Meet Vincent Van Gogh

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After captivating audiences in Beijing, Barcelona and Seoul, the official Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience has arrived in London. When Vincent van Gogh died in 1890, not only did he leave behind a great number of paintings and drawings, his voice was captured in hundreds of letters to his brother and other friends and acquaintances. Using the wealth of information in these correspondences, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has designed an exhibition through which the artist speaks directly to the visitor. An audio guide tells Van Gogh’s story, reading directly from many of his letters in order to teach visitors everything they need to know about one of the most celebrated artists in the world.

Please do touch! Nothing is off-limits in this experience, there are no ropes separating visitors from exhibits. Large recreations and 3D prints of Van Gogh’s works allow people to see and feel the texture of the paint. Reproductions of tools and materials help to demonstrate the artist’s method and technique, and interactive stations throughout the experience encourage visitors to create their own art, using the words of Van Gogh as their guide.

Unlike art galleries where everything is neatly hung on walls, the Van Gogh Experience uses digital projections, props, and videos to make it feel as though one is walking directly into a Van Gogh painting. The breaking down of traditional boundaries lets visitors pull up a chair at the Potato Eater’s table, sit on a haystack, stand beside the Yellow House and enter Van Gogh’s recognisable bedroom.

As you progress through the exhibition, the scenes change, revealing key turning points in Vincent’s life. With his disembodied voice in their ears, visitors accompany the artist from Nuenen in the Netherlands to Paris, Arles, Saint-Rémy and Auvers-sur-Oise in France. Engaging with the sets provides the opportunity to feel as though you are seeing the world and his paintings through Van Gogh’s eyes.

Vincent Willem van Gogh was born on 30th March 1853 in Zundert, Netherlands. He was the first surviving child of the Dutch Reformed Church minister Theodorus van Gogh (1822-85) and Anna Cornelia van Gogh-Carbentus (1819-1907), born exactly a year after a still-born brother. Vincent had many siblings: Anna (1855-1930), Theo (1857-91), Lies (1859-1936), Willemien (1862-1941) and Cor (1867-1900); however, it was with Theo that Vincent had the strongest relationship.

At least 902 letters of Van Gogh still exist, 819 of which he sent and 83 he received. Vincent burnt the majority of correspondence he received since it was impossible to keep them all; Theo, on the other hand, did not like to throw things away and managed to save 658 letters from his brother. Twenty-one letters to his sister Wil (Willemien) also exist, however, there appear to be none addressed to his other siblings.

Vincent was initially taught at home by his mother and a governess before joining the village school in 1860. In 1864, however, he was sent away to boarding school where he felt abandoned and deeply unhappy. Eventually, he returned home and his uncle obtained him a position at the art dealers Goupil & Cie in The Hague. After completing his training in 1873, Vincent was sent to Goupil’s London branch where he began earning more money than his father. In retrospect, it is believed this was the best year of Van Gogh’s life.

The earliest dated letter from Vincent to Theo was sent in September 1872 in which he begins to confide in his brother, telling him about the things he has seen or read. “You must write to me in particular about what kind of paintings you see and what you find beautiful.” (January 1873) The letters continued during Vincent’s time in London where he regularly visited museums. “English art didn’t appeal to me much at first, one has to get used to it.” (January 1874)

Theo began working with Goupil & Cie three years after his brother, which made their relationship even stronger. Vincent’s letters, however, had become rather gloomy, often writing about a “quiet melancholy”. This may have been triggered by the rejection of Eugénie Loyer who he had confessed his love to whilst living in London. Vincent began to isolate himself and became religiously fervent, adopting the words “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10) as his motto.

Van Gogh’s father and uncle arranged for him to be transferred to Goupil’s Paris branch, however, due to Vincent’s poor attitude, he was dismissed in 1876. Over the next few years, Vincent explored a variety of career possibilities, including returning to England to work as an unpaid supply teacher in Ramsgate. This proved unsuccessful, so he returned home where he worked at a bookshop in Dordrecht. This also proved futile and Vincent spent hours doodling or reading the Bible.

Even though Van Gogh’s father was a minister, he thought his son’s religious passion was excessive. Nonetheless, to support Vincent’s new-found desire to become a pastor, his father sent him to live with his uncle and theologian Johannes Stricker (1816-86). Unfortunately, Vincent failed the entrance exam for the University of Amsterdam, nor did he pass the three-month course at a Protestant missionary school in Laken, Belgium.

