The turbulent two months that Gauguin and van Gogh spent together in Arles in 1888 have been described in movies and popular novels as well as by art historians. They were, in many accounts, peintres maudits, quintessential Romantic artists who were mocked and misunderstood by conventional society in their own time and only later could be seen as tragic heroes of modern art.

Among the many recent books and exhibitions devoted to these artists, two in particular have original things to say. In Technique and Meaning in the Paintings of Paul Gauguin, Vojtech Jirat-Wasiutynå«ski and H. Travers Newton Jr. draw on the results of scientific study of Gauguin’s canvases to show how the use of unorthodox techniques and materials can be linked with the “primitivism” of earlier European and non-European arts, particularly with the bold painting of early Renaissance frescoes. In Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art, Debora Silverman analyzes the paintings of the two artists of the later 1880s in the light of their religious origins, van Gogh’s in Dutch Reformed Protestantism, Gauguin’s in Catholicism, particularly in the teachings of a leading Jesuit who dominated the seminary he attended in Orléans.

Both books demonstrate the great differences between the two painters, and show the arbitrariness of the label “Post-Impressionism.” Since Roger Fry organized the 1910 exhibition that gave currency to this term, van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat, and Cézanne have been linked together by it. The more closely we look into their paintings, however, the less they seem to suggest a coherent style. Seurat, the youngest of the four, pursued such a distinctive style that the entire movement called Neo-Impressionism centered on him; Cézanne, the oldest, belongs with his contemporaries, the Impressionists, rather than with the younger artists; van Gogh and Gauguin had vastly different conceptions of painting. Each learned from the Impressionists but traveled along divergent paths.

Technique and Meaning in the Paintings of Paul Gauguin is the first book showing not just that Gauguin apprenticed himself to the Impressionists, but also that he systematically created a new way of painting. Although most critics assumed there was a lurching irregularity in Gauguin’s shift from being a Sunday painter to being a serious apprentice before he became a full-time professional in 1885, Jirat-Wasiutynå«ski and Newton demonstrate that his methods were calculated and orderly, and that the image of him as an amateur rebelling against all previous systems is quite wrong.

A professor of art history at Queen’s University in Canada, Jirat-Wasiutynå«ski has been writing on Gauguin since 1974, and Newton, a fine arts conservator, has collaborated with him since 1984 in several essays on Gauguin’s techniques. In their new book, they concentrate on a handful of paintings that they were able to examine closely, using chemical analysis of pigments, X-rays, infrared and ultraviolet light, and special techniques of photography. These allowed them to analyze the progressive layers of a painting, from the particular kind of canvas or wood support and its initial preparation, to its priming (or lack of it), its underpainting or drawing, and its paint materials and how they were applied. Their results were then correlated with the dating and subjects of the paintings, as well as with ideas derived from the artist’s writings, and the accounts of witnesses who knew Gauguin.

Jirat-Wasiutynå«ski and Newton show how Gauguin worked out his own technique, gradually emphasizing the matte and flat appearance of his painted surfaces. He smoothed out the choppy brushstrokes of the Impressionists, integrating them with areas of relatively flat and uniform color to produce a decidedly more decorative effect. Like Renoir in the mid-1880s, he wanted to approximate the effects of Renaissance frescoes, both their decorative strengths and what he saw as their simple “primitive” qualities. Renoir, however, merely blotted out some of the oil in his pigments before applying them, and painted over a conventional layer of lead white, whereas Gauguin used complicated processes to create a more primitive, fresco-like result. In common with most other vanguard artists (not Renoir, however), he avoided varnish, which, like oily paint, produces surfaces that reflect light and therefore diminishes and homogenizes the intensity of pigments.

Jirat-Wasiutynå«ski and Newton can partly reconstruct the original appearance of pictures that have been distorted by relining, varnishing, and “restoration.”1 Technical study allowed the authors to conclude that after Gauguin met Camille Pissarro in the spring of 1879, he adopted some of Pissarro’s techniques, giving his canvases greater luminosity and using color more freely. Their research ends former doubts about just when this apprenticeship to Pissarro began. They also prove that in 1881 Gauguin was already preparing canvases with chalky coatings (“grounds”) that absorbed oil paint in order to produce a matte surface. In the years following, Gauguin adopted Pissarro’s and Degas’s habits of making preliminary drawings for figures and transferring them to painstakingly prepared canvases.


