How Vincent Van Gogh Explored A Complicated Relationship With Paul Gauguin

Lost souls, debate partners, and BFFs: Van Gogh’s relationship drama is as intense as it gets.

Vincent Van Gogh, the famous Dutch painter of the 19th century, probably lived the most archetypical life of a struggling, under-appreciated artist. While he was close to his brother, as far as non-familial relationships went, he didn’t have many people he could count on. Vincent wasn’t popular, either as an artist or as a person. His love life was unstable and repeatedly devastating. He had a few painter friends in Paris, most of whom were caught in the breeze of Impressionism, a style of painting that used soft colors to depict natural light. As it happened, Vincent didn’t quite identify with Impressionism, and his original artistic style didn’t secure him a place in the Parisian art world.

When he moved to Arles – a town in the south of France – to get a bit of fresh air, he found himself to be the victim of bullying by the local youths. He liked to wear a straw hat, which wasn’t exactly fashionable, combined with his hunched figure and darting eyes that observed everything (an artist’s trait,) he was a target of ridicule. The straw hat, in fact, signified a key facet in his belief – that nature and all things natural were under-appreciated by modern people.

In Arles, he sent many letters to urge the painters in Paris to join him. Anticipating a joyful, communal living space for himself and his friends, he had his apartment painted in a fresh yellow color and named it the “Yellow House.” He would also paint huge paintings of flowers and landscapes that he would then put up on the walls to wow newcomers. No one came for a long time. There was always one empty bedroom next to his own.

It’s quite a detriment to your self-esteem when you paint a house, invite all of your friends, and not one of them comes to warm your house. In fact, his mind grew quite ill during his time in Arles. Amid the constant bullying and isolation, Vincent retreated further and further into his mind, producing painting after ambitious painting until he was burnt out. You can imagine the sheer excitement when he received notice that, after multiple letters explaining his delay, someone finally decided to join him in Arles.

Bedroom in Arles
Bedroom in Arles. PHOTO Wikipedia

Vincent was so excited for Paul Gauguin’s arrival that he suggested they send each other self-portraits. This was not to familiarize themselves with each other, for they had briefly met before. We can say this was an early form of what we see in modern-day dating apps: through their portraits, each of them sought to articulate their own personalities and self-images to the other. Already, between their portraits, there were some apparent contrasts: Gauguin’s self-portrait was inspired by Jean Valjean, the hero of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. Gauguin saw himself as an outcast and a victim of society (his works did not enjoy a lot of acknowledgement, much like Vincent’s) but eventually, as a hero, who was confident in his own philosophies and art. Vincent’s portrait, on the other hand, bled with uncertainty and mystery. His combination of “ash-gray” and “reddish-brown” was difficult to harmonize; his features were “gaunt” and “icy.” In his letter to Gauguin he described the self-portrait as reflecting a Japanese monk — someone who did not enjoy the social spotlight but was contemplative and spiritual. Vincent wished to appear humble, like a timid pupil, in front of Gauguin, who was more self-assured and had already garnered a small but passionate group of young artists that followed him around.

Paul Gauguin Self Portrait
“Self-Portrait with Portrait of Émile Bernard (Les Misérables) (Paul Gauguin, 1888.) Credit: Van Gogh Museum
Van Gogh Self Portrait
Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin (Vincent Van Gogh, 1888.) Credit: President and Fellows of Harvard College – Harvard Art Museums

Gauguin’s arrival was one of “the most exhilarating but also the most anxious moments of Vincent’s life,” writes Martin Gayford, in The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Provence. Vincent had become obsessed about sharing a life with Gauguin and was beyond anxious with the need to prove to him that it was worth living with him in the Yellow House. The couple of months they spent together in the House were packed with heated debates between the two, concerning what each believed should be the future course of art. Gauguin emphasized painting from the imagination while Vincent believed it crucial to start from the natural world. In fact, their disagreement was so all-consuming and irreconcilable that it would eventually lead Gauguin to leave the House. That night, in a fit of confusion and mental illness, Vincent cut off his own ear.

Gauguin’s Chair

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam currently houses the world’s biggest collection of Vincent Van Gogh’s works. Some of these are instantly recognizable by a global audience: the radiant Sunflowers (1888) and a quaint, slightly disorienting Bedroom in Arles (1888), just to name a couple.

But on my visit, the one that really stood out to me was a simple painting of a chair. Called Gauguin’s Chair (1888), Van Gogh painted the chair that Gauguin would always sit on during his time in the Yellow House during their artistic discussions. The chair is wooden; a little rustic-looking but still retaining its sophisticated sheen. A person of big imagination, Gauguin loved to read novels, and Vincent acknowledges this by placing two of them on his seat. The wallpaper behind it is a dark, rich green, but in the actual House, the walls were all white. A theme often found throughout Vincent’s works was the ways in which he twisted perception through using colors that were not representative of real-life, but of emotions and context. Here, we see Van Gogh’s acceptance of and great admiration for his best friend, even amid frequent disputes between the two.

Van Gogh - Gauguin's Chair
Gauguin’s Chair (Vincent Van Gogh, 1888). Credit: The Art Newspaper

There is in fact a partner to this painting of Gauguin’s Chair, which is Van Gogh’s Chair (1888-89), painted by Vincent himself. Sitting in The National Gallery in London, this one is much more modest-looking and simple. The color and texture of the straw on the seat is emphasized, and upon it lies tobacco and a pipe, which he used very often. Part of a door is seen in the background and a box of onions lies in a corner. In contrast to Gauguin’s emphasis on the imaginary, Vincent was a passionate man of the earth. He felt that humans were in their truest state when they were embracing the cycle of life and death, which was when they were immersed in nature, not in city life. The door in the back possibly leads to outdoors, which was where Vincent found solace the most.

Van Gogh's Chair
Van Gogh’s Chair (Vincent Van Gogh, 1888-1889.) Credit: Wikidata

These two unoccupied chairs are theorized by art critics to be a kind of self-portraits of the individuals who used them. Vincent shows his appreciation for the friendship between himself and Gauguin through the details by which he expresses their contrasting personalities. In reality, the two chairs looked quite similar to each other:

Van Gogh Yellow House - Two Chairs
What the two chairs actually looked like. Diorama of Arles, displayed at the Exposition Coloniale, Marseille (1906) postcard. Credit: The Art Newspaper

Their friendship was a flame that burned too strongly and died too quickly. To Vincent, the deterioration of their relationship was so painful that he felt — quite literally, by cutting off his ear — he lost a part of himself. Not having a spouse, this was perhaps the only time he experienced living and communicating so intimately with someone outside of his blood-relative. This tears my heart, and gives me a fresh eye to admire the increasingly vivid paintings he managed to produce between this episode and the day of his suicide.

Today, the two chairs are showcased in different cities – one in Amsterdam, the other in London. Although the two friends never could see eye-to-eye with each other while they lived, Vincent’s appreciation for their camaraderie lives on in inspiring detail and style. It is magical, really, to find yourself even one friend like that during your lifetime.

Lyon Nishizawa


Lyon is a lifelong traveler, who looks at each destination as her next classroom and playground. She is fascinated by the stories, music, and languages of the world. Her parents are Japanese, but she spent her childhood in multiple cultures and identifies as a third culture kid.

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