Undeterred, in 1879 Vincent took up a missionary post in the coal-mining district of Borinage in Belgium. Up until this point, his letters to Theo had contained passages or references to the Bible, however, his experience of the squalid living conditions made him turn his back on religion. Feeling that he had no career prospects and nowhere to go, Vincent returned home.

After a few months living with his parents and a brief spell in a lunatic asylum – presumably for depression, Vincent returned to Borinage where he temporarily lodged with a miner. A letter written to Theo at the time suggests Vincent had stopped writing to him during his difficult period. “My dear Theo, It’s with some reluctance that I write to you, not having done so for so long … Up to a certain point you’ve become a stranger to me, and I too am one to you, perhaps more than you think…” (August 1880)

Whilst living in Borinage, Van Gogh became interested in the people and scenes around him, producing quick sketches, which he sent to Theo. His letters became both a means of communicating and a way of documenting his ideas. Encouraged by his brother’s new way of expressing himself, Theo encouraged Vincent to take up art in earnest. Van Gogh followed Theo’s recommendation, eventually registering at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts. Vincent’s early sketches in Borinage proved to be more than a desire to draw but also the inspiration for Van Gogh’s first major work, The Potato Eaters.

By the end of 1883, loneliness or, perhaps, poverty had driven Van Gogh to move in with his parents, who were then living in the Dutch town of Nuenen. During his two year stay, Vincent completed many drawings, watercolours and oil paintings of the local weavers and cottages. Unlike the vivid colours of his later work, Vincent worked in sombre earth tones to capture the true nature of the scenes.

The colours inadvertently reflect the events in Van Gogh’s life during the period he stayed with his parents. In August 1884, the neighbour’s daughter Margot Begemann fell in love with Vincent and he, reluctantly at first, developed a strong relationship with her. They both wished to marry but their families were strongly against the proposal. Upset, Margot swallowed rat poison and was rushed to hospital where she was lucky to survive. Unfortunately, Vincent received another blow not long after this incident on 26th March 1885 when his father died.

Nonetheless, Van Gogh continued with his drawings and paintings then, the same year, Theo wrote to him asking if any of his paintings were ready to exhibit. Vincent replied that he had been working on a “series of peasant studies” and submitted his first major work, The Potato Eaters. This was a culmination of several years work, taking inspiration from the people in Nuenen, who often sat for him, as well as his experience in Borinage.

“You see, I really have wanted to make it so that people get the idea that these folk, who are eating their potatoes by the light of their little lamp, have tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labour and—that they have thus honestly earned their food. I wanted it to give the idea of a wholly different way of life from ours—civilized people.”
– Vincent to Theo (30th April 1885)

Two years later, Van Gogh considered The Potato Eaters to be “the best thing I did”, which he confessed in a letter to his sister Wil. Critics, on the other hand, were less inclined to agree, including Vincent’s friend and fellow artist Anthon van Rappard (1858-92). Initially, Vincent was angry with Rappard’s criticism and told him that he “had no right to condemn my work in the way you did” (July 1885). A month later, with his confidence in tatters, Vincent tried to defend his efforts, writing “I am always doing what I can’t do yet in order to learn how to do it.”

In November 1885, Van Gogh spent a brief time living in a room above a paint dealer’s shop in Antwerp. Although Theo supported him financially, Vincent chose to spend the money on painting materials rather than food. He also bought Japanese ukiyo-e woodcuts, which he studied and copied, incorporating some elements into his paintings. He also broadened his palette, beginning to paint in reds, blues and greens.

“My studio’s quite tolerable, mainly because I’ve pinned a set of Japanese prints on the walls that I find very diverting. You know, those little female figures in gardens or on the shore, horsemen, flowers, gnarled thorn branches.”
– Vincent to Theo (28th November 1885)

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Portrait of Vincent van Gogh – Toulouse-Lautrec

Due to living in poverty and eating poorly, Van Gogh was hospitalised between February and March 1886, after which he moved to Paris where he lived with Theo. Since they were living together, there was no point in writing to each other, therefore, not a lot is known about Vincent’s time in Paris.

Other sources of information reveal Vincent spent time in the Louvre, examining paintings, colour schemes and artists’ techniques. Through Theo, he met up-and-coming artists, such as Émile Bernard (1868-1941) and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901).

