Van Gogh and Gauguin
The Search for Sacred Art
By Debora Silverman
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 
November 2000; $60.00US/$99.00CAN; 0-374-28243-9

During the Fall of 1888, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin lived and worked together in the town of Arles, in Provence. Until now the Arles period has been interpreted in the light of the temperamental differences between the two painters, culminating in the famous incident in which van Gogh cut off part of his earlobe to spite Gauguin. In Van Gogh and Gauguin, Debora Silverman reinterprets their vexed collaboration: concentrating on their very different religious backgrounds, she traces the quest of each painter to discover a modern form of sacred art to fill the void left by the traditional Christian system that he rejected but could never fully escape, as a man or as an artist. Both artists emerge in startling new ways, as the paintings they produced -- before, during, and after Arles -- are given close readings and new meanings.

At the heart of this beautifully illustrated book -- an art story even more than a personal story - are two contending ways of using paint and canvas for spiritual ends, of putting God in pigment. Silverman uncovers the ethos of the sanctity of labor in the van Gogh family's Dutch Reformed Church, and discovers van Gogh as a weaver-painter and builder of craft tools, seeking to express divinity in the labor forms of paint as woven cloth, plowed earth, and crumbled brick. Gauguin, on the other hand, was educated in a little-known Catholic institution that emphasized release from a corrupt earth and corrupt bodies; Silverman presents him as a penitent sensualist, who turns to painting as a new site to pose the fundamental question of the Catholic catechism -- "Why are we here on earth?" -- and who oscillates between visionary ascent and carnal temptation.

Throughout Van Gogh and Gauguin, Silverman unfolds the cultural meaning of visual form. Analyzing specific pictures, she shows how van Gogh's labor theology pressed him to emphasize the materiality of painting and to embed the sacred in the stuff of matter and the faces of ordinary people. Gauguin's quest for the sacred, by contrast, led him to develop techniques that would dematerialize the physical surface of the canvas as much as possible, emulating the matte permeation of the fresco, for example, or devising unusual forms to represent what he considered the misery of the age and one of its key sources: sexual suffering.

Debora Silverman's book enables the reader to see van Gogh's and Gauguin's art -- from the familiar masterpieces of Arles, Nuenen, and Tahiti to lesser-known drawings and objects -- in constantly new and surprising ways and to appreciate the special character of their nineteenth-century cultures and contexts. This book, the first of its kind, opens up an unmined terrain of central importance: the relationship between religion and modernism.

Debora Silverman holds the University of California President's Chair in Modern European History, Art, and Culture at UCLA. She is the author of Selling Culture and Art Nouveau in Fin-de-Siècle France.

"A highly original and challenging account of the tortuous and revealing relationship between two seminal figures of modern painting. Silverman's revelation frames through which van Gogh and Gauguin saw themselves and the world brings a rich new dimension to the history of art and culture."
--Jerrold Seigel, author of The Private Worlds of Marcel Duchamp: Desire, Liberation, and the Self in Modern Culture

"Debora Silverman's new book discovers an important subject and proceeds to make the most of it. The tremendous encounter between van Gogh and Gauguin, which has been worked over by generations of scholars, receives unexpected illumination, and what had seemed a familiar story emerges deepened and transformed."
--Michael Fried, author of Manet's Modernism: Or, The Face of Painting in the 1860s

"The Friendship between van Gogh and Gauguin is one of the great adventures in modern art. Debora Silverman's book on the subject reminds us that scholarship can be its own rich and stirring adventure."
--Deborah Solomon, author of Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell

The following is an excerpt from the book Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art
by Debora Silverman
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux; November 2000; $60.00US/$99.00CAN; 0-374-28243-9
Copyright © 2000 Debora Silverman


During the fall and winter of 1888, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin lived and worked together in Provence and changed the course of modern art. The relationship between the two artists, which came at a critical point in each of their careers, began as a plan for a new community of artist-brothers who would flourish in a harmonious condition of mutual support. While the two painters never achieved the goal of brotherly harmony, they nonetheless found their creativity spurred by association, and both settled into a productive and stimulating period. This remarkable experiment is remembered largely through the tenses of mythic melodrama, as in the scenes involving the flinging of plates and the squeezing of paint tubes in the film Lust for Life. Images such as these have reduced the collaboration between the two painters to an episode of personal incompatibility culminating in the violent incident, after an argument, when van Gogh cut off part of his left earlobe to spite Gauguin. 

Yet their time together, despite the moments of undeniable volatility, was not dominated by them. Before and after they lived and worked together in Arles, van Gogh and Gauguin were engaged in written correspondence, and their last argument did not end their friendship. More important, the emotionalist rendering obscures the significance of van Gogh and Gauguin's relationship, propelled in part by a shared quest of utmost gravity to the two artists and their comrades in the late 1880s: how to discover a new and modern form of sacred art to fill the void left by the religious systems that they were struggling to abandon but that had nonetheless left indelible imprints in their consciousness, shaping their theories of life, attitudes toward reality, choice of subjects, and repertoire of artistic techniques. The sources of the meeting points and tensions in van Gogh and Gauguin's association lie, this book argues, in the different religious traditions that formed them, and the different mental frameworks and Stylistic practices that issued from them as each tried to absorb for painting a core of spiritual tasks hitherto fulfilled by the church he had encountered and resisted.

