Gauguin versus Van Gogh - Their Art-Making Argument / by Jeannine Cook

When Paul Gauguin finally came south from Brittany to spend time with Vincent Van Gogh in the famous Yellow House in Arles in 1888, one of the many arguments that erupted between the two artists still has huge relevance for practically every artist today.

The argument boils down to the different approach to creating art. Should one work from real life, often plein air, as Van Gogh believed, or should one create art de tête, from one's head, by using prior drawings and painted studies, composed and executed in the studio, as Gauguin did?

Alychamps, Vincent Van Gogh, 1888, oil on canvas, Private collection
Alyschamps,Arles, Paul Gauguin, 1888, oil on canvas, (Image courtesy of Musée d'Orsay)

These two paintings were among the initial salvos in this argument between the two artists.  Gauguin chose Les Alyschamps as a destination for painting, a place that Van Gogh had not talked of during his earlier seven months in Arles.  It had  been a necropolis since  Roman times, and over the centuries had evolved into a sacred burying ground, before having a railway track put through and the tombs destroyed.  By the 1880s, Arles' city government had transformed the debris into an allée with trees and gardens, a rendez vous for lovers and parading city dwellers.

As the days went past, Van Gogh and Gauguin continued to be more at odds than not, as is vividly detailed in the superb book, Van Gogh: A Life, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. As they write, "Vincent wanted to paint: Gauguin wanted to draw.  Vincent wanted to rush into the countryside at the first opportunity: Gauguin demanded a "period of incubation" - a month at least - to wander about, sketching and "learning the essence" of the place.  Vincent loved to paint en  plein air; Gauguin preferred to work indoors.  He saw their expeditions as fact-finding missions, opportunities to gather sketches - "documents" he called them - that he could synthesize into tableaux in the calm and reflection of the studio. Vincent championed spontaneity and serendipity....; Gauguin constructed his images slowly and methodically, trying out forms and blocking in colours.  Vincent flung himself at the canvas headlong with a loaded brush and fierce intent: Gauguin built up his surfaces in tranquil sessions of careful brushstrokes...." (pp.671-72).

The Night Café, Vincent Van Gogh, 1888, oil on canvas (Image courtesy of the Yale University art Gallery, New Haven)
Night Café at Arles (Mme.Ginoux), Paul Gauguin, 1888, oil on canvas, (Image courtesy of Pushkin Museum, Moscow)

Earlier that year, Vincent Van Gogh had lugged his heavy easel into the all-night Café de la Gare in Arles, for three nights in a row, to paint its garish "clashes and contrasts", human and material.  Later, in the deadly psychological warfare that had broken out between Gauguin and Van Gogh, Gauguin drew a study of the wife of the Café's owner, Madame Ginoux.  Behind her in the painting he then did, he changed the viewpoint of Van Gogh's  café scene, inserting images cherished by Van Gogh, but he produced in essence a close evocation of Van Gogh's Café.  However, Gauguin created this imagined café scene in the studio, not in the Café de la Gare.

Pure imagination, arbitrary colour, invented compositions versus "surrendering myself to nature" as Van Gogh preferred to do, celebrating "the things that exist", as Vincent's brother, Theo, once observed; that remained the tussle between them.  There were many ramifications to this contrasting way of creating art, but part of Van Gogh's difficulty was often with the depiction of human figures.  He needed models in front of him to be able to grapple with the human form, and even then with difficulty.  He felt uncomfortable with the "more mysterious character" of the imagined scene.

During a rainy spell, Gauguin challenged Van Gogh to paint a scene from memory that Van Gogh ironically had described vividly to him a short time before.  He had told Gauguin how the vineyards at the base of Montmajour, past which they were walking, had looked a few weeks previously, during grape harvest.  He had told of the workers, the vivid colours and how these women had looked in the intense, autumnal sun. 

The Red Vineyard at Arles, Vincent Van Gogh, 1888, oil, on canvas (Image courtesy of the Puskin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow)
Grape Harvest at Arles, Paul Gauguin, 1888, oil on canvas, (image courtesy of the Ordrupgaard Collection, Copenhagen)

Van Gogh used old drawings and relied on his knowledge of field workers.  By contrast, Gauguin reverted to the labourers of Brittany, not those of Provence, and with his enigmatic composition and depiction of the the two introverted figures, he raises more questions than gives answers.  His painting was a far cry from Van Gogh's more predictable, if a little awkward, painting of the grape harvest.

Van Gogh soon gave the de tête version of art another try.  He was triggered by family letters and waves of nostalgia to travel back mentally to his childhood home in Etten, Holland.  He imagines the two ladies he depicts might be his mother and his sister; he uses compositional tricks Gauguin used to wind through the canvas, leading the viewer to Midi cypress trees and the brilliantly hued gardens his mother used to cultivate.

Ladies of Arles (Memories of the Garden at Etten), Vincent Van Gogh, oil on canvas, 1888, (Image courtesy of the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg)

Old Women of Arles, Paul Gauguin, oil on canvas, 1888, (Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago)

Once more, the two men created such different works - hardly surprising, however.  Again and again, as the days passed in The Yellow House,  the tensions flared between the two men. One painting in particular that Gauguin did of Van Gogh sums up his ability to go for the jugular... and how poisonous the atmosphere had become between the two protagonists.

Vincent Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers, Paul Gauguin, oil on canvas, 1888, (Image courtesy of Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)

The rows and temporary amnesties eventually only ended when Gauguin left Arles and precipitated the famous ear-slicing episode that everyone remembers about Vincent Van Gogh.  

Yet those same issues - how to create art, no matter of what description, persist to this day.  Most of us oscillate between the two camps, sometimes working from real life, often en plein air.  At other times, imagined compositions, mosaics of different images placed together to create messages, images, ideas, predominate in our work.  The head versus the eye - every artist knows the argument.

Perhaps Van Gogh's remark in a letter to Theo sums up the situation we all know about: "In spite of himself and in spite of me, Gauguin has more or less proved to me that it is time I was varying my work a little."  In other words, be open to experimentation and change...