“When I have a terrible need for religion, I go outside and paint the stars.”
One of the most storied and celebrated artists, Vincent van Gogh, is also one of the most scrutinized and let’s be honest, over-analyzed. For decades, scholars have painstakingly chronicled over 800 letters from his own pen. His autobiographical account, with penetrating insights into life, literature and art, is in a class by itself. Over the last century, a second canon has emerged: hundreds of academic books and papers that dissect the man down to his most minute brush stroke. How, then, is it possible that one of his most famous paintings, Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, at Night, was not properly identified as a Symbolist Last Supper?
Through careful examination of his letters, we will discover the deeper meaning within this masterpiece by correctly defining what Symbolist art meant to Vincent, deconstructing several canvasses he was concurrently crafting, and finally, by delving into the painting, itself.
Among van Gogh scholars, debates still rage whether Vincent even dabbled in the form. Largely, because “Symbolist art” is hard to define and means different things to different people. Ask five art historians? You’ll likely get six definitions. But clarifying the genre as Vincent understood it is vital to appreciating how he thought, worked and tried to inspire his fellow artists within the movement. It shall not daunt us.
Vincent painted in the 1880s, during the juvenilia of Symbolism. This is Symbolism with a capital ‘S’, a specific 19th-century artistic movement; different from symbolism, with a lowercase ‘s’, that topic you either loved or loathed in high school English class. The genesis of Symbolist art can be traced to the father of French Romanticism, Eugène Delacroix when he wrote:
There is an emotion peculiar to painting […] what one might call the music of the painting. Before you even know what the painting represents […] when you are too far away from it […] you are conquered by this magical accord.
To quote that rock and roll powerhouse Boston, it’s “More Than a Feeling.”
Delacroix’s words inspired today’s generally accepted progenitor of the Symbolist movement, poet Charles Baudelaire. Now, Vincent was not a fan. We’ll learn why when we explore his letters. It can, however, be said that an important component to Symbolist art is Baudelaire’s notion of Correspondences, which simply put, is a “complex play of associations” or, a “multiplicity of metaphors.” Art historian Henri Dorra explained:
…that romantic poetic vision was characterized not so much by the mere use of metaphor (a characteristic of all relatively mature poetry) as by the richness and multiplicity of its metaphors, which, when released by a well-stocked memory and governed by an intuitive imagination, could bring forth a complex play of associations.
This not only lends itself to the practice of allegory, but strives beyond as it requires an artist’s multiplicity of metaphors to find fertile ground in a viewer’s intuitive imagination. The labyrinthine creative makes esoteric demands of his audience. The gnostic viewer delights in puzzling over a myriad of symbols and connections. Curiously, a similar tradition permeated Vincent’s youth.
“The idea is that a poem is a picture, and a picture, a poem. Artistic lines between genres are blurred, ideally, synesthetically.”
In 1990, Japanese art historian Tsukasa Kōdera, an outsider to Western thought, brought a fresh perspective to the debate. He spent the entirety of the first chapter from his seminal work, Vincent van Gogh: Christianity vs. Nature, explicating Dominocratie; the dominant role exacted by the Dutch clergy in their culture’s thought and literature. He illustrated their practice of Bijschriften-poëzie, which means poem-image. In a majority of their published books, a Dutch theologian would take an image and caption it with poetic thoughts. The idea is that a poem is a picture, and a picture, a poem. Artistic lines between genres are blurred, ideally, synesthetically. This is also an important tenet of Symbolist art. Correspondences seek to completely bedazzle the senses. In his youth, while studying for the priesthood, between devout bouts of brutal masochism, Vincent practiced this art form.
In the margins of this lithograph, Vincent wrote verses from Mark, Luke and John, also a Dutch hymn and a Longfellow poem. The point being, each passage was evoked in Vincent when he viewed this final procession. Considering Bijschriften-poëzie as a form of Correspondences offers an insight into Vincent’s creative process.
In 2000, art historian Debora Silverman refined and redefined Vincent’s forays into Symbolist art. She wrote:
Van Gogh’s art had evolved by 1888 into a symbolist project that can be called ‘sacred realism,’ a project of divinity made concrete and discovering the infinite in weighted tangibility.
Silverman does not believe Vincent’s sacred realism embraces the concept of Correspondences, but that’s a debate for another day. She did explain, as have several other van Gogh scholars, that when Vincent wrote his brother Theo…
You must realize that if you arrange them this way, say the Woman rocking a cradle in the middle and the two canvases of sunflowers to the right and left, it makes a sort of triptych.
…he meant it to be understood as some kind of Virgin Mary, perhaps even a Madonna and Child. Opinions differ. Preeminent van Gogh scholar Evert van Uitert explained:
The image created is that of an altarpiece in which Madame Roulin takes on the role of the Virgin Mary and […] the sunflowers can be associated with Christ. By employing the triptych form Vincent intensifies the religious aspect, but it remains no more than one facet of the work; one of the possible interpretations of this realistic image. Vincent wants to retain the guise of observable reality even when he transforms this reality in his paintings.
“The flower that turns its bloom towards the sun has a long history as a symbol – of the Christian soul.” Van Uitert couched his opinion that Vincent’s religious depiction is but a single dimension of a multi-faceted aspiration. “Silverman, however, giving us more context, believes Vincent was more purposeful:
He devised the Berceuse as a type of Protestant counter-imagery to the dynamic supernaturalism he encountered in Provencal Catholic culture.
“He was constantly bombarded with images of the Virgin and her Son.”
Silverman supplied many new insights to its composition. Briefly, the sunflowers, suggestive of torches or candelabras, floral wallpaper, red and green color fields, and “lullaby” title are all highly evocative of Flemish Renaissance Madonnas. Further, Vincent painted five different iterations during the spectacle of an expansive two-month Arlesian Nativity festival. He was constantly bombarded with images of the Virgin and her Son. Finally, La Berceuse bears striking reminiscences to Antwerp’s Andrieskerk Maris Stella, which Vincent revered.
If it is a Madonna and Child, where is the infant Christ? The rope looped around the woman’s finger rocks the cradle of her newborn child. Vincent wrote he hoped that some viewers, “would feel they were there, inside the cradle.” In this sense, the rope can be symbolic of an umbilicus, connecting the viewer to the painting. Perhaps Vincent has suggested, whomever views this painting, head-on, is the Christ child. Talk about breaking the fourth wall. Silverman concluded:
His Berceuse culminated his art of sacred realism, shorn of miraculous rescues and visionary ruminations but nonetheless vested with spiritual force and the consoling function associated with religious art.
Do you think that over the same period he conceived Sunflowers and La Berceuse as a Madonna and Child, his “consoling” experiments precluded or anticipated innovating a Last Supper?
To earn a more robust understanding about Vincent’s Symbolist art, we will consider several artistic influences he was parsing over the summer of 1888: colorizing Barbizon master Jean-François Millet’s pious genre scenes with Delacroix’s luminous palette, the genius of Rembrandt’s subtle symbolism, and the search, with his brother Theo and artist comrades Paul Gauguin, Émile Bernard and others, for a “Southern Renaissance” of twelve “artist-apostles.”
Vincent’s letters to Bernard grant unparalleled insight into Vincent’s mind. Not only did Vincent consider himself the teacher in this relationship, he felt unencumbered in baring his most intimate