Gauguin’s Method

Gauguin, Vision after the Sermon: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (late 1889-early 1990)

I was reading about Gauguin today and his own explanation of The Vision after the Sermon: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel. It struck me that if I was trying to explain this image I would say the same: that the figures in the foreground represent the artist imagining or “painting” the scene in the background. The background, with figures out-of-scale because it is a vision or “painting”, have been fused into the foreground. It is the basic way this website looks at all poetic art, including Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur L’Herbe. Here is what Gauguin wrote to van Gogh:

“The cow under the tree is very small in comparison to reality, and it is rearing…For me, in this picture, the landscape and the struggle only exist in the imagination of the people praying in response to the sermon. This is why there is a contrast between the people, who are real, and the struggle, which is in its own landscape, one that is not real and is out of proportion.”1

He did not add that the priest on the far right has his own features2 and that the curling strap of the woman’s bonnet in the center resembles the G of his own signature, a resemblance that no-one has seen before.3 Nor did he mention that the wrestling match in the background is a depiction of the creative struggle in his own mind.

In a separate, slightly earlier letter to Emile Schuffenecker he also explained the creative process in terms strikingly similar to the one explained on this site:

“Art is an abstraction, draw [that abstraction] from nature by dreaming over it and think more about the [act of] creation than about the results. It is the only way to rise towards God – by doing as does our Divine Master: create.”4

As on this site, Gauguin argues that the poetic painter should dream about nature but focus on the creative process rather than the apparent subject. Creation is the subject of art, he says, and the only way to become at one with God, to become God, to make one’s soul pure. The act of creation is the essence of everything. This is difficult for many of us to accept but is second nature (or first nature) to artists, poets, composers and other creators. The mistake that we can make in reading Gauguin’s remarks is to think they comment on his own art instead of all art. He learnt his philosophy by looking at other art and he expresses it here.

1. To Vincent van Gogh, [ca. Sept.25-27, 1888], in Merlhès, Correspondance de Paul Gauguin, 1873-1888 (Paris: Fondation Singer-Polignac) 1984, 1:230-31 (no.165) cited in Dorra, The Symbolism of Paul Gauguin (University of California Press) 2007, p. 112

2. Amishai-Maisels, Gauguin’s Religious Themes (New York: Garland) 1985, p. 31, cited in Dorra, ibid., p.113

3. The pattern of the bonnet’s strap is similar to the shape of the snake in the contemporaneous Nirvana: Portrait of Jacob Meyer de Haan (late 1888). That serpent unquestionably represents a G because Gauguin wrote “auguin” on his hand next to it to complete his name. I intend to write a separate entry on this feature shortly.

4. Dorra, ibid,. p. 115

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