Vincent van Gogh and Gauguin: Art Discussions in Arles II

27 Mar

“You’ll never be an artist, Vincent,” announced Gauguin, “until you can look at nature, come back to your studio and paint it in cold blood.”
“I don’t want to paint in cold blood, you idiot. I want to paint in hot blood! That’s why I’m in Arles.”
“All this work you’ve done is only slavish copying from nature. You must learn to work extempore.”
“Extempore! Good God!”

Vincent van Gogh, Memory of the Garden at Etten (Ladies of Arles), c. November 1888

In this post I’ll present you the continuation of the art discussions which Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin had in Arles. You can read the first part of this post here. As I have already said, Vincent van Gogh arrived to Arles in spring of 1888, and in October the same year a fellow painter Paul Gauguin joined him in sunny Provence though not without a bit of hesitation and skepticism. While Vincent admired the older painter and wanted to learn from him, Gauguin arrogantly dismissed Vincent’s ideas about art and criticised his paintings with no shyness. In the first part of their discussion, Gauguin focused on criticising Vincent’s sunflowers and here Gauguin will focus on lecturing Vincent that he will never be a true artist until he can gaze at nature, then return to studio and paint from his memory/imagination rather than directly whilst being in nature. I still cannot fathom the audacity of Gauguin to say such things, but it is interesting to read it. The passages are, as I’ve already said, from Irving Stone’s book “Lust for Life”. Vincent did indeed listen to Gauguin and tried out his advice on painting from memory and the result was the painting you can see above, “Memory of the Garden at Etten” or simply called “Ladies of Arles” which looks different from Van Gogh’s other paintings. It’s vibrant and interesting, but I still prefer his typical style of painting, exhibited in his wheat field with crows and his paintings of sunflowers and starry nights. I do like all the little dots and dashes of red on the woman’s clothes and of turquoise on the cypresses. And now here is the discussion:

The painters whom Gauguin admired, Vincent despised. Vincent’s idols were anathema to Gauguin. They disagreed on every last approach to their craft. Any other subject they might have been able to discuss in a quiet and friendly manner, but painting was the meat and drink of life to them. They fought for their ideas to the last drop of nervous energy. Gauguin had twice Vincent’s brute strength, but Vincent’s lashing excitement left them evenly matched. Even when they discussed things about which they agreed, their arguments were terribly electric. They came out of them with their heads as exhausted as a battery after it has been discharged.
“You’ll never be an artist, Vincent,” announced Gauguin, “until you can look at nature, come back to your studio and paint it in cold blood.”
“I don’t want to paint in cold blood, you idiot. I want to paint in hot blood! That’s why I’m in Arles.”
“All this work you’ve done is only slavish copying from nature. You must learn to work extempore.”
“Extempore! Good God!”
“And another thing; you would have done well to listen to Seurat. Painting is abstract, my boy. It has no room for the stories you tell and the morals you point out.”
“I point out morals? You’re crazy.”
“If you want to preach, Vincent, go back to the ministry. Painting is colour, line, and form; nothing more. The artist can reproduce the decorative in nature, but that’s all.”
“Decorative art,” snorted Vincent. “If that’s all you get out of nature, you ought to go back to the Stock Exchange.”
“If I do, I’ll come hear you preach on Sunday mornings. What do you get out of nature, Brigadier?”
“I get motion, Gauguin, and the rhythm of life.”
“Well, we’re off.”
“When I paint a sun, I want to make people feel it revolving at a terrific rate of speed. Giving off light and heat waves of tremendous power. When I paint a cornfield I want people to feel the atoms within the corn pushing out to their final growth and bursting. When I paint an apple I want people to feel the juice of that apple pushing out against the skin, the seeds at the core striving outward to their own fruition!”
“Vincent, how many times have I told you that a painter must not have theories.”
“Take this vineyard scene, Gauguin. Look out! Those grapes are going to burst and squirt right in your eye. Here, study this ravine. I want to make people feel all the millions of tons of water that have poured down its sides. When I paint the portrait of a man, I want them to feel the entire flow of that man’s life, everything he has seen and done and suffered!”
“What the devil are you driving at?”
“At this, Gauguin. The fields that push up the corn, and the water that rushes down the ravine, the juice of the grape, and the life of a man as it flows past him, are all one and the same thing. The sole unity in life is the unity of rhythm. A rhythm to which we all dance; men, apples, ravines, ploughed fields, carts among the corn, houses, horses, and the sun. The stuff that is in you, Gauguin, will pound through a grape tomorrow, because you and a grape are one. When I paint a peasant labouring in the field, I want people to feel the peasant flowing down into the soil, just as the corn does, and the soil flowing up into the peasant. I want them to feel the sun pouring into the peasant, into the field, into corn, the plough, and the horses, just as they all pour back into the sun. When you begin to feel the universal rhythm in which everything on earth moves, you begin to understand life. That alone is God.”
“Brigadier,” said Gauguin, “vous avez raison!”
Vincent was at the height of his emotion, quivering with febrile excitement. Gauguin’s words struck him like a slap in the face. He stood there gaping foolishly, his mouth hanging open.
“Now what in the world does that mean, ‘Brigadier, you are right?’”
“It means I think it about time we adjourned to the café for an absinthe.”

