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Vincent's Chair with His Pipe

Arles: December, 1888
(London, National Gallery)
F 498, JH 1635

Click here to go to 'Gauguin's Armchair' page.

Gauguin's Armchair

Arles: December, 1888
(Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum)
F 499, JH 1636

Background

The two paintings of Vincent's and Paul Gauguin's chairs are among the most often analyzed of Van Gogh's works. Dr. Jan Hulsker comments "There are few pictures of Vincent's about which so much was written in later years."1. These companion paintings have attracted much attention because of the symbolic interpretations underlying the subject matter. Van Gogh himself discussed these works in a number of his letters, but didn't include any detailed interpretations of the underlying meaning of the paintings. In letter 626a (10 or 11 February 1890), written to the critic G.-Albert Aurier, Vincent described Gauguin's chair as "somber reddish-brown wood, the seat of greenish straw, and in the absent one's place a lighted torch and modern novels."

In addition to the symbolic undercurrents of the work (discussed below) these two paintings are also unique in terms of the way in which they're displayed together--whether at the rare exhibits in which they have been shown together (London, 1968, for example) or simply side by side in a book. Generally the works are presented in the reverse as is shown above. In other words, if Gauguin's chair is displayed on the left, then the chairs seem to be facing away from each other--clearly symbolizing the often conflicting natures of Van Gogh and Gauguin. This is generally how the works are shown, given the volatile relationship between the two painters. If the paintings are displayed as above, however, a different interpretation is suggested--that of a mutual respect between the artists; a grudging, but sincere admiration in spite of the unfortunate outcome of their relationship in "the Yellow House" in Arles.


Technique

The colour scheme of the two chairs is, to coin a phrase, as different as night and day. Van Gogh's chair is executed with lighter colours suggesting daylight, whereas Gauguin's chair is presented with darker, more somber tones. Van Gogh himself describes the two works and wrote "I have tried for an effect of light by means of clear colour" (Letter 571: c. 23 November 1888). William Hardy's book Van Gogh: The History and Techniques of the Great Masters provides an insightful description of the technique employed in Vincent's Chair with His Pipe:

The color composition of this work is based on variations around the pairs of primary complementaries--blue and orange, and red and green. These appear in their purest form only in occasional passages, to set the keynotes for the composition. Thus the area of purest red on the paving beneath the chair is balanced by touches of green above it and by a further stroke of green on the nearest chair leg. Van Gogh stresses structure through emphatic outlines, added later, that serve to contain areas of pure painting. The strength of these increases the impact of the image, but also creates a certain tension between line and color. In distorting the perspective of the floor and the chair leg, Van Gogh imposed his own personality upon the work, stressing the subjectivity of his view.

The pipe, handkerchief and tobacco give a focus to the picture in both narrative and pictoral terms, providing a note of neutral white at the center of the interplay of cool and warm hues. The use of blue to outline the parts of the chair increases the sense of cool draftsmanship restraining the sensuous handling of the painting.

The floor tiles are painted with the waving brushstrokes that Van Gogh often used in the backgrounds of his work at this time. Short horizontal and vertical strokes alternate in a loose mesh of reds, browns and greens. The thickness of the paint used is revealed by the heavy smear from the side of the brush that is left alongside each stroke.

(pages 43-44)

In addition to his thorough commentary of the technique Vincent employed in this painting, Hardy also points out one interesting detail: that Vincent painted the work before mutilating his ear, but continued to refine it after his was hospitalized. In one of his first letters to his brother, Theo, after being admitted to the hospital to recover from his self-inflicted injury, Van Gogh wrote: "I have just been working again today on its [Gauguin's Armchair] pendant, my own empty chair, a white deal chair with a pipe and a tobacco pouch." (Letter 571: 17 January 1889)

Symbolic Interpretations

As mentioned above, of all the works in Van Gogh's oeuvre, these two paintings have inspired some of the most involved commentary in terms of their symbolic import. Symbolic interpretations of Van Gogh's work covers a wide spectrum. For example, another painting which has attracted a great deal of symbolic interpretation is Still Life with Bible. This painting was produced in October, 1885--not long after the death of Vincent's father, a minister. Vincent and his father became increasingly estranged during the months preceding his father's death--a conflict due in part to clashing personalities as well as Vincent's increasing disdain for the religious beliefs his father espoused. Consequently, this painting has a clear symbolic undercurrent: the bible represents Van Gogh's father and religion in general, and the small yellow book, Zola's La Joie de Vivre conveys a subtle statement of Vincent's preference for Zola's themes over the Bible's.

Similarly, the symbolic interpretations of the paintings of the chairs also seems fairly straightforward. Van Gogh's own chair is shown as simple and unpretentious--a plain straw chair on a red-tiled floor. Gauguin's chair, on the other hand, is far more ornate. It's not unreasonable, therefore, to interpret the chairs as representing Van Gogh's own perception of himself as opposed to Gauguin. Throughout his life Van Gogh preferred the company of poorer working people over those of an aristrocratic background. Vincent's relationship with Paul Gauguin was extremely turbulent and ended disastrously with the ear mutilation incident (although Van Gogh and Gauguin would continue to correspond sporadically until Vincent's death). Gauguin's chair is far more lavish and ornate. Arguably Van Gogh perceived himself much more in the vein of the hard working peasants he painted so often, and a far less a worldly (and possibly egotistical) bon vivant such as Gauguin.

If the symbolic interpretation of the two chairs remains at this level, then the commentary rests on stable footing. Occasionally, however, the symbolic import of these two works is pushed outside the envelope into the realm of pure (and, some might argue, erroneous) speculation. For example, Albert Lubin, explores Van Gogh's life and works from a psychoanalytical perspective in his book Stranger on the Earth: A Psychological Biography of Vincent van Gogh. Lubin presents an involved symbolic analysis of these two paintings and focuses on Gauguin's chair:

Both the feminine mothering aspect and the virile male aspect of Gauguin are represented in Gauguin's Chair, Vincent's symbolic portrayal of his comrade. The chair's broad curving bottom appears identical to the chair of The Cradle that contains the curved broad-bottomed, feminine figure of Madame Roulin. But there is a contradiction. A lighted candle stands erect in the forepart of Gauguin's seat, with two modern novels beside it. If we pursue the hypothesis that these paintings represent body images (there are other aspects to them, to be sure), Gauguin's femininity as expressed in the lines of the chair becomes a cloak for a singularly potent maleness, and Gauguin becomes a woman with a penis--the common fantasy of boys who have observed that some people lack them, fear that the same terrible thing might happen to themselves, and then imagine in desperation that everybody has one. To carry this idea one step further, Gauguin, in this bisexual role, may have represented his loved-feared-hated mother--a dangerous phallic mother of the kind often uncovered during psychoanalysis in the submerged fantasies of male patients whose fears of women and their genitals beget strong homosexual predispositions. (pages 167-68)
In other words, within the subject matter of Gauguin's chair Albert Lubin sees both Vincent's hatred for his mother (there is no biographical evidence for this extreme statement) as well as Van Gogh's latent homosexual desire for Gauguin--a conclusion that Lubin presents elsewhere in his book as seeming fact. Again, Lubin is on safe ground when he cites Gauguin's chair as a "symbolic portrayal of his comrade", but beyond that his interpretations are based on a foundation of quicksand. As Sigmund Freud himself once said: "Sometimes a cigar [or in this case a candle] is just a cigar".

Whatever the range of interpretations, the paintings of the two chairs remain among Vincent's best loved and most beautifully executed works.


1. Jan Hulsker, The New Complete Van Gogh: Paintings, Drawings, Sketches, (p. 376).

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