For nine weeks in late 1888, two of art’s great loners lived together. The home and studio Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh shared was the small and unassuming “Yellow House”, just outside the northern city gate of Arles in the south of France. There was an imbalance to the arrangement. Van Gogh thought the older man, a painter he adulated, had arrived from Paris to help him realise his dream of creating an artists’ haven, a “studio in the south”; Gauguin was in fact paid by Theo van Gogh, a successful art dealer and the white sheep of the family, to act as painter-chaperone to his troubled brother.
Initially, the two artists revelled in the stimulation of close companionship: they painted together, drank together, discussed art together, and visited a local brothel together. However, companionability soon turned to conflict due to what Gauguin described as “incompatibility of temperament” and Vincent’s mental state assuming a dangerous edge. The day Van Gogh was hospitalised following the most celebrated act of self-mutilation in art, Gauguin left for Paris and eventually Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands. The two men never saw each other again.
The painters have been viewed traditionally as men ill at ease in company and itchy with the constraints of society. In pursuit of personal freedom Gauguin left his Danish wife and five children and later France itself. Van Gogh meanwhile was the perpetual outsider, viewed with suspicion in his native Brabant in Holland; in the Borinage in Belgium, where he had a brief spell as a preacher; and in Arles, where his neighbours signed a petition to have the disturbed and disturbing painter removed from the city.
Gauguin’s Vahine no te vi (1892)
By coincidence, two new exhibitions show just how much of a misrepresentation this simplified view is. “Gauguin Portraits” at the National Gallery and “Van Gogh’s Inner Circle: Friends, Family, Models” at the Het Noordbrabants Museum in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Holland, demonstrate that both men lived their lives as part of close familial and social groupings. There was even a coda to the Arles experiment. After the ear lopping the two men continued to correspond and in 1890 Gauguin went so far as to suggest reprising their partnership in Antwerp, an idea ended by Van Gogh’s suicide that summer. What seems clear is that whatever the painters sought escape from, it wasn’t human contact.
Gauguin’s circle is in full view in the National Gallery’s exhibition, which marks the first time his portraits have been given a full-scale treatment. This fact is all the more extraordinary in that the portraits were intended to be many things simultaneously: representations (up to a point), spiritual and symbolic examinations, technical experiments, and innovations looking for a new form of expression outside the European tradition. What concerned Gauguin least were the usual functions of portraiture – identity and social milieu.
The portraits were personal. Throughout his career he painted only one to commission, despite writing to his wife Mette from Tahiti in 1891: “I think I shall soon have some well-paid commissions for portraits: I am bombarded with requests to do them… I think I can earn money here.” He was indeed paid 200 francs by Suzanne Bambridge, an Anglo-Tahitian woman who went by the name of Tutana and was part of the Polynesian royal family, and so straddled both the colonial and indigenous worlds. He painted her seated on a wooden chair, dressed in a floral gown against a turquoise background. It is a careful picture in which she looms large with a slightly downturned mouth. Less colour-infused than most of his Polynesian works, the picture is not quite European either. Gauguin didn’t understand that pleasing the client was part of the portraitist’s brief and Tutana hated the image and hid it from visitors.
She was not the only sitter to take umbrage. In 1889, in Brittany, he painted a picture called La Belle Angèle, a play on the name of the sitter, Marie-Angélique Sartre, the wife of an official in the artists’ colony of Pont-Aven. As the title suggests, he meant it to be more than a portrait. Marie-Angélique, in traditional Breton costume, sits within a gold-rimmed, halo-like circle. The rest of the picture shows a different and seemingly unrelated space with blue floral wallpaper and an orange-yellow wall on which sits a ceramic pagan idol. It is a work of synthesis in which Gauguin brought together motifs from the Japanese prints that were so popular at the time but also of Christian and non-Christian piety. There are elements of portraiture and still life, primitivism – both Breton and South Seas – and experiments with colour.