Theo found living with Vincent almost unbearable and, although they remained firm friends and brothers, Vincent moved in 1887 to Asnières in the northwest of Paris. Here, Vincent met Paul Signac (1863-1935), a neo-impressionist painter who helped develope the Pointillist style. Inspired by Signac, Vincent began to include aspects of pointillism in his paintings.

Van Gogh’s artistic breakthrough occurred after he had moved to Arles in the south of France in an attempt to recuperate from his smoking problem and smoker’s cough. It is believed he had the intention of founding an art colony, however, this never came to fruition. Nonetheless, existing letters reveal Vincent was in contact with several artists at the time, including Bernard, Charles Laval (1862-94) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903).

During his year in Arles, Van Gogh produced over 200 paintings and 100 drawings, the majority of which were intended for the decoration of the Yellow House – a personal gallery of his work. When Vincent first arrived in Arles, he signed a lease for the eastern wing of the Yellow House at 2 Place Lamartine, however, it was not yet fully furnished so he was only able to use it as a studio. Meanwhile, he resided at the Hôtel Carrel and the Café de la Gare.

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The Night Café, 1888

“I want to do figures, figures and figures … Meanwhile, I mostly do other things.” Van Gogh desired to paint portraits and, whilst he painted a few, he mostly produced landscapes. Inspired by the local harvests, wheatfields and landmarks, Vincent painted Arles in yellow, ultramarine and mauve. The wheat fields were a common feature in his landscapes, however, Vincent also painted his house, sunflowers, fishing boats and the Café de la Gare. Writing about one of his paintings of the latter entitled The Night Café, Van Gogh revealed he was trying to “to express the idea that the café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad, or commit a crime”.

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Bedroom in Arles, 1888

Once the Yellow House was suitable to live in, Van Gogh began displaying some of his paintings on the walls as can be seen in his depiction of his bedroom: Bedroom in Arles. When planning this painting, Vincent wrote to his brother that “colour must be abundant in this part, its simplification adding a rank of grandee to the style applied to the objects, getting to suggest a certain rest or dream.” The walls are a pale violet and the wooden furniture is “yellow like fresh butter”. On the bed, a scarlet bedspread lies on top of a “lemon light green” sheet and pillows. The windows are shuttered and the blue doors closed, one which led to a staircase and the other a guest bedroom.

The guest room was used by Paul Gauguin when he agreed to visit Van Gogh in Arles. While waiting for him to arrive, Vincent frantically worked on paintings to decorate the house, including more sunflowers, a painting of his chair and a painting of the chair he had purchased in anticipation of Gauguin’s visit.

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The Painter of Sunflowers by Paul Gauguin, 1888

Gauguin eventually arrived on 23rd October and the artists settled into a routine of sleeping and painting in the Yellow House. Noticing that Van Gogh always used visual references, Gauguin encouraged Vincent to paint from memory. They also went on outdoor ventures to paint en plein air, however, the only painting Gauguin completed in Van Gogh’s studio was The Painter of Sunflowers, a portrait of Van Gogh.

Van Gogh had hoped for friendship with Gauguin, however, after two months the relationship began to deteriorate. Vincent admired Gauguin and wished to be treated as his equal, however, Gauguin was rather arrogant and full of criticism, which was frustrating for Vincent and led to many quarrels. Every day, Vincent feared Gauguin would leave him, describing the situation as one of “excessive tension”. Eventually, Vincent’s fear became a reality.

It is difficult to determine exactly what happened next because Van Gogh had no recollection of the events. Gauguin claimed they had been cooped up in the house due to several days of heavy rain, which led to much bickering culminating in a huge argument. To cool off, Gauguin left the house to go for a walk, however, Vincent, presumably mistaking this action for abandonment, “rushed towards me, an open razor in his hand”. That night, Gauguin stayed in a hotel rather than returning to the Yellow House.

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Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889

Alone in the house, Van Gogh was plagued by “voices” and cut off his left ear with the razor. Whether this was wholly or partially is now unknown since there are discrepancies between the sources from the time of the incident. Van Gogh bandaged his heavily bleeding wound, wrapped the ear in paper and delivered it to a woman at a brothel he and Gauguin frequented. Vincent was discovered unconscious by a policeman the following morning, who took him to the local hospital.

