Monthly Archives: April 2016

Van Gogh and Gauguin and their aliases

As I continue to read The Yellow House by Martin Gayford, I continue to discover fascinating details about these two great post-Impressionist painters.  I’ve already commented about the way they portrayed themselves as literary characters in self-portraits — Van Gogh, in particular, was an avid reader — but now I’ve found that they sartorialized themselves in imitation of their heroes.

Van Gogh was a great admirer of a Marseillais painter named Adolph Monticelli.  He outfitted himself in conscious imitation of his hero, “with an enormous yellow hat, a black velvet jacket, white trousers, yellow gloves, a bamboo cane and with a grand southern air,” and so appeared to the public in Arles, where he and Gauguin were living.

Self portrait by Adolph Monticelli

A Fete in a Garden

Monticelli had been influenced by the Barbizon School in his youth, but one notices immediately in his paintings the same subjects as Watteau, i.e. courtlife and pastoral luxury, and Delacroix, i.e. orientalist scenes.  Van Gogh’s interests were more in keeping with the Barbizon painters in that he portrayed the lives of peasants.  One can see the same outlining of objects and figures and the thick paint strokes in Monticelli’s work and Van Gogh’s.

Gauguin liked to dress like a Breton sailor, though he was now living in the south of France.  Many of his figures are symbolic and drawn from his own imagination, so he kept adding Bretonnes to his Provencal scenes.  He loved their traditional costumes.  Just before arriving at the Yellow House Van Gogh had acquired in Arles, Gauguin painted A Vision after the Sermon:

Theo Van Gogh has sold a painting of Gauguin’s called Breton Girls in a Ring, which gave the artists something to live on for a while:

I think these conceits are typical of the creative mind.  They weren’t put on as cosplay.  They were assumed as self-expression.  Costuming creates a persona; it is a step on the path of self-realization.  How could persons with such inner drive to express their ideas visually, often without remuneration, NOT express themselves in their personal style as well?

Bass Strike at Cox Hollow

1-IMG_3265-001Bass Strike at Cox Hollow, Oil on Canvas, 12×16, $500 USD

This painting is set in Governor Dodge State Park in Dodgeville, WI, the scene of much Bass and Bluegill fishing.  I was going for that vintage 1920s and 30s feel, harkening back to the magazine covers I’ve loved from Outdoor Life and Field and Stream.  It is available to purchase at the Left Bank Art Gallery in McGregor, IA.

Next month I’m going to attend a Plein Air Painting Workshop taught by Mary Pettis, whose work I’ve admired for the last several years.  I’ve been watching her Website for my next opportunity to take a workshop.  For some time now I’ve wanted to do landscapes, and my subjects have more frequently been in outdoor settings.

Landscapes set in the Midwest are more difficult, I think, than Western landscapes.  There you have the boon of distant vistas and the resulting changes in tone and coloration due to the retreating atmosphere.  (That may not be very clear, but I know what I mean.)

My favorite landscape painters, however, are not the many fabulous Western painters, but rather Russian landscape painters. Their subjects are much more like the ones I have available to me in Wisconsin.  Of course, their country is older, with older architecture and romantic dirt roads, but I take inspiration from them.  They often do intimate settings, rather than the grand spectacle of mountains and water available in the Western Unifted States.  The pastoral charm of these scenes is what I will be aiming for.

I recently bought a Plein Air painting called Silver Day by a Russian painter named Evgeny Zhurov (Moscow) and am thrilled with it.

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!