It was in Brittany between 1886 and 1890, first in Pont-Aven and then in Le Pouldu, that Gauguin pursued the myths of premodern religiosity; in the Breton countryside, he sought a “primitive” environment that suited his search for a kind of painting that would bear comparison with the arts of the early Renaissance and Middle Ages as well as with Japanese and other non-European arts. In September 1888, on the eve of joining van Gogh in Arles, he produced The Vision of the Sermon (National Gallery of Scotland), today one of his best-known works. In it we see Breton figures arranged in unnatural perspective and scale, facing a field in startling red that rises flatly upward to the surface, bisected by a slanting tree trunk in brown. Gauguin wrote to van Gogh, “I believe I have achieved in these figures a great rustic and superstitious simplicity.” The picture can indeed be seen as a manifesto in which Gauguin separates himself radically from the Impressionists, the Neo-Impressionists, and from academic painting.

Previous commentary on The Vision of the Sermon was partly frustrated by the lack of any chemical analyses of the paints and by the fact that the canvas earlier had been restretched and relined, a process which flattened it considerably. However, by using X-rays and microscopes Jirat-Wasiutynå«ski and Newton reveal the underlying layers of drawing, brushwork, and absorbent ground that show the care with which the artist constructed the expressive outlines and flatly colored zones of his composition. They also deduce convincingly that he mixed wax with his pigments in order to create saturated colors that would endure without varnish and its reflections, a technique common to mural arts but rare in easel painting.2

Such careful investigation, like archaeological studies of partly covered sites, allows us to understand the construction of the images we see. In Breton Girl by the Sea (1889; private collection), Gauguin used gouache, crayon, chalk, and pencil in order to create different surfaces that give the illusions of linen, wool, and flesh. The authors write that, in the drawing of the Breton girl,

In the foot chalk and crayon were applied with differing pressure to the textured paper surface, leaving more or less broken strokes that suggest the surface of weathered skin. In the apron, crayon mimics the rough surface of the fabric. These strokes contrast with the powerful, flowing gouache outlines that sculpt the figure of the bretonne. Gauguin also used gouache to color areas of the clothing and landscape. Where it is applied over the crayon strokes, as in the apron, the wax acts as a resist, largely rejecting the gouache. Areas of waxy crayon and matte gouache reflect light differently. The viewer interprets the different reflectances [different kinds of reflections] as resulting from changes in the plane of the depicted surface (folds in the cloth), thus giving the apron plasticity, weight, and texture.

So much has been written about Gauguin’s fateful stay with van Gogh in Arles (October to December 1888) that we might not think anything new could be said about it.3 However, Jirat-Wasiutynå«ski and Newton show that the ways the two artists painted were utterly incompatible and made impossible the collaboration that van Gogh had hoped for. Certainly they exchanged ideas, but van Gogh’s thick paints and expressive brushwork were anathema to Gauguin, whose thin and flat surfaces were used for what he called “abstract” simplifications of form. Unlike van Gogh’s, these simplifications were not based on direct observation of nature.4 Van Gogh’s expressive brushwork is quite close to Monet’s of the same era, whereas Gauguin sought a different kind of surface. He wanted a synthesis of imaginative forms whose colors and shapes would communicate his own conceptions free of the restraints imposed by naturalism.

Jirat-Wasiutynå«ski and Newton therefore locate the reasons for the well-known standoff between van Gogh and Gauguin in Arles in artistic craft more than in the differences of temperament that have often been romanticized. In Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art, Debora Silverman also makes probing investigations of how the artists’ convictions were expressed in colors, shapes, and brushwork, not just in their subjects. She explains how their opposed views of art were founded in spiritual ideas that owed much to van Gogh’s and Gauguin’s educations. Gauguin studied at a Catholic junior seminary in Orléans from age eleven to fourteen. He was taught by the bishop of Orléans, Félix-Antoine-Philibert Dupanloup, founder of the seminary and a nationally known author of books on Catholic education. Ernest Renan, also a pupil of the bishop, described how Dupanloup had a daily interview with each student, although he did not say what was discussed.


The principles of the bishop’s teaching centered upon introspection and the imagination instead of knowledge of nature. In Silverman’s words, he stressed “cultivation of interior vision, which subordinated the operation of sensory sight to the experience of divine light.” Further, he taught that human beings have “a corrupted nature and…forewarned the children of an earthly existence fundamentally grounded in suffering, sorrow, and a dolorous reckoning with sin…. The lure and transience of sensual pleasures yielded only desolation and putrefaction….”

To a certain extent Dupanloup’s ideas reflected Catholic beliefs generally, but the particular emphasis of his principles echoes clearly to anyone familiar with Gauguin’s self-pitying letters and his autobiographical essays.5There we find his antinaturalism, his search for “abstract” and “synthetic” forms expressive of ideas and longings rather than mundane reality, his insistence upon his inner vision, but also his constant suffering and guilt about his sensual indulgences, and his acute awareness of the conflict between sin and salvation. In his Self-Portrait, “les misérables” (1888; Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam), he pictures himself as Victor Hugo’s outcast Jean Valjean, and in his Christ in the Garden of Olives we see Gauguin portrayed as Christ (1889; Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach).