Van Gogh was diagnosed with “acute mania with generalised delirium” and remained in the hospital for some time. Although Gauguin had returned to Paris, the artists put the event to one side and continued to correspond through letters. They proposed to form a studio in Antwerp when Van Gogh was well but they never had the chance.

On 7th January 1889, Van Gogh returned to the Yellow House, however, he was still suffering from hallucinations. Some sources claim Vincent tried to poison himself, whereas others say this was one of his delusions; nonetheless, concerned for his welfare, inhabitants of Arles demanded that he was forcibly removed from the house. Vincent found himself back in the hospital, eventually agreeing to voluntarily admit himself to the asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.

Van Gogh stayed in the asylum for about a year, during which time he was allowed to paint. The clinic and its gardens were Vincent’s primary sources of inspiration as were patients and doctors. The Starry Night, one of Van Gogh’s most famous works, was painted in the hospital grounds.

Letters continued to be sent back and forth between Theo and Vincent as well as a few friends. Since there was a limited amount of artistic inspiration in the hospital, Theo sent his brother prints of famous artworks from which to copy. Some of Vincent’s favourite artists to study included Jean-François Millet (1814-75), Jules Breton (1827-1906), Gustave Courbet (1819-77) and Gustave Doré (1832-83).

Van Gogh’s letters to his brother became increasingly sombre and he suffered a relapse between February and April 1890. During this time, he felt unable to write, however, there are a few small paintings dated around this time. Two Peasant Women Digging in a Snow-Covered Field at Sunset was one of these, based on an artwork by Millet.

Meanwhile, Van Gogh’s paintings were beginning to attract attention and he was invited to submit some of his paintings to an avant-garde exhibition in Paris. Whilst some people were critical of his work, others defended Van Gogh’s style and he was soon invited to participate in an exhibition with the Artistes Indépendants in Paris. Claude Monet (1840-1926) declared Van Gogh’s work was the best in the show.

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Almond blossom, 1890

It was not the success of the exhibition that buoyed Van Gogh’s motivation to write and paint again but rather the news from Theo that his wife Jo (1862-1925) had born a son, Vincent Willem van Gogh. “How glad I was when the news came… I should have greatly preferred him to call the boy after Father, of whom I have been thinking so much these days, instead of after me; but seeing it has now been done, I started right away to make a picture for him, to hang in their bedroom, big branches of white almond blossom against a blue sky.”

Almond Blossom is unlike any of Van Gogh’s previous paintings. The blue sky is more realistic than the swirly backgrounds of his recent works. The branches of the tree are outlined in black, which was a feature Van Gogh admired in Japanese paintings.

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Wheatfield with Crows, 1890

By May 1890, Van Gogh was deemed well enough to be discharged from Saint-Rémy, however, he had no home to which to return. Instead, he moved to the Paris suburb of Auvers-sur-Oise to be closer to both Theo and his doctor, Dr Paul Gachet (1828-1909). Van Gogh continued painting, absorbed by “the immense plain against the hills, boundless as the sea, delicate yellow” and “vast fields of wheat under turbulent skies”. When writing to Theo about one of his final oil paintings, Van Gogh said that they represented “sadness and extreme loneliness” and “tell you what I cannot say in words”.

On 27th July 1890, Van Gogh failed to return to his lodgings for his evening meal. His arrival later in the night revealed the reason for the delay; Vincent had shot himself in the chest with a 7mm Lefaucheux à broche revolver. Although there was no damage to any vital organs, there was no surgeon in the area to remove the bullet. Two local doctors did the best they could and left him at home where he was joined by Theo. Vincent was in good spirits but soon began to suffer from an infection. Not long after his final words, “The sadness will last forever”, Vincent van Gogh passed away in the early hours of 29th July.

“… and then it was done. I miss him so; everything seems to remind me of him.”
– Theo to his wife Jo, 1st August 1890

Van Gogh was buried the next day in the municipal cemetery of Auvers-sur-Oise and was joined by Theo the following year. Theo had been ill and worsened after the death of his brother. Initially, Theo was buried in Utrecht, however, his wife had his body exhumed and reburied beside his beloved brother. Jo knew how much Vincent meant to Theo and it is thanks to her that Vincent’s letters have been preserved and made public. Although other family members were unhappy about this, without the letters Vincent may never have been as celebrated as he is today.

