“I would so much like to imbue you with a large share of my faith that we shall succeed in starting something that will endure.”
Van Gogh wrote those words to Gauguin three weeks before they began living together in the Yellow House in Arles. The two artists lived together in the “Studio of the South” for nine weeks. In Vincent’s two famous chair paintings, we see his impression of the spirit of each man, made manifest on canvas through the portrayal of inanimate furniture.
He painted his own chair facing right and Gauguin’s chair facing left. Consequently, when the two paintings are presented together, they produce a synergistic effect. Viewing them together, we can see clearly what Vincent was getting at. When positioned facing outward from each other, (as they usually are), they are portraits of two highly disparate souls, never to find unity. When placed facing toward each other, their differences and tumultuous problems fade and the underlying spiritual bond emerges.
Though both artists are now recognized as cutting edge masters, they discovered an enormous rift in their approach to painting. Ensuing debates, sometimes turning ugly, left them frazzled and unhappy. It seems that the fire ignited by their proximity burned too hot for comfort. Eventually, rather than becoming violent toward Gauguin, van Gogh cut off his own earlobe and landed himself in the hospital.
Van Gogh’s painting of his own yellow chair in the Yellow House is full of light and lightheartedness. Witnessing this, it would seem that the tension he and Gauguin experienced while trying to find a way to live in harmony together affected Vincent not at all (though the world now knows better). He pictures his chair in a carefree manner, employing his usual methods of heavy texture, outlining, and the juxtaposition of complementary colors.
The wooden chair itself, positioned in the center of the canvas, is turned outward to show off its rustic beauty and offset by a brick-red tile floor and a sea-green wall. The only object in the painting, other than his pipe and tobacco on the straw seat of the chair, is a box with the artist’s characteristic “Vincent” signature on it. The box is the same yellow wood as the chair, and contains unidentifiable things that may or may not be painting paraphernalia. The entire effect is simple and warm, almost childlike.
By contrast, Vincent’s painting of Gauguin’s chair is quite formal. Undeniably a van Gogh masterpiece, it still emits a heavy feeling of rigor. The brown wooden armchair, lovely in its curving structure, is thickly outlined in black. The ornately patterned reddish rug under the chair displays an inexorable perspective on its way to the stark green wall, which occupies more than one-third of the canvas. The painting comes off as darkly ponderous.
Gauguin’s chair, also in the center of the canvas facing outward, does not seem as important to the viewer as the wall lamp, the burning candle and the books resting on its green cushion. It’s impossible not to see these simple objects depicted with light colors, as symbols. Knowledge and illumination are carefully presented here as part and parcel of his friend’s spirit.
Though their relationship became so stormy it practically undid each of them, ironically, it was the catalyst of change for both their careers, in due course furthering the progress of modern art in the western world. This, then, is van Gogh’s enduring legacy, and his goal of creating “something that will endure” was realized, though not in the way he envisioned