A History of Culture in 100 Sofas (and other furniture) – 3. Vincent Van Gogh’s Chairs (1888)
Continuing our series looking at iconic, influential and unique items of furniture, culture editor Andrew Nixon examines the iconic, symbolic and ultimately rather tragic chair ‘portrait’ paintings by Vincent Van Gogh … A ten minute walk from the Amsterdam Hilton where John Lennon and Yoko Ono staged their first Bed-In is the Van Gogh Museum. Here you can see, amongst the treasures on display left by that tormented artist, perhaps the world’s second most famous portrait of a chair, entitled Gauguin’s Armchair: Gauguin’s Armchair is the companion painting to perhaps the world’s single most famous portrait of a chair, which is also by Van Gogh: Vincent’s Chair with a Pipe is, in a way, a self-portrait, since when Vincent Van Gogh painted it he was trying to encapsulate his own essence, in contrast to his friend/rival (I suppose we’d now use the term ‘frenemy’) Paul Gauguin. The one painting cannot be understood without the other, and they were painted at the time when Van Gogh was entering an intense period of psychological crisis – the one that would lead to his infamous self-mutilation. The Yellow House In 1888, at the age of 35, Van Gogh moved to Arles in the south of France. His plan was to create a colony for avant-garde artists, a community of painters who would inspire each other and make the art of the future in the light of the Mediterranean sun. To this end, financed by his brother Theo, he rented The Yellow House [see the 1888 painting below] and then spent five months trying to persuade Paul Gauguin to become his colony’s first member. Gauguin – in contrast to the struggling Van Gogh – was an established and well-known painter, forty years old and a leader of the modern art movement. Like Vincent, however, he was flat broke, and after initial reluctance he agreed to give the Yellow House a go, arriving in October 1888. And, despite his misgivings and the exhausting two-day train journey and the cramped discomforts of the Yellow House (it had no bathroom and he could only get to his bedroom by going through Van Gogh’s), Gauguin actually liked it. At first. Vincent had decorated the house with his glorious new sunflower paintings, and the two men got on well, painting side-by-side, encouraging and criticising. They lived simply: working, cooking, drinking absinthe and visiting the local brothels together. True, they were both fairly eccentric, but as Van Gogh himself put it: “Old Gauguin and I understand each other basically, and if we are a bit mad, what of it?” Sadly, Van Gogh’s madness was soon to reach a pitch that even Gauguin couldn’t tolerate. Vincent versus Paul Cracks in the relationship between the two men soon appeared. There were artistic differences that turned into angry arguments: Gauguin liked to paint nature from memory, Van Gogh could only paint from life. Van Gogh began to feel that the arrogant, domineering Gauguin was trying to change his style, and resented it.
But gradually Vincent’s eccentricities became unsettling, then unhinged, and finally deranged. He developed a habit of getting up in the middle of the night to hover menacingly over Gauguin’s bed. In a local café he suddenly hurled an absinthe glass at his companion’s face; he missed, and Gauguin had to drag Van Gogh forcibly into the street. Quite what psychological malaise was the cause of Van Gogh’s bouts of disturbed behaviour is still the subject of debate. Bipolar disorder, manic depression, glaucoma, syphilis and schizophrenia have all been posited as theories. But his actions towards the end of the nine weeks he spent with Gauguin are well-known. On 23 December, in the night-time streets of Arle, Van Gogh rushed at Gauguin with a razor. The older man managed to talk Van Gogh out of assaulting him and then escaped to spend the night in a hotel. Van Gogh returned home and cut off his own ear with the razor. Having bandaged up the severely haemorrhaging wound he wrapped the severed ear in paper and took it to a brothel, where he presented it to a prostitute called Rachel with instructions to guard it carefully. The police found him unconscious the next day, and carted him off to hospital, where he was sectioned. During his incarceration Vincent repeatedly asked to see his fellow artist, but Gauguin refused to visit and returned to Paris on Christmas Day. Although they corresponded occasionally, Paul Gauguin never set eyes on his erstwhile housemate again: two years later, suffering from fits of depression and hallucinations, Van Gogh shot himself in the chest with a revolver and died from the infected wound.
The empty chairs In the light of the story of Vincent and Paul, the portraits of their chairs bear a terrible poignancy. Painted in December 1888, as their relationship unravelled, they are intended to reflect their owners’ contrasting personalities. Van Gogh’s chair is simple, rustic, on a tiled kitchen floor with a box of onions in the background – doubtless symbolising the affinity he felt with the rough peasants who are the subjects of many of his paintings. Gauguin’s armchair meanwhile is much more ornate, all elaborate carpentry and refined curves and set on an exotic floral carpet by the glow of a lamp, indicating a more sophisticated class of person. But it is their owners’ explicit absence from the chairs that makes the paintings so moving. A lighted candle and ‘modern novels’ (as Van Gogh put it) sit in Paul’s place; a pipe and some tobacco in a crumpled handkerchief represent poor old Vincent. The ‘Empty Chair’ idea Van Gogh took from Luke Fildes’ famous 1870 drawing printed in Graphic magazine to mark the death of Charles Dickens (it depicts Dickens’ study, his chair pulled back from his desk but the great writer gone, lost to the world). Although they reside in different countries, occasionally the two paintings have been exhibited together. Usually they have been displayed with Gauguin’s armchair on the left, so that the two face away from each other, suggesting the hostility that marred their final days together. But they have also been displayed facing toward one another, creating an impression of mutual respect and influence. Reams of symbolist and Freudian style interpretations of these paintings have been written, some of it highly dubious. After all, if you don’t know the story of Vincent and Paul, they’re just a couple of chairs, albeit painted in Van Gogh’s striking colour palette. But if you do know the story they take on a deeply melancholy significance. Contemplating the two paintings and the way their fame has so long outlived their creator, I can’t help but be reminded of Vincent’s awful last words, spoken on his death bed to Theo, the brother who had financed his misadventures in the Yellow House: “The sadness will last forever.”
A History of Culture in 100 Sofas (and other furniture) – 3. Vincent Van Gogh’s chairs
What: Two oil on canvas paintings, Vincent’s Chair with a Pipe in the National Gallery, London; and Gauguin’s Armchair in the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam When: 1888 Why it’s culturally significant: The most famous ‘portraits’ of chairs in the world, and poignant monuments to two giants of modern art. Previous: John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Bed-in Protest Bed. Next: Sigmund Freud’s couch