This painting of a simple chair set on a bare floor of terracotta tiles is one of Van Gogh’s most iconic images. It was painted in late 1888, soon after fellow artist Paul Gauguin had joined him in Arles in the south of France. The picture was a pair to another painting, Gauguin’s Chair (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam). They were to be hung together, with one chair turned to the right, the other to the left.
Both chairs function as surrogate portraits, representing the personalities and distinct artistic outlooks of the two artists. While Van Gogh’s chair is simple and functional, Gauguin’s is an elegant and finely carved armchair. Van Gogh’s chair, on which he placed his pipe and tobacco, is shown in bright daylight. Gauguin’s, with two novels on its seat, was painted at night and is illuminated by a candle and gas light.
This painting of a simple chair set on a bare floor of terracotta tiles is one of Van Gogh’s most iconic images. Straight-backed and with no armrests, the chair is made of plain unpolished wood painted yellow and has a rush seat. Entirely functional, its construction could not be more basic. Although it appears sturdy, it is also crudely made – the legs, for example, are not quite properly aligned. It recalls the rustic peasant chairs in Van Gogh’s Dutch paintings from the 1880s, and two very similar chairs appear in The Bedroom of 1888 (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam). Van Gogh has placed his pipe and tobacco pouch on the seat. Behind the chair, to the left, is a low box signed ‘Vincent’; it contains some sprouting bulbs, possibly onions. To the right, part of a blue door is visible, its large hinge echoing the line of the chair’s legs.
The painting was a pair to another picture, Gauguin’s Chair (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam). Writing to his brother Theo in December 1888, Vincent described the paintings: ‘the last two studies are odd enough. Size 30 canvases, a wooden rush-bottomed chair all yellow on red tiles against a wall [daytime]. Then Gauguin’s armchair, red and green night effect, walls and floors red and green again, on the seat two novels and a candle, on thin canvas with thick impasto.’ As the letter reveals, the two paintings were pendants intended to be hung together, with one chair turned to the right, the other to the left. Van Gogh had begun working on them in November 1888, soon after Paul Gauguin had joined him in Arles, where they lived together in the Yellow House. Indeed, the chairs may have been among the dozen he had bought in September to furnish the house ready for Gauguin’s imminent arrival. Van Gogh had recently read Maurice de Fleury’s article, ‘The House of a Modernist: The Architecture of Tomorrow’ and decorated and furnished the rooms of his own ‘artist’s house’ with a view to them reflecting the character of its residents.
Van Gogh hoped that Gauguin’s presence would be the first step in forming a new artistic ‘association’, a ’studio in the south‘. However, following a fight on 23 December when Van Gogh threatened Gauguin with a knife and then cut off part of his own left ear, Gauguin returned to Paris, never to see his friend again. On returning to the house after a fortnight in hospital, Van Gogh slightly reworked the picture of his own chair. Gauguin’s departure added a poignancy to the two images of empty chairs, but the motif may already have had significance for Van Gogh. He had previously written of weeping at the sight of his father’s vacant chair after he had died in 1885 and had also sent Theo the lyrics of an anonymous popular song, ‘The Little Chairs’, which described an elderly couple sitting by a fireplace looking at the chairs their three dead children once occupied. As he observed to Theo, ‘Empty chairs – there are many, more will come.’ Van Gogh was also very attached to an engraving by the British artist Luke Fildes titled ’The Empty Chair'. Published in The Graphic in 1870 (a copy of which Van Gogh owned), it commemorated the death of the novelist Charles Dickens by showing his deserted study on the day he had died. Fildes had recently been commissioned by Dickens to illustrate his last (and unfinished) novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Like Fildes’s engraving, neither of Van Gogh’s two chair paintings includes a sitter; instead, he chose specific objects and visual effects to represent the personalities and distinct artistic outlooks of himself and Gauguin. In effect, these are still lifes that function as surrogates for portraits. While Van Gogh’s chair is functional and artisanal, Gauguin’s is an elegant and more finely carved armchair. Van Gogh’s chair is shown in the bright daylight of southern France, the natural lighting reinforced by the presence of the sprouting onions, which are also a reminder of the importance of nature for him – a connection emphasised by the name ‘Vincent’ on the box. The pipe and tobacco pouch perhaps represent simple, homely comforts, and he had previously sketched his father’s pipe shortly after his death. Pipe smoking had also been a symbol of transience in seventeenth-century Dutch painting.
Gauguin’s chair, on the other hand, is shown at night and includes both a lit candle on the chair and, in the upper left corner, a gas light. The candle is a reference to the collaboration between Dickens and Fildes – in the illustration for The Mystery of Edwin Drood titled ‘Sleeping It Off’ a candle on a chair illuminates the gloom of an opium den. This ‘night effect’ with its unnatural lighting may be a comment on Gauguin’s taste for night life, but it also suggests Gauguin’s more mystical conception of artistic creation that drew upon a symbol or an idea, often prompted by literature (represented by the two novels placed on his chair). Colour has an important role in establishing these differences, the yellow and blues of Van Gogh’s chair contrasting with the reds and greens of Gauguin’s.
At Arles Van Gogh increasingly used colour for symbolic effect, and he urged his brother and mutual friends to study colour theory, particularly Delacroix’s use of colour, noting of his own chair painting: ‘I have tried for an effect of light by means of pure colour.’ Van Gogh’s emphatic use of colour outlines – including red lines to highlight the sunlight on the back of his chair and the blue edging around its yellow legs and below the seat – relate to his experiments with Cloisonnism, a style of painting derived from popular prints and Japanese woodcuts, in which flat areas of colour were bounded by a dark outline. Van Gogh communicated extensively and exchanged paintings with artists associated with Cloisonnism, such as Emile Bernard, as he sought to move away from Impressionism. Vigorously painted directly from the motif in vibrant colours using thick impasto, Van Gogh’s chair has a physical presence and expressive immediacy that affirmed his artistic breakthrough in Arles.
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