This book reconsiders the very different ways that van Gogh and Gauguin defined their art in the period just before, during, and after their collaboration in Arles, and identifies the roots of their incompatible artistic projects in a new source: their divergent religious legacies and educational formations. It provides a close comparative reading of major pictures produced by the two artists and of the ideas they expressed about them, in the light of research on the Protestant and Catholic origins of the differences between van Gogh's and Gauguin's artistic theories, self-definitions, and painting styles. The traditional emphasis on personal and temperamental differences between van Gogh and Gauguin here cedes to new evidence on the particular salience of religious and cultural impediments to their collaboration. The goal of the book is not to give a comprehensive account of both artists but to isolate how each expressed theologically specific assumptions, problems, and preoccupations in his painting, which deepened the differences between them even as they tried to work together on similar subjects in similar sites.

The book grew out of another project, and evolved from a single interpretive biography of van Gogh to a dual study of the religious mentalities and visual forms of the two painters. In 1994 I was preparing the second half of a book tracing van Gogh's identification with craft labor and the particular Dutch Reformed culture and conflicts that shaped its development. Turning to the Arles period of 1888, I was exploring how van Gogh adapted new and old techniques as he familiarized himself with his new environment, responded to the strangeness and pervasiveness of Catholic popular piety in Provence, and continued to wrestle with unresolved dilemmas of his Dutch culture's specifically contested redefinitions of faith and works, nature and divinity, and immanence and transcendence. These themes and research remain at the core of the analysis and will be unfolded in the chapters that follow. I decided to reframe the book as a sustained duet, however, when I encountered unexpectedly rich materials on Gauguin and the period before and after his collaboration with van Gogh. I had planned to write two chapters on van Gogh's association with Gauguin along the lines of "Protestant modernist meets secular egotist"; instead I found a Gauguin as beset by religious problems and preoccupations as van Gogh, although he expressed those problems and preoccupations in a different register and with different consequences for his art.

Gauguin is familiar to us in part as a voluptuary, and he has been presented, rightly, as a ferocious self-promoter, rapacious egotist, and ambivalent colonialist. But I learned, much to my surprise, that he was also a product of a French seminary education, and that he was agitated throughout his life by enduring problems of his lapsed Catholic faith, an agitation unrelieved by the solace of the religion he rejected. In approaching the period of his association with van Gogh, I was struck by a particular expressive pattern of Gauguin's that was very different from van Gogh's, which provoked me to explore further the importance of his Catholic formation. This pattern encompassed, for example, a definition of material reality as inevitably corrupted, even perfidious; a language of sacrifice and the martyrology of the modern artist; and a linking of the infernal to the internal, where creativity was grounded in an expanded subjectivity and the necessary cultivation of the "hell fires of the mind." 

I traced some of the sources of this expressive pattern to Gauguin's education in an Orléans Catholic junior seminary, where he was taught by the Bishop of Orléans, Monseigneur Félix-Antoine-Philibert Dupanloup, an important educational reformer. Dupanloup is well known to French historians as an architect of the Falloux Law, which assured the future security of French Catholicism, shaken by the Revolution of 1848, by revitalizing parochial education and legalizing state funding for it, an arrangement still in place to this day. During Gauguin's time, Bishop Dupanloup developed a new, more dynamic catechism that encouraged students to move beyond dry recitation to sacred silence, to engage in active interior interrogations of supernatural beings, such as angels, and to elicit a state of visionary release from a treacherous earthly world and the debasements of carnality. I was intrigued by how Gauguin may have assimilated from his seminary training certain mental habits and attitudes toward the visual that were profoundly discordant with those I had identified in van Gogh's formative period in his Dutch theological culture, and I suspected that these distinctive mentalities had implications for the form and content of their work. The results presented here, after additional years of research and close comparative scrutiny of letters and pictures, suggest that religious legacies provide a new point of entry with which to consider the tensions in van Gogh and Gauguin's collaboration, to offer new readings of some of their major paintings, and to assess the wider resonances of their debates about technique, matter, and memory as they tested the limits of painting as a figurative language.