Gauguin’s La Belle Angèle (1889)
Madame Sartre rejected the work because she overheard Gauguin’s fellow painters mocking it. When it was sent to Theo van Gogh in Paris he described the picture as “delightful to look upon”, even if he thought Mme Sartre resembled a heifer. Degas admired it less conditionally and bought it, keeping it to the end of his life.
Mockery of Gauguin’s attempts to find what he called a “primitive” authenticity, extended beyond his art. In 1894 he was walking in Concarneau with a Javanese woman called Annah when he became involved in an altercation with some fishermen. The verbals turned to violence and Gauguin, never one to back down, was left with a broken ankle. A year earlier he had painted Annah, naked and queenly on an armchair with a monkey at her feet, staring at the painter with the provocative frankness of Manet’s Olympia.
The origins of Gauguin’s instinctive feeling for otherness lay in part in his own heritage. His mother came from a prominent Peruvian family and the painter spent his early childhood in Peru when his father, a liberal journalist, fled France in the wake of the 1848 upheavals across Europe. Gauguin ascribed his hatchet features to Inca blood but in fact his mother’s family were originally from Spain. Nevertheless this influence, and his two years in the French navy, reinforced his interest in the non-Western world.
Gauguin was in many ways the perfect artist to try to forge a new form of portraiture. Having turned to art after a career as a stockbroker, he was untrained and although he associated closely with Camille Pissarro and Cézanne, and indeed exhibited in five of the eight Impressionist exhibitions, he learnt by observation and intuition rather than by rote. It meant both that he did not have a technique to unlearn and also gave him an openness to avant-garde styles.
In Brittany he painted with Émile Bernard and adopted his cloisonnism – named after the technique of making cloisonné enamels – which used black outlines around areas of flat colour. Then came synthetism, which sought to combine outward appearances with the artist’s feelings about the subject and the aesthetics of colour and form: it manifested as unnatural colour and heightened emotion. Portraiture was an arena in which he could perfect these advances.
Gauguin’s Barbarian Tales (1902)
It means that his portraits are, in effect, abstractions after reality rather than representations of it; they are as much about Gauguin the artist as the figures they nominally show. After himself, his most frequent model was Meijer de Haan, a Dutch Jewish painter with a humpback who stood four feet nine inches in his socks. The two men, Gauguin the nominal master, De Haan the pupil, lived and worked together in Brittany in the late 1880s and early 1890s. In a portrait of 1889 Gauguin shows De Haan, seen from above and dressed in red to complement his ginger hair, as a demonic figure, with staring eyes and chin on hand in concentration. The painting is dramatically divided in two diagonally by a table top on which sits a bowl of apples and two books.
As a pure portrait it is deeply unflattering, De Haan is a goblin or incubus, but it is not just his friend Gauguin was painting. It is also an image of the divine creative urge, as evidenced by the two books, Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus and Milton’s Paradise Lost, while the apples are a reference to Cézanne. De Haan’s intensity is a nod both to Milton’s creative antihero Lucifer and also to the painters’ discussions on art and religion that took place at the Buvette de la Plage, an inn in the seaside village of Le Pouldu where the men stayed and which they decorated with murals. When they left, the inn’s owner, Marie Henry, was pregnant with de Haan’s child: she never told him.
Gauguin would repeat his image of De Haan as sage and personification long after they had parted. He is there, in a purple robe, behind two Polynesian girls in a painting of 1902 called Barbarian Tales and again, as a mask, in the background to a still life of flowers from the same period. By this time Gauguin was thousands of miles away in the Marquesas Islands and De Haan had been dead for seven years. What he was painting was not his old friend but what De Haan represented to him.
Gauguin’s portraits are complicated pictures, not least in the extent to which they are portraits at all. He had, for example, a photograph of two Tahitian women he had never met and he made a painting from it that he sent to his dealer Ambroise Vollard in Paris as a portrait rather than a scene from island life. In other works he would clearly pose his sitters and give them the particularity of individuals: portraits, then. But, with a twist of title – Spirit of the Dead Watching (1892), Woman of the Mango (1892), Young Christian Girl (1894) – he would turn them from people into subjects: mortality, fecundity, pure faith.