Van Gogh’s story does not end with his death but continues through the lives of millions of people around the world for whom he is still a source of inspiration. Well-known artists have been influenced by Van Gogh, including Pablo Picasso, David Hockney, Piet Mondrian, Henri Matisse, Edvard Munch and Francis Bacon.

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Contemporary artists are also fans of Van Gogh and attempt to recreate his style, for example, a Van Gogh-esque painting of Donald Duck that appeared on a Walt Disney magazine in 2015.

The Meet Vincent Van Gogh Experience proves how much Vincent van Gogh is loved and appreciated. His life was full of mental anguish and unhappiness, which ended prematurely before he had the chance to witness his success. His tragic story is part of the draw to the artist, however, Van Gogh’s highly recognisable works are appreciated all over the world for their uniqueness.

With a museum named after him, Van Gogh has excelled beyond his expectations and it is a shame that he will never know. The Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience allows people to learn more about the artist, to discover his story, and to appreciate his work with a greater understanding.

Tickets for the Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience vary between £16.50 and £18.50 for adults, and £12.50 and £14.50 for children. Time slots and tickets can be purchased via Ticketmaster in advance. The experience will be open every day until Thursday 21st May 2020.

Ever yours,
Vincent

Gauguin Portraits

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Self Portrait, 1885

This winter (2019) in an exhibition sponsored by Credit Suisse, the National Gallery is providing visitors with the opportunity to view the portraits of Paul Gauguin. Never exhibited together before, the portraits illustrate the artist’s life from his early years in France to his last in French Polynesia. Fifty paintings have been sourced from collections all over the world that demonstrate Gauguin’s experimental use of colour and Synthetist style that, whilst unappreciated during his lifetime, have made him an important figure in art history.

The exhibition begins with a selection of Gauguin’s self-portraits. Described as self-obsessed, Gauguin painted himself many times throughout his career, believing that the world could only be understood from his point of view. He thought art could only exist in relation to memory, dreams, heritage and emotions, therefore, many of his paintings reflect the way he saw the world.

Often, Gauguin used himself as a model for paintings that were not necessarily intended to be self-portraits. By adopting other personas, Gauguin placed himself in histories and mythologies, showing the world how he interpreted the stories.

On more than one occasion, Gauguin painted himself as Christ. He is not the only artist to have done this; Dürer (1471-1528), for instance, had used himself as a model for Christ centuries before. Gauguin’s features are highly recognisable in his paintings of Christ and his facial expressions demonstrate Christ’s anguish and distress. He found a parallel between himself and Christ, feeling that he too was misunderstood.

In Christ in the Garden of Olives, the red-haired Gauguin depicts himself as Christ on the eve of his betrayal. When he painted this, Gauguin was struggling to sell his work and felt isolated and persecuted by the art world. By using himself as the model for this Biblical event, Gauguin communicated his own sense of suffering.

There is less emotion in Self Portrait (Near Golgotha), which was painted in front of Gauguin’s impression of the hill on which Christ was crucified. To the left of Christ – or Gauguin – is the head of a Polynesian idol. To understand this reference, the viewer needs to know a little about Gauguin’s life, particularly his later years.

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Paul Gauguin, 1981

Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin was born in Paris on 7th June 1848 to Clovis Gauguin and Aline Chazal. Both parents were rather radical; his father was a journalist and his mother was the daughter of the political and feminist activist, Flora Tristan (1803-44).

Gauguin’s mother was of Spanish-Peruvian descent and the family decided to move to Peru in 1849 shortly after the Revolution in France. Clovis hoped the move would help his journalistic career, however, he died of a heart attack en route. Aline arrived in Peru a widow with 18-month-old Paul and his 212 year-old sister, Marie. They were welcomed by Aline’s great-uncle whose son-in-law was soon to become the president of Peru. Due to the prestige of his mother’s family, Gauguin grew up attended by nursemaids and servants.

Unfortunately, Gauguin’s family fell from political power during Peruvian civil conflicts in 1854 and returned to France. Gauguin and his sister were left in the care of his paternal grandfather in Orléans while his mother worked as a dressmaker in Paris. Despite this unconventional life, Gauguin received a prestigious Catholic education at Petit Séminaire de La Chapelle-Saint-Mesmin, a boarding school in the north of France. This was followed by a couple of years at the Loriol Institute, a naval school preparatory in Paris, and a final year at the Lycée Jeanne D’Arc in Orléans.

