Friends or Foes? Paul Gauguin and Van Gogh’s Relationship

The story of Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh’s tumultuous relationship is as intense as a Shakespearean play and has the potential to become a blockbuster movie. Several biographers and journalists have reported the incident of Van Gogh’s self mutilation, but very few ponder upon the circumstances leading up to it. In Paul Gauguin’s Intimate Journals, we get a glimpse of their relationship replete with drama, love and action. 

How it all Began

In the fall of 1888, Paul Gauguin moved to Arles in Paris, upon Van Gogh’s insistence. A plethora of Van Gogh paintings left Gauguin unimpressed as he noted in his journal: “I don’t admire the painting but I admire the man.” While Van Gogh was proud of his city and its wonders, Gauguin called it “the dirtiest hole in the South”

Vincent Van Gogh paintings are famous today because of their ethereal beauty. However, it's interesting to note that some of the most famous Van Gogh paintings were conceived by him in a troubled state of mind- the signs of which Gauguin could see early on in their relationship. But, Van Gogh’s artistic prowess overshadowed his initial doubts. 

Gauguin wrote in his journal: “In the first place, everywhere and in everything I found a disorder that shocked me. His colour-box could hardly contain all those tubes, crowded together and never closed. In spite of all this disorder, this mess, something shone out of his canvases and out of his talk, too…”

Van Gogh’s reverence towards his “master”

Van Gogh’s aim was to start an artists’ colony with Gauguin at the helm of affairs, mentoring everyone like him. He often referred to him as “master” and greatly valued Gauguin’s opinion of his work. In turn, Gauguin was also influenced by Van Gogh as the two spent nine weeks together. One of the most famous Paul Gauguin art pieces from this time was The Painter of Sunflowers. This was a portrait of Van Gogh and highlighted his focussed gaze on the canvas. 

It was with this purpose of creating an artists’ colony that Van Gogh bought the ‘Yellow House’, intending to turn it into a studio. However, Paul Gauguin did not share his enthusiasm for this idea. He was content with overseeing a multitude of Van Gogh paintings, as his pupil remained receptive towards the constructive criticism he received. The now-famous genre of Gauguin landscape paintings started taking shape in Arles, with artworks like Landscape near Arles and Old Women of Arles. Any conversation around Paul Gauguin landscape paintings is incomplete without mentioning Night Café in Arles, Madame Ginoux which was painted in response to a Van Gogh artwork: The Night Café in the Place Lamartine in Arles

During this period, the two artists produced a large body of work for which they are revered till date. 

Trouble in paradise

Though they were living together, the two artists functioned very differently. Van Gogh was led by the fantasies of his mind while Gauguin had a more rational approach towards art. They would have heated exchanges on the purpose of art and the artistic route they wished to take in their professional lives. Van Gogh wanted an artists’ enclave of sorts where like-minded people could exchange ideas and paint in idyllic harmony. Gauguin was against any unnecessary expenditure and didn’t wish to expand this artistic collaboration. 

Their relationship grew fraught with frequent outbursts on Van Gogh’s part. He once threw a glass of absinthe at him which, thankfully, missed the mark. Gauguin wrote about the incident in his journal:

“...he flung the glass and its contents at my head. I avoided the blow and, taking him boldly in my arms, went out of the café, across the Place Victor Hugo. Not many minutes later, Vincent found himself in his bed where, in a few seconds, he was asleep, not to awaken again till morning.

When he awoke, he said to me very calmly, “My dear Gauguin, I have a vague memory that I offended you last evening.”

This was perhaps the beginning of the end of their artistic collaboration. 

The final straw

The fateful night of 23rd December 1988 marked the end of Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh’s nine-week long torrid partnership. Gauguin recounts the incident in his journal: 

“I had almost crossed the Place Victor Hugo when I heard behind me a well-known step, short, quick, irregular. I turned about on the instant as Vincent rushed toward me, an open razor in his hand. My look at the moment must have had great power in it, for he stopped and, lowering his head, set off running towards home.”

Van Gogh cut off a part of his ear, wrapped it up and gave it to a woman he frequently visited in a brothel, leaving her screaming with trepidation. Gauguin spent that night in a hotel and left Paris the next day. 

Within a year, he had settled in Tahiti and the beautiful era of Paul Gauguin Tahitian paintings had begun as he created some of his most important and renowned works. Meanwhile, Van Gogh was admitted in an asylum where he painted several of his masterpieces. The two artists continued to correspond via letters. However, the proximity they shared in the Yellow House in 1888 was lost. 

January 02, 2021 — Team Bimba