However, if such complexities mean that his likenesses reveal little about the reality of his sitters they reveal a great deal about Gauguin instead.
A portrait by Vincent van Gogh now thought to depict his art dealer brother Theo van Gogh (1887)
The month before he travelled to Arles, Gauguin responded to Van Gogh’s request for a portrait of their mutual friend Émile Bernard. “I’m studying young Bernard,” Gauguin wrote, “and I don’t have him yet. I shall perhaps do it from memory.” Here their methods differed: if reality was unhelpful for Gauguin, for Van Gogh it was vital. He needed the physical presence of the subject not its sublimated essence.
Van Gogh, like Gauguin, came to painting late and untutored. He had tried his hand at art dealing, lay preaching, and school teaching before deciding art was his metier. Although Theo encouraged him, it is less than clear that he genuinely believed in his brother’s talent. He was a significant dealer in Paris yet never managed to sell a single painting by Vincent, so one wonders how hard he really tried.
The rest of his family were unconvinced about his talent. The longest settled period of his life was spent in the village of Nuenen near Eindhoven in Brabant. It was there, initially in the parsonage allotted to his father as pastor of the local Dutch Reformed Church that Van Gogh set out to be a painter. Between 1883 and 1885 he painted a quarter of all the works he was eventually to produce.
His parents were used to coping with mental instability: one daughter spent 40 years in an asylum without speaking to anyone, another son probably killed himself during the Boer War, having euphemistically been “cleaning his gun”. Vincent, of course, also shot himself (the pistol he used was sold earlier this year for €162,500).
Despite his oddities, Van Gogh was charismatic enough to attract four informal students, who remembered him fondly as someone who could be sarcastic, who swore when they didn’t have the right materials and told them to “paint everything darker than it really is, to make it more natural”.
Van Gogh’s self-portrait (1887)
The pictures in the Het Noordbrabants Museum record some of the relationships he made. There is, for example, a suite of charcoal drawings of Sien Hoornik, a former prostitute with a child. He lived with the surrogate family for a year in the Hague and was happy to share a studio with “a cradle and close-stool”.
The importance of family, albeit not his own, remerged in Arles when he made 25 paintings and drawings of the Roulin family. He painted not just Joseph Roulin, the most celebrated portrait of whom is known as The Postman, but also his wife Augustine and their children. One of his most tender pictures is of the youngest Roulin child, Marcelle, when a baby. When Joseph was posted to Marseille he showed his fondness for the painter in a letter of August 1889: “Let us hope we can see each other again and once again cement our friendship.”
Another Arles friend was Marie Ginoux, proprietress of the Café de la Gare, who stored his furniture when he admitted himself to the asylum in Saint-Rémy. Both Gauguin and Van Gogh had painted her in 1888 but in 1890 Van Gogh depicted her in costume as L’Arlésienne, both an individual and a generic Provençal woman. It is a picture essentially using just two colours, green and pink, but the composition was not his own; it is based on a charcoal drawing by Gauguin. As such it becomes a joint homage to friendship and happier times, the closest he got to Gauguin’s memory portraits.
Even at the very end of his life, Van Gogh made new friends. The most significant of them was Dr Paul Gachet, who treated the painter at Auvers-sur-Oise during his final weeks. Gachet was a friend of Gauguin’s old mentors Pissarro and Cézanne. Though Van Gogh thought Gachet “sicker than I am, I think, or shall we say just as much” they grew fond of one another. Van Gogh’s picture of him echoes Gauguin’s Meijer de Haan; although sad-eyed rather than possessed he too sits at a sharply diagonal table, deep in concentration with his red hair in tufts and chin on hand. It is one of the most sympathetic of all Van Gogh’s portraits.
Although these two exhibitions are very different they share a central theme. When Van Gogh wrote that “I have need of relationships,” he was speaking for Gauguin too.
“Gauguin Portraits” runs at the National Gallery, London until 26 January. “Van Gogh’s Inner Circle” runs at the Het Nordbrabants Museum, ‘s-Hertogenbosch until 12 January 2020