Historians familiar with Gauguin’s bohemian life, his cynicism, and his lapsed Catholicism have treated his writings and aspirations as remote from Catholic belief, but Silverman convincingly shows how thoroughly his mature life was in fact influenced by his boyhood education in the Church. From 1886 to 1890, most of his paintings explore Breton religiosity. He wanted to give The Vision of the Sermon to a local church, and a Breton statue of a crucifixion was the source of his Yellow Christ (1889; Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo), a copy of which he placed behind his own image in Self-Portrait with Yellow Christ (1889– 1890; private collection). His friend the artist Émile Bernard was an ardent Catholic, as were all of Gauguin’s followers in Brittany and Paris (they included Maurice Denis, Paul Sérusier, and others collectively known as “Nabis”); Silverman leaves no doubt about the connection between his ideas and the resurgence of Catholicism among advanced painters and Symbolist writers.

In fact, she might have paid more attention to the parallels between Dupanloup’s Catholicism and the anti-naturalism of Symbolists like Verlaine and Mallarmé. Gauguin had been using the term “synthesis” since 1886, the year that literary Symbolism was launched with words like “essence” and “synthesis” to express the writers’ hostility to illusionism and their attraction to primitivism. Gauguin’s seminary education allowed him to recognize and express his affinities with the young Symbolist writers, in striking contrast to van Gogh’s isolation.

In her discussion of The Vision of the Sermon, Silverman does not explore the technique of the painting in the manner of Jirat-Wasiutynå«ski and Newton, but like them she looks closely at the picture’s surface, paying special attention to the distinction between the earthly left side, where the women kneel, and the transcendent right half, in which Jacob wrestles with the angel. She shows how the small cow on the left, whose head is hidden by the slanting tree trunk, fits into Gauguin’s scheme:

The cow’s location and disposition recapitulate the elements of weightlessness configured elsewhere in The Vision. While the animal’s body shares the women’s visual space in the realm of what Gauguin assigned to “the natural,” the head, rearing up and blocked from view behind the tree, had migrated to the realm of spirit claimed by Jacob and the angel. Like the tree, which hovers up above rather than adhering to the ground, the cow’s fragile body and raised head float into the netherworld. Gauguin’s transformation of a creature epitomizing lumbering phlegmatics into an airy messenger of incorporeality offers one of the most effective signs of The Vision’s thematics of supernaturalism.

Silverman introduces the idea that Gauguin’s brilliant red can be found in popular images of the Sacred Heart and Christ’s flowing blood, the kind of religious print that artists in Gauguin’s circle collected and that he would have associated with the women in his painting. In view of his immersion in Breton religion and folklore, this makes as much sense as the usual comparisons with Japanese prints.

Like other historians, Silverman shows that Gauguin’s painting relates to the “pardon,” a pilgrimage and festival peculiar to Brittany that took place in Pont-Aven each September, the month in which he was working on The Vision of the Sermon. Although by no means an illustration of the pardon festival, the picture echoes some of its features, including women kneeling outside the church and folkloric wrestling. Silverman invokes Gauguin’s own words to describe how the symbolic meanings of the unnatural forms and colors are used to depict the Breton women’s dreaming or musing over the priest’s sermon. “Art is an abstraction; derive this abstraction from nature while dreaming before it…. This is the only way of rising toward God—doing as our Divine Master does, create.”6 Such thinking, no matter how unorthodox, recalls, she writes, Bishop Dupanloup’s “cultivation of interior vision, which subordinated the operation of sensory sight to the experience of divine light.”

In Silverman’s comparison of Gauguin to van Gogh,7 her account of the two artists and their religious tendencies gives us a stronger understanding of both of them than we get from seeing either separately. Her book is based on the comparison of pairs of paintings in which a feature of one artist’s work becomes the occasion for an analysis of the other’s practice. She concentrates on only six such pairings, but in her inquiries into the artists’ origins, their ways of painting, and their relation to their immediate environments (largely Brittany and Arles), she reveals more than any previous writer has done the way their different approaches to art and life ended in a dialogue of the deaf.