On finishing school, Gauguin enlisted as a pilot’s assistant in the merchant marine and later served in the French Navy for two years. Unbeknownst to him, his mother died on 7th July 1867 whilst he was at sea and he did not learn of the death until his sister found him in India. Although he had enjoyed sailing around the world, Gauguin returned to Paris where family friend Gustave Arosa acted as his legal guardian.

With Arosa’s help, Gauguin got a job as a stockbroker at the Paris Bourse when he was twenty-three years old. Over the next decade, Gauguin became a successful businessman earning 30,000 francs a year. During this time, he met a Danish woman, Mette-Sophie Gad (1850–1920) who he married in 1873. Around the same time, he began painting in his free time and became friends with the French-Danish painter Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) who encouraged Gauguin’s love of art.

Pissarro introduced Gauguin to other artists, including Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) and the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922). He was encouraged to take part in three Impressionist exhibitions, however, the reviews he received were rather dismissive in comparison to the highly regarded opinions today.

Gauguin and Mette had five children: Émile (1874–1955); Aline (1877–97); Clovis (1879–1900); Jean René (1881–1961); and Paul Rollon (1883–1961), who were frequent subjects of Gauguin’s paintings. Initially, the Gauguin family were fairly well off, however, in 1882 the Paris stock market crashed causing Gauguin’s earnings to diminish almost entirely. As a result, he decided to become a full-time painter.

The family moved to Rouen on the River Seine where they could live more cheaply. Gauguin hoped he would be able to earn a living from his paintings, however, the venture proved unsuccessful. As he was unable to provide for them, Mette and the children moved to Copenhagen, presumably to stay with her family. Gauguin and his art collection joined them in 1884, however, the Danish city proved to be as equally difficult to establish himself as an artist. He was soon urged to return to Paris along with his six-year-old son Clovis.

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Still Life with Profile of Laval, 1886

Gauguin found it hard to get back into the Parisian art world and was virtually living in poverty. He took on menial jobs to earn a bit of money but it was not enough to live on and his son Clovis fell ill. This prompted Gauguin’s sister to pay for Clovis to attend boarding school.

Without Clovis to look after, Gauguin was able to focus on his art. Although he did not produce many paintings during this time, he tried to sell artworks he had produced in Rouen and Copenhagen. He exhibited in the final Impressionist exhibition in May 1886, which had a similar outcome to the previous three, however, he did sell one painting to the French painter Félix Bracquemond (1833-1914).

Attracted by the affordable living conditions, Gauguin spent the summer of 1886 in the artist’s colony of Pont-Aven in Brittany. Many art students visited the area, including Charles Laval (1861-94) who became an admirer and follower of Gauguin. In a still-life resembling the work of Cézanne, Gauguin included a side profile of Laval at the edge of the picture looking at the fruit displayed on the table.

The following year, Laval accompanied Gaugain to Panama and Martinique in the Caribbean. Despite suffering from dysentery and marsh fever, he produced a dozen paintings. On his return to France, these were displayed in a gallery where they were admired by Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) and the art dealer Theo van Gogh (1857-91). Theo purchased three of Gauguin’s paintings for 900 francs and arranged for them to be hung in his art gallery.

Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh became close friends and in 1888 Gauguin was invited to spend nine weeks at his Yellow House in Arles. They spent the time painting together, often producing the same scenes. On more than one occasion, they set their easels up side by side to paint portraits, for example, Augustine Roulin (1851-1930), the postman’s wife. Whilst Van Gogh rapidly completely his painting with large brushstrokes, Gauguin took his time using washes of flat, bold colours that almost resemble Japanese woodblock prints. Another portrait they both produced was of Marie Ginous (1848-1911), the owner of the Café de la Gare near Van Gogh’s home. Once again, Van Gogh immediately attacked his canvas with paint, whereas, Gauguin spent at least an hour making a detailed charcoal sketch before moving on to paint.

Whilst in Arles, Gauguin experimented with Van Gogh’s technique of completing a painting in one sitting. This was very different from his usual approach, which involved working over many sessions, however, the result is a pleasing, more energetic, freer portrait. The rapid brushstrokes of Old Man with a Stick emphasise the roughened skin of the sitter, particularly his red-raw hands from years of manual work.

