did Bernard who earlier could not fulfill van Gogh's request to paint their mutual friend. But even more, the two empty and very different chairs reveal the artists' widening psychological and artistic differences. Van Gogh did later tell Albert Aurier that "in the days before their separation," he painted Gauguin's "empty place," thus confirming his fear of Gauguin's dreaded departure. Van Gogh fills this "empty place" with two books and an erect burning candle, representative of the two poles of his admiration for Gauguin—his mental powers and his physical and artistic virility. Still another candle surrounded by a halo of light glows on the wall in the background. This one looks like one of van Gogh's stars, symbolic of cosmic places where souls blissfully live after death.

Van Gogh's chair in contrast is a plain "wooden rush-bottomed chair all yellow on red tiles against a wall." It is a straight-backed peasant chair, heavy, clumsy and rough in comparison to the elegant comfortable armchair of Gauguin. Instead of resting like Gauguin's does on a rich oriental rug, van Gogh's is placed on a bare floor evocative of his asceticism and monk-like aspirations. Instead of a lit candle standing in the seat, he places only an extinguished pipe and crumpled tobacco pouch. Here the empty seat seems to be a death wish, nourished by his fear that Gauguin is going to leave him. The coffin-like coal box in the left background with "Vincent" written upon it, indicative of the cage of his imprisonment and alienation, seems to make this connotation of mortality unavoidable. And yet the onion sprouting from the box symbolizes the renewal of life. It is as if van Gogh sees the writing on the wall that Gauguin will leave and he will perish.

Gauguin's Portrait of Vincent van Gogh Painting Sunflowers, finished on December 14, was for van Gogh the devastating proof of the artists' growing estrangement and of Gauguin's crushing control over him. In this work, van Gogh with eyes closed and lethargic body, slouches back into the right side of the picture, a weak hand holding a thin feeble brush. The sunflowers reflect not the radiance and power emanating from van Gogh's paintings, but they droop like the artist's body and brush. In this way, Gauguin ungratefully subverts the meanings the sunflowers held for van Gogh—gratitude, light, life and hope. If van Gogh suggests the full physical and artistic creative powers of Gauguin in Gauguin's Chair, Gauguin castrates van Gogh in this work. All signs suggest impotence. It seems a direct attack on van Gogh, as if Gauguin is claiming for himself all the glory of being the inventor of Modernism, of being the greater artist by deliberately inverting or rendering powerless van Gogh's greatest strengths and subjects. Gauguin's overly zealous attempt to prove in his 1903 Intimate Journals his own status as the greater artist and teacher of the younger, less mature van Gogh confirm this interpretation. Upon seeing this painting, van Gogh said, "That is me, all right, but me gone mad."

Refuting his madness and asserting his sanity and sanctity, van Gogh wrote (according to Gauguin) "with his yellowest brush, on the wall, suddenly purple, 'Je suis sain d'esprit; Je suis le Saint-Esprit'/ 'I am of healthy mind; I am the Holy Spirit.'"

"That very evening we went to the café," recounts Gauguin. "He took a light absinthe. Suddenly he flung the glass and its contents at my head." The next morning Gauguin threatened to leave.

They did, however, attempt several days later to reconcile by going together to the Fabre Museum in Montpellier to see the collection of Alfred Bruyas. But instead, the "terribly electric" arguments become even more heated. Gauguin's favorite work was Courbet's The Meeting: Bonjour Monsieur Courbet of 1854. He liked it so much that he created his own version, Bonjour, Monsieur Gauguin in 1889. Gauguin identified with the authority and power displayed in Courbet's painting. But in Gauguin's version, the artist's authority and power are not recognized. A fence separates him symbolically from the others. Even the Breton woman in the painting rejects him and walks away.

Van Gogh, on the other hand, favored Delacroix's Alfred Bruyas of 1853, a painting which features not the artist-hero but the charitable "benefactor of artists." To Theo (Dec. 1888), van Gogh wrote, "Bruyas you and me...another brother." Van Gogh, as "painter and a priest," again identifies with one who helps others.

After this failed trip—utopian hope continually thwarted—van Gogh worried about Gauguin's impending departure. Sometime between December 17 and 23, van Gogh handed Gauguin a piece of paper torn out of a newspaper which read, "the assassin has fled." The reference to Gauguin was transparent.

Van Gogh's agitated state continued to increase. He could be found looming over Gauguin in the middle of the night, and his actions and emotions became more and more unpredictable. What had begun as a light-filled Yellow House of promise became a dark and stifling prison.

On the evening of December 23, Gauguin during his after dinner walk suddenly heard from behind "a well-known step, short, quick, irregular. I turned about on the instant as Vincent rushed toward me, an open razor in his hand. My look at that moment must have had great power in it, for he stopped and, lowering his head, set off running towards home." (The first account Gauguin told Emile Bernard just after the incident did not mention the razor until the ear-cutting incident.) Gauguin that night took a room in a hotel. The next morning a swarm of people and police were surrounding the Yellow House. Gauguin described the scene:

Van Gogh went back to the house and immediately cut off his ear, very close to his head. It must have taken him some time to stop the flow of blood, for next day a number of wet towels lay about on the stone floor of the two ground-floor rooms. The blood had soiled both rooms and the little stairway which led up to our bedroom. When he was well enough to go out, with a Basque beret pulled way down over his head, he went straight to a house where, if you can't find a girl from your hometown, you can at least find someone to talk to, and he gave his ear, carefully washed, and sealed in an envelope, to the man on duty. "Here," he said, "in remembrance of me."