Although the importance of the young van Gogh’s Dutch religion has always been recognized, no other historian has shown just how thoroughly the artist’s late work was indebted to the education of his youth. Because his father Theodorus was the minister of Zundert, a village in the southern Netherlands, van Gogh, born there in 1853, was steeped in Dutch Reform beliefs from his childhood. These were reinforced by a year’s theological study and another year as a lay evangelist in the Borinage, a mining district of Belgium. The Dutch Reform Church rejected literal interpretation of the Bible by stressing nature as the revelation of Godhood; the divine lay beyond immediate human comprehension.

Prominent Dutch theologians urged believers to have a “passion for reality,” a very far cry from Dupanloup’s teachings to the young Gauguin. Members of the church were instructed to steep themselves in nature as the sure source of devotion; the result was a kind of natural supernaturalism stripped of be-lief in miracles. In Silverman’s words, Dutch Reform theologians

embraced what they called a new “realism,” placing special emphasis on the arts—poetry, painting, and music—as evocative forms and special vehicles of divinity. Representation and human expressive consciousness emerged as the singular mediators of the immanent and transcendent orders.

When van Gogh decided to commit himself to painting in 1880, such ideas allowed him to equate his new profession with a religious vocation. Further, his preferred models were Dutch and French artists like Jean-François Millet, who largely ignored religious subjects in favor of natural people and settings—“natural” referring here to a pre-industrial world of common folk who could be represented as expressing Christian morality.8 In other words, van Gogh’s religious training merged with advanced mid-century painting, each reinforcing the other. Then when he was in Paris between 1886 and 1888 he adopted the Impressionists’ use of color as a new feature of his naturalism, although he mostly avoided their preferred subjects of urban and suburban leisure.

Silverman also discusses van Gogh’s artistic training, giving special attention to his use of a device for rendering perspective. This was an open frame crisscrossed by a pattern of strings; it could be attached to poles and staked to the ground. Looking through it, the painter could transfer its segmented zones to his drawing or canvas. Van Gogh’s strings converged at the center of his frame, encouraging him, as Silverman shows, to use the zooming perspective from above that characterizes his painting. Moreover, in some of his pictures of weavers at work in 1884 and 1885, he made deliberate parallels between the beams of the looms and the perspective frame. He wanted to associate his own work with that of the weavers and their tools, a connection borne out by the different colored yarns he put in a tea box in 1886. This allowed him to test the color theories of M.E. Chevreul, which were based upon weaving. As Silverman also points out, van Gogh in his letters repeatedly likens weaving to the parallel and interwoven strokes of his technique.

Van Gogh’s canvases painted in Arles also reveal his use of the perspective frame. Silverman reproduces and discusses several drawings and paintings of the canal drawbridge near Arles in which the painter adjusted his vantage point to make the bridge’s beams correspond to the angles of his frame’s strings. Heretofore historians looking at these paintings and drawings have compared them only with other art, Japanese prints in particular.

Silverman compares Gauguin’s The Vision of the Sermon to van Gogh’s The Sower (1888; Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo; see illustration on page 43), a prime example of his “sacred realism” that could also be considered a Symbolist picture. Van Gogh longed, he wrote, “for the infinite, of which the sower, the sheaf are the symbols.”9 Like Christ, he said, he was working with the living matter of human beings and nature rather than with Gauguin’s and Bernard’s abstractions, which he denounced in letters to them. Although he based his work on studies of the natural, he did not make mere copies. His sower, derived from Millet, symbolizes redemptive labor and the cycle of life—it is souls that will be harvested; and his huge sun, which replaces the halo of traditional art, stands for divine love.10 In The Sower, Silverman writes, van Gogh wanted

to find formal means to convey the infinite, to evoke the presence and comfort of an invisible totality that moved beyond the active laborer and beyond the artist vigorously working the image of work depicted. The combination of rough texture and blazing light, crusted pigment and glowing irradiation, now fused the artist as weaver with the artist as mediator of transcendent light. Built into this experiment in embodiment was art’s triple power to channel the “exalting and consoling” powers of nature, to provide comfort to the human community, and to evoke the immaterial infinity that related all individuals to an eternal, sacred wholeness beyond the self.

Unlike Gauguin, who immersed himself in Catholic traditions in Brittany, van Gogh seemed to pay no heed to those of Arles. And yet one of the most fascinating parts of Silverman’s book is devoted to the popular nativity plays in Arles and the figures associated with them—both performers and terra-cotta figurines. These, she suggests, influenced van Gogh’s painting of several images of Augustine Roulin as La Berceuse, a woman rocking a cradle,11 an image of consolation that should be understood in the light of van Gogh’s troubling recent losses: Gauguin’s departure in December and with him all thought of sharing a studio; the departure in January of his best friend in Arles, the postman Joseph Roulin; and the threat that his brother’s pending marriage, just announced, would mean the loss or weakening of their partnership.