Unfortunately, Gauguin’s close relationship with Van Gogh was not to last. The Dutch painter’s mental health was rapidly deteriorating and Gauguin decided he ought to leave. Distraught, Van Gogh, who worship Gauguin, confronted him with a razor blade, however, Gauguin still left and never saw Van Gogh again. Reportedly, later that evening, Van Gogh cut off his ear and gave it to a woman in a brothel saying, “keep this object carefully, in remembrance of me.”

Through Van Gogh’s brother Theo, Gauguin met the Dutch artist Meijer de Haan (1852-95). Together, Gauguin and De Haan visited Brittany where Gauguin produced many portraits of the artist. The National Gallery displays a couple of drawings Gauguin produced, presumably studies for larger paintings, and a wooden carving.

As well as painting, Gauguin produced sculptures from a variety of materials. In this instance, Gauguin produced a wooden sculpture of De Haan in the style of the religious sculptures they saw in Brittany. Originally decorated with brightly painted ambiguous symbols, De Haan’s face rises out of a block of oak wood. On his head is a winged creature that some believe to be a rooster, which would be a play on the English translation of De Haan’s name.

In 1891, Gauguin saw his family for the last time in Copenhagen. Gauguin and Mette’s marriage had fallen apart when he chose painting over his family and the rift was irreparable. His wife asked him to leave and Gauguin decided to leave European civilisation altogether.

After a successful auction of his paintings, Gauguin used the money to pay for his voyage to the Pacific island of Tahiti where he hoped to find a culture unspoilt by the West. He was fed up with the “artificial and conventional” European culture, however, when he reached Tahiti he was dismayed to discover that the island had been taken over by missionaries and French colonialists. He settled in Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia, but was upset at the lack of the primitive idyll he had visualised.

Missionaries distrusted the traditional Tahitian way of life and forced the women to wear modest clothing based on the styles worn in Europe. Outraged by this, Gauguin soon moved to Papeari in the south of the Island where he hoped to discover a more authentic lifestyle. Examples of the clothing the Tahitian women were forced to wear can be seen in many of Gauguin’s paintings produced on the Island. In Melancholic, a young Tahitian woman wears a bright pink missionary dress, however, her melancholic demeanour implies she is less than happy about the gradual disappearance of her culture in the wake of colonial contact.

While in Papeari, Gauguin was involved in many sexual relations with young Tahitian girls. He supposedly married two of them, although the term “marry” is rather loose, after all, he still had a European wife. His first Tahitian “wife” Tehamana (1878-1918) was only 13 or 14 years old when they met and, although it was customary for women to marry young, Gauguin may have exploited his privilege as a Westerner to claim her.
Tehamana features in many of Gauguin’s portraits, for example, Woman with a Mango, which was later purchased by Edgar Degas (1834-1917) in 1895. In the majority of these paintings, Tehamana is an anonymous model, however, on one occasion, Gauguin names her in the title. The Ancestors of Tehamana shows Tehamana in a typical missionary dress, however, she is surrounded by spiritual references from her past, or at least Gauguin’s interpretation of traditional Tahitian beliefs. Symbols include glyphs similar to those found on ancient tablets, a female figure and spirits of the dead.

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Arii matamoe (The Royal End), 1892

In an attempt to console himself from his disappointment at the lack of authentic culture, Gauguin often added fictional elements to his paintings. Gauguin wanted to paint local customs but found they were remarkably similar to those back home. After witnessing the funeral of Pōmare V (1839-91), a Tahitian king, Gauguin painted an imagined version of events, which included the disembodied head of the deceased being displayed and mourned over.

Gauguin sent many of his Tahitian paintings to France where his patron, George-Daniel de Monfreid (1856-1929) arranged for them to be displayed in a couple of exhibitions. Unfortunately, not many sold and Gauguin was getting dangerously low on funds. He was also suffering from a suspected heart problem, which in hindsight may have been early signs of cardiovascular syphilis, so Gauguin decided to return to France, leaving his “wife” and newborn child behind.

Gauguin arrived in Marseille on 30th August 1893. Although he was back in France, his work was still focused on Tahitian life. He began writing an account of his time on the island in a book called Noa Noa, however, critics claim it to be highly fictionalised and, on occasion, plagiarised.

Tahiti’s influence can be seen in Gauguin’s self-portrait from 1893. Although he wears typical Breton clothing, a sculpture of a Polynesian goddess can be seen in the background. Interestingly, Gauguin did not produce any pictures of himself while in Tahiti, yet immediately returned to the topic on his return to France.