Was Gauguin the "assassin"? His own account tells of the commonly held assumption that he literally was because at first it was thought that van Gogh was dead, and that it was Gauguin who killed him. "Anger, indignation, grief, as well as shame at all these glances that were tearing my person to pieces, suffocated me...," Gauguin later wrote.

But Gauguin's role in the drama is far from simple. Just two days after the mutilation, leaving Arles on December 26 with Theo, he attended an execution by decapitation of a criminal outside of a prison in Paris. He was struck by the crowd shouting: "'Long live the assassin! Down with justice!'" This led Gauguin to meditations on the problem of justice: "And after all what are the feelings of justice which motivate the State's legislation, if not feelings of interest?...What after all is the right to punish, if not the right conferred by force?" He chastises "today's society" as "barbaric and cruel," and above all "hypocritical" because it "supposedly act[s] in the name of Christian morality." Gauguin seems to have identified with the "assassin," yet he wondered if he was the victim or the criminal.

Almost immediately Gauguin began a chilling series of ceramic self portraits of decapitated and bleeding heads, such as Jug in the Form of a Head, Self-Portrait (Jan. 1889). It is impossible not to link his witnessing the guillotine just four days after finding Vincent lying unconscious in a blood-stained Yellow House with this decapitated earless head. It is just as difficult not to read this work as a confession of Gauguin's identification with, and compassion for his friend.

Portrait of Gauguin as a Grotesque Head similarly embodies great pain. He here is the "accursed artist" who has been through "trial by fire." Even the material underscores its meaning. He wrote to Bernard, "The character of stoneware is that of a very hot fire, and the figure which has been scorched in the ovens of hell is I think a strong expression of character. Like an artist glimpsed by Dante on his tour of the Inferno. A poor devil all doubled up to endure his pain." This work helps us see the complexity of Gauguin's own role and his difficulty in becoming the hardened artist he felt it necessary to be. For example, a year after the fateful cohabitation with van Gogh, he writes to Bernard what seems to be a verbal equivalent of this work: "despite all my efforts" to become "ice-cold and absolutely without feeling....I simply am not; my primary nature keeps welling up, like the Gauguin of the pot, the hand shriveling in the furnace, the cry which longs to escape."

In contrast to these agonizing self-portraits by Gauguin, and at roughly the same time, van Gogh painted Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe (Jan. 1889). This work, a document of his Christ-inspired self-sacrifice, also proclaims his self-determination and enhanced artistic power. The sturdy brown pipe, now filled with yellow and red fire and emitting solar strokes of smoke which encircle his head like a halo to move up and off the canvas, is antithetical to the limp and extinguished one on his chair he had begun not quite two months earlier, (and was again working on mid-January). His face, wrapped in a white bandage, also glows in lighter shades of yellow, tan and brown. His emerald eyes echo the color of his massive green coat, which is closed by a circular button highlighted with tiny piercing rays of gold. These eyes are assured, searching and strong. They are even more powerful because on their exact same line a field of fiery red bisects the canvas. He paints the area above the red in a golden orange which becomes lighter, brighter and more yellow at the top of the painting. The white collar is like that of a priest, and the blue hat with sharp strokes above his eyes looks like a crown of thorns. The "priest and painter" is back.

He kept painting furiously for the next (and last) one and a half years of his life, masterworks whose quality does not suffer from his own suffering. He spent most of this time in the asylum in St. Rémy (which he voluntarily entered on May 8, 1889). Even his plan to send Bernard and Gauguin paintings of La Berceuse flanked by two paintings of sunflowers to make a triptych, so that "the yellow and orange tones of the head will gain in brilliance by the proximity of the yellow wings," reveals his undiminished and unchanged artistic quest. And when he was consecrated as a "giant" by G.-Albert Aurier, in "Les Isolés: Vincent van Gogh," the feature article in the January 1890 Le Mercure de France, van Gogh immediately defers to Gauguin, responding that in comparison to Gauguin he will be "very secondary."

Amidst his mental anguish and struggles, van Gogh completed what amounts to a canvas a day in the last 70 days he spent in Auvers-sur-Oise (20 miles north of Paris) under the care of Dr. Gachet. And despite his hopes that art could "make life bearable" and that he could create "a consoling art for broken hearts," his own heart could not be consoled. On July 27, 1890, the struggle must have been finally more than he could bear. Bernard writes, "Our dear friend Vincent...[o]n Sunday evening...went into the Auvers countryside, placed his easel against a haystack and went behind the chateau to shoot himself with a revolver....[H]e fell, but got up—three times in succession—to return to the inn where he lived without saying anything to anyone of his injury."

Gauguin, as if trying to undo some of the wrongs of Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers, described van Gogh's last moments, (he died at 1:30 a.m. on July 29) "lying in his bed and smoking his pipe, he died with his mind fully alert, with love for his art and without hatred for mankind" [emphases mine]. Émile Bernard on the day of Vincent's funeral, Wednesday, July 30, provides the most moving and glowing description of the final scene:

On the walls of the room where his body lay all his last canvases were nailed, forming something like a halo around him and rendering throughout the brilliance or genius which shone from them....On the coffin a simple white drapery and masses of...sunflowers which he loved so much, dahlias, and yellow blossoms everywhere. That was his favorite color if you remember, symbol of that light of which he dreamt in hearts as well as in paintings.