Like other historians, Silverman discusses van Gogh’s idea of displaying La Berceuse in a sailor’s cabin or a seaside tavern, flanked by paintings of sunflowers. Many have thought that van Gogh intended the painting to be seen as a devotional triptych, with Mme. Roulin as a Madonna. Silverman, however, recalls van Gogh’s own comparison of her not with the Madonna but, as he writes in a letter, with “saints and holy women from life who would have seemed to belong to another age, and they would be middle-class women of the present day, and yet they have had something in common with the very primitive Christians.”12 Silverman describes and illustrates the popular nativity plays in Arles (one of which van Gogh attended and commented upon) in which local people appear in contemporary dress. She also comments on the resemblances of the decorative Berceuse to the santons, the brightly painted figurines that were ubiquitous in Arles in December and January. The santons were not of biblical figures but of Provençal types in local costume, sold in stores and featured in the local crèches displayed in churches, on the street, and in people’s homes.

La Berceuse was also a response to Gauguin, both to his painting in decorative flat zones, which van Gogh partly emulated, and to Gauguin’s former life as a sailor; he told Gauguin, Silverman writes, that “sailors could be reassured by such an image…as they pitched and swayed in their huge cradles like boats at sea.” Yet the thick paint and expressive brushwork of Mme. Roulin’s face and hands, Silverman reminds us, have a tangible corporeality in contrast to the thin paint and insubstantial bodies of Gauguin’s figures. It is this Dutch thickness of paint—one might say its “thing-ness”—found also in van Gogh’s heroes, Hals and Rembrandt, that distinguishes him so strikingly from Gauguin. The subtlety of Silverman’s analysis of La Berceuse allows her to put distance between the two artists while making the reader aware of their dialogue about art. She writes:

If La Berceuse was one of the most Gauguinesque of van Gogh’s paintings, it was also the most receptive to the pressure and fascination of the vibrant Catholic culture around him…. During the Christmas period of La Berceuse, the welter of cultural materials concretizing tender familial unity amidst his own illness and losses may have provided a new psychological receptivity to the supernaturalist Catholicism that had hitherto been so emphatically screened out; whatever the reason, elements of Catholic culture percolated into the image of La Berceuse and this time were absorbed and transformed. Yet, as he assimilated Gauguin’s techniques of flat outlining and color masses and alternated them with his abiding language of texture and modeled relief, so too van Gogh adapted the new materials of popular piety to a powerful secular alternative, embodying the expression of human consolation at the heart of the Dutch Reformed theology of art.

Although she ends her book with van Gogh’s death in 1890, Silverman also writes that Gauguin’s spiritual quest continued in the South Seas, particularly in the views he expressed about his huge fresco-like canvas Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1898; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Bishop Dupanloup, Silverman tells us, had altered the catechism “from a routinized recitation of articles of faith to a dynamic interrogatory encounter with the supernatural.” Writing about his painting as “a philosophical work on a theme comparable to the Gospels,”13 Gauguin recapitulated his teacher’s question-and-answer method by following each of the three questions of his title with short references to the picture’s images of birth, life, and death. Moreover, Gauguin referred warmly to his seminary education in his 1903 essay “Avant et après” (“remembering certain theological studies of my youth, and certain later reflections on these subjects…”). Another of the writings of his last years, “L’Esprit moderne et le catholicisme,”14 is an anticlerical tract, but it is also evidence of the artist’s concern for religious meaning.

Except for this brief excursion into Gauguin’s last years, the books under review do not accompany Gauguin to the South Seas. However, both of them identify the central qualities of his mature practice and explore the religious conceptions that will help their readers interpret the famous later paintings in new ways. In analyzing Gauguin’s technique in Brittany, Jirat-Wasiutynå«ski and Newton show that the imposed primitivism of his figures virtually made them into another race. He had therefore established by the autumn of 1888 the main lines of the psychological and artistic vision that he would carry to Tahiti three years later.

The authors of both these stimulating books do not offer what some readers might expect. They do not treat the paintings of van Gogh and Gauguin as predecessors of twentieth-century art—a familiar approach that in looking forward leaves the artists somewhat behind. Nor do they share the current fascination with semiotics and aesthetic theory. This may make them seem old-fashioned, but in my view they vindicate the virtues of looking closely into documents intimately attached to artists’ lives while also examining the materials of their art. Rich in ideas and methods that should reinvigorate the study of late-nineteenth-century art, these two books treat the materials and techniques of painting as vital elements of art history that can, and should, be brought together with artists’ subjects and ideas, both secular and spiritual.

This Issue

June 21, 2001