At the heart of the analysis -- an art story more than a personal story -- are two contending approaches to pictorial practice with a paradoxical shared goal: to achieve spiritual ends through the plastic means of pigment, canvas, and primer. Van Gogh is presented as a weaver-painter and manipulator of craft optical tools, who seeks sanctification in the labor forms of paint as woven cloth, crumbled brick, and plowed earth, and reclaims in Arles the challenges of a mid-nineteenth-century Dutch "modern theology" that placed special emphasis on the arts as evocative forms of an immanent divinity. Gauguin, by contrast, is presented as an ambivalent pénitent, or penitent sensualist, who turns to painting as a new site to pose and interrogate the fundamental and irresolvable question of the Catholic catechism -- "Why are we here on earth?" -- and explores, in 1888 and after, a dialectic of visionary ascent and carnal affliction. As we will see, van Gogh's labor theology presses him to maximize the materialization of the painting surface, working the image of work on the canvas; and his engagement with the ideas of the Dutch "modern theology" deepens his impulses to "render the infinite tangible," as he put it, embedding the sacred in the stuff of matter and the faces of ordinary people. Gauguin's quest for sacrality immerses him in developing stylistic practices to dematerialize the physical surface of the canvas as much as possible, emulating the matte permeation of the fresco, for example, as he sought to efface the distance between a deficient material world and the ineffable world of dream and the divine, or devising unusual technical forms of chafing and parching to represent what he considered the lamentational condition of modern misery and one of its key sources: sexual suffering. While both van Gogh and Gauguin thus pursue this peculiar but, for them, absolutely essential project -- of painting as a mediator of divinity -- the ways they approach it are very different, corresponding to some elements of their distinctive theological cultures. 


By focusing on van Gogh and Gauguin, I want to raise a larger issue for reinterpreting modernism: we need to reemphasize the critical role of religion in the development of modernism, to bring religion back into the story of artists' mentalities and formations. Basic questions and research on religion and modernism are radically underdeveloped, especially for the decisive transitional period of the 1880s. We tend to oversecularize the avant-garde, and our approaches are too dependent on a model of modernism generated by the national context that gave the avant-garde its name and institutional practice in the nineteenth century: France. Here a succession of presumably defiant, anti-clerical, and deracinated groups of cultural innovators engaged in a century-long battle against bankrupt bourgeois philistinism. These French-inspired categories lose their hold and reliability, however, when we explore artistic production in nineteenth-century Britain, the Netherlands, and Germany, even as they trivialize the profound and enduring significance of religious legacies and conflicts for artists in the French context itself. 

In highlighting religion, I suggest an attentiveness to the role of religiosity in generating the form, structure, and content of varied types of modernist expressive arts. Here I am less interested in charting the symbols and iconography of religious aspiration than in exploring the underlying resources and tensions generated by varying religious traditions in specific national contexts, and their varying conceptions of the status of the self, the value of the image, and the meaning of the visible world. This approach privileges religious legacies not as a matter of conventional religious practice, or the inclusion of overt, surface symbols, but as formative structures, or mental frameworks and filters, that are mediated through the institutions of educational formation. Considered in this way as habits of mind or "mental equipment," religious legacies may be analyzed historically as providing painters with particular resources and constraints, shaping in part the ways artists approach reality, how they consider the status of the sensual in their craft, the density of the artist's touch, the relation between perception and conception, and the vocation of the artist as a purveyor of meaning and value.

In broadening the historical field to include religion as part of a social analysis of modernist art, we begin to encounter phenomena missed by the secular model of the avant-garde, such as, for example, the way Protestant and Catholic traditions in distinctive national contexts may have shaped different kinds of artists' receptivity, or resistance, to idealism and abstraction in the 1880s. I've been intrigued in my research by a correlation between mid-nineteenth-century Catholic formation and the definition of abstraction; the first language and practice of abstraction emerges between 1886 and 1890 within circles of Parisian artists who shared a French seminary education, a site where supernaturalist Catholicism, idealist Neo-Platonism, and avant-garde symbolism came together in a dynamic cultural mix. The links here are not static or monolithic, but the question of their interrelation has not been posed, nor has the religious training of particular artists been incorporated into analyses of their radical breaks from naturalism. The painter Edouard Vuillard, for example, attended a Marist seminary, where he submitted to a regimen of hourly prayer to the Virgin; the writer Octave Mirbeau was schooled by the Jesuits; Auguste Rodin spent time in a Paris monastery. These internal strains and variations within French Catholicism, as well as their shared habits of inwardness and otherworldliness, must be specified; they can be treated with the nuance and historical complexity that scholars have shown in reconstructing the class ambivalences, shifting markers of social perception, and gendered assumptions of avant-garde painters and their visual forms.

Before we attempt these kinds of accounts, however, we need to start with more basic questions, and with case studies. The questions may seem obvious, after the fact, but they haven't been posed. How, for example, did Vuillard's years of hourly supplication to a holy female figure relate to his art of the 1890s, marked by an almost obsessive concentration on a maternal figure -- his own mother -- who is the lone shape of embodiment amidst radically destabilized visual surfaces of disaggregated pieces of things, what Vuillard called the "intimate whirlwind" that he could re-create only bit by bit? And how was it that van Gogh and Gauguin settled on labor and the dream to engage the sacred in 1888 and after, thereby exposing the pressure points of their theological cultures in transformation? I hope now to suggest some answers to this last question. 

*Endnotes were omitted

Copyright © 2000 Debora Silverman

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