9 Responses to “Vincent van Gogh and Gauguin: Art Discussions in Arles II”

  1. Michael Hill 27th Mar 2021 at 6:01 pm #

    I can’t understand him telling Vincent to paint from memory when it must be obvious that the true inspiration surely can only be better if you can put it down instantaneously whilst actually seeing and feeling nature in the raw.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Upside-down Land 27th Mar 2021 at 6:09 pm #

    Bravo Irving Stone (and Vincent van Gogh).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. haoyando 27th Mar 2021 at 7:01 pm #

    That’s such an interesting story. I never know there is philosophy behind painting.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Lautreamont 28th Mar 2021 at 8:46 pm #

    Years ago I used to wonder why “straights” seemed to say how much they loved VGogh. I never much reckoned the sunflowers and iris stuff. But I kinda liked the convulsing writhing landscapes and the bomburst skies. To me those pictures perfectly expressed the consciousness of someone just coming up on what was about to turn into a bad trip. “The centre cannot hold- mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” A man living his life on the verge of panic-losing his reason. I always thought Artaud got VG perfectly although he kinda went over the top with his admiration. Anyway in other news,Duggie died. I’m gonna miss him,specially at Portobello. We often used to hang around in the square down there drinking coffee and discussing stuff you’d be interested in I guess:art,artists, music,clothes,de 60s, the style of passing strangers,shirt collars,how shit his shoes were,who was the best looking,and many other highly important matters such as these.A little memory-a few years back, I was standing with Dugg and Anita Pallenberg outside the house in Powis Sq where some of the film Performance was shot. We were talking about how time passes and Duggie said to me “I hope l make a hundred” Well buster you didn’t..And in my dreams “ Say hello to Syd and tell him there’s a muse of Byron who’s still got a massive crush on him” Goodbye Duggie.Thanks for the memories.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Byron's Muse 2nd Apr 2021 at 12:49 pm #

      Thanks for your ramble, it’s always fun and fascinating!

      Liked by 2 people

    • Michael Hill 2nd Apr 2021 at 1:15 pm #

      I wonder if you would be interested in the 30 min mini documentary by ken russell in 1960, I thought it was fascinating, ” a house in Bayswater” “

      Liked by 1 person


  1. Vincent van Gogh: Life and Art in the Face of Failure | Byron's muse - 23rd Apr 2021

    […] about the art discussions that Vincent had with Gauguin while he stayed in Arles; part one and part two. Today I would like to share a passage which deals directly with the question: why? Why do I paint? […]

    Liked by 1 person

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