Van Gogh vs Gauguin

Paul Gauguin, Still Life with Sunflowers on an Armchair, 1901, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

Paul Gauguin, Still Life with Sunflowers on an Armchair, 1901, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

By Magdalena Polak

Arles 1888: Vincent van Gogh paints sunflowers. He is obsessed with the colour yellow, seeing it as uplifting. Over and over he produces still lives of sunflowers, all in an attempt to lure Paul Gauguin into coming to Arles. Van Gogh dreams of an artistic colony, a place where artists could paint without any restrictions from bourgeois Paris, and sees Gaugin as the perfect partner.Paul Gauguin is not keen on moving in with the socially awkward and shy Van Gogh. He finally reluctantly agrees only because of a deal he makes with Theo van Gogh, Vincent’s brother. Theo would finance their entire livelihood, including Gauguin’s journey down to Arles, for an exchange of one painting per month. Gauguin goes, never with the intention of staying for a long time, though certainly not anticipating a fight that would mark one of the biggest myths of the History of Art.

Tahiti 1901: Gauguin has exiled himself to French Polynesia and now paints sunflowers himself. Vincent has been dead for 11 years, yet Gauguin cannot seem to bring himself to forget him. He mentions him over and over in his autobiography “Avant et Après”. Though he is condescending in his appraisal of van Gogh’s artistic talent, claiming that it was he who had first started experimenting with the colour yellow, there is an element of melancholy in the description of his peer. Gauguin mentions that thinking of van Gogh helps him in times of depression, as he knows no matter how much he is suffering, van Gogh suffered double.

Vincent Van Gogh, Sunflowers 4th Version, 1888, National Gallery London

Vincent Van Gogh, Sunflowers 4th Version, 1888, National Gallery London

Is this melancholy an expression of regret? Or guilt?

Van Gogh and Gauguin are an odd pair in the History of Art. They share so many similarities and were still the complete opposite in character; their friendship seems one of the most ill-matched and yet most perfect in the way they stimulated each other’s creativity.

Both were self-taught, who had turned to art at a relatively late age- Vincent at the age of 27, Paul at the age of 33. Both were disgusted with Paris Bourgeois society and their taste in art and were united in their interest in the exotic and their wish to travel. They were both fascinated by Japanese prints, incorporating elements of them into their art.

Despite all this, they could not have been more different. Paul Gauguin was born into a privileged family, raised in Lima, Peru, by a wealthy uncle and having travelled the world as a young man due to his joining the Navy. He had been a very successful stockbroker before becoming an artist, was married and had 5 children. The exchange from a settled bourgeois life for a bohemian artistic one had been deliberate.

Vincent van Gogh, on the other hand, had been born into a deeply religious Dutch family, perhaps not poor, but certainly not as well off as Gauguin’s family. Just like Gauguin, van Gogh worked in other professions first, first as a bookseller, then as a pastor. However, he had never been successful with either.

Character wise, Paul Gauguin seemed to be the funny, charismatic, aggressive and masculine one, whom the ladies adored and who had no problems finding models to paint. Van Gogh was the odd one, shy, direct, a mixture between socially awkward and extremely stubborn. It had happened more than once that van Gogh had lost an employment or been asked to leave a place because he made its inhabitants uncomfortable.

Artistically, though interested in similar things, they were always at odds with one another. While van Gogh loved painting out of doors and capturing the light, taking landscape artists like Jean-François Millet as his role model, Gauguin preferred painting from memory and inside his studio, twisting his works into what he wanted them to be, and adoring the straight lines of Jean-Dominique Ingres and being fascinated by Raffael. Their mutual stubbornness and unwillingness to compromise made it very difficult to find common grounds. Accounts remain from both sides telling in detail about the arguments they were having, the most famous being the last one on the night of 23 December 1888, which caused Vincent to slice his ear off and Paul to hastily get back to Paris.

Interestingly, a theory has come up recently, mostly promoted by the German art historians Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans, that it had not been van Gogh himself, but actually Gauguin who had cut the ear off in the heat of the argument. One possible clue for this was the fact that Gauguin was a very keen fencer and had actually brought several sabres with him to Arles. Additionally, the fact that the cut was clean, as if brought on by one swift, direct cut, could also indicate that it had been applied by another person. Finally, Gauguin, had, previously to leaving for Paris, been able to give a full record to the police of how and when van Gogh had sliced it off, how he had presented it to a prostitute from the brothel that they both frequently visited, all the while claiming that he (Gauguin) had not been present in the act. This strikes one as very odd. However, it fit well with the Arlesians’ attitude of van Gogh being a madman who was potentially harmful, and so it might very well have been that the police were satisfied with this report, especially since van Gogh was forced to leave Arles shortly after, due to the villagers’ discomfort in his presence.

It is, until this day, entirely unclear what had happened during that night. It is important to note that the Van-Gogh Museum in Amsterdam rejects this theory, standing for the generally accepted version that it was van Gogh who had sliced off his ear during a nervous breakdown as an expression of his fear of Gauguin’s leaving.


Despite the unlucky ending of the 9 weeks the two lived together, one can safely assume that it was one of the most fruitful collaborations of two artists. During these 9 weeks, Gauguin managed to finish 16 paintings, while Van Gogh made over 32. I would like to conclude with one of Van Gogh’s paintings from this time showing Gauguin’s influence on his creative work, implying that, though being of entirely different opinions, they did shape each other’s work. Van Gogh’s The Sower from 1888 was one of the few paintings that he painted not en plein air, but in his studio, just like Gauguin. It shows a man sowing grain in a field with a sinking sun, the man being in the foreground with an outstretched hand, as if he was gesturing for us to come closer. The painting’s centre seems to be a diagonal tree trunk, whose shape mirrors that of the sower and disrupts the painting in a way that makes the painting also reminiscent of a Japanese print. The figure’s averted face, as well as the fact that it is in a semi shadow, evokes a gloomy atmosphere that could be interpreted as a prefigurative of death, perhaps not a personal one, but an expression of van Gogh’s fear of a coming to end of the artistic collaboration of the project Gauguin-Van Gogh- Arles, which occurred so shortly after the finishing of this painting.

As one can see with van Gogh’s Sower, as well as Gauguin’s Sunflowers, while there had been tremendous arguments between the two, one cannot argue that they did not have a lasting impact on one another. Van Gogh would not have become the van Gogh we know now without Gauguin, and Gauguin would not have become the escapist artist we have come to love, despite his weird obsessions with under aged Tahitian girls, without van Gogh and his extraordinary love of yellow.

Vincent Van Gogh, The Sower, 1888, Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam

Vincent Van Gogh, The Sower, 1888, Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam