Lyn Bolen Rushton chronicles the intensely creative nine weeks when Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh, the two pillars of modern art, were living and working together in the small French town of Arles.
Paul Gauguin: Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers, 1888, oil on canvas. (Credit)
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.
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