After a moderately successful exhibition in November 1894, he moved to 6 rue Vercingétorix in the Montparnasse district of Paris where he hosted regular gatherings with artists, musicians and writers. He was known for his exotic dress sense which exuded the atmosphere of the South Seas. Unfortunately, sales of his paintings were either slow or non-existent, so he decided to try his luck in Brittany.

While in Brittany, Gauguin demonstrated the typical scenes he saw in colonised Tahiti. Armed with a bright yellow missionary dress he had brought with him, Gauguin commissioned a young Breton woman to pose as a model. Standing on the wayside praying, Gauguin’s representation of the woman combines traditional Breton lifestyle with missionary characteristics.

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Still Life with Apples, a Pear, and a Ceramic Portrait Jug, 1889

In 1895, after raising a tiny amount of money, Gauguin returned to Tahiti. For a time, he achieved a steady stream of sales and lived a comfortable life with other artists near Papeete. He took on another “wife” called Pau’ura, however, their daughter passed away shortly after birth. By this time he was also suffering from ill health and spent a short time in hospital during the summer of 1896.

The following year, Gauguin was able to send some of his artwork to France where they were exhibited in Paris as well as Brussels in Belgium. During this time, his book Noa Noa was being published in instalments. Yet, this brief period of positivity was not to last. In April 1897, Gauguin received the terrible news that his daughter Aline had died from pneumonia at the age of nineteen. Devastated, the news led him to attempt suicide.

Once again suffering financially, Gauguin was compelled to take a desk job at the Office of Public Works in Papeete. Meanwhile, the art dealer Ambroise Vollard (1886-1939) attempted to sell Gauguin’s paintings in France.

Gauguin began to play a role in Tahitian politics and contributed to the colonial government journal Les Guêpes (The Wasps). This encouraged him to establish his own monthly satirical journal Le Sourire: Journal sérieux (The Smile: A Serious Newspaper), later retitled Journal méchant (A Wicked Newspaper). In 1900, he also became the editor of Les Guêpes from which he received a salary.

Life on Tahiti was becoming increasingly westernised and Gauguin was frequently in hospital. Regardless of his health, Gauguin was determined to find somewhere more “authentic” and in September 1901 moved to the Marquesan island of Hiva Oa in Polynesia. There was no doctor on the island and Gauguin had to rely on the Protestant pastor Paul Vernier, who had a little medical training.

Gauguin and Vernier became friends, however, many of the missionaries on the island were not impressed with his studio called the “House of Pleasure” in which he conducted relationships with local women as well as painting. Gauguin was particularly averse to the bishop Monseigneur Joseph Martin whose likeness he carved from miro wood. Titled Père Paillard (Father Lecher), Gauguin included devil horns to show how he really felt about the bishop.

When he was well enough, Gauguin painted portraits of the locals in their native costume or lack of, such as in Barbarian Tales. Another caricature of the bishop can be seen behind the two semi-naked ladies in the foreground.

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Self Portrait, 1903

By 1903, Gauguin’s health was rapidly deteriorating. He painted his final self-portrait, which was much simpler and less exotic than his usual style, and gave it as a gift to the Vietnamese exile Nguyen Van Cam (Ky Dong) who, along with Vernier, helped to look after him in his ill-health.

On 8th May 1903, Gauguin was weak and in great pain. He sent for Pastor Vernier, complaining that he kept experiencing fainting fits. Vernier ensured he was stable, however, later that day he was found dead by a neighbour. An empty bottle of laudanum on the bedside suggested he may have been the victim of an overdose, however, the general consensus is that he had suffered a heart attack.

Like his old friend Van Gogh, Gauguin did not receive any accolades until after his death. Today, people flock to exhibitions to see his work and his paintings belong to collections all over the world. Whilst the National Gallery’s exhibition only focuses on portraits, it manages to tell the story of Gauguin’s life from birth through to his final days. A 15-minute video provides specific details and an analysis of his work.

Paul Gauguin would be amazed to see the number of people purchasing tickets to see his work. He would never have thought that his work would sell for $210 million, as one piece did in 2014. He was also the inspiration for W. Somerset Maugham’s (1875-1965) novel The Moon and Sixpence.

The Credit Suisse Exhibition Gauguin Portraits can be seen at the National Gallery in London until 26th January 2020. Tickets are priced at £22-24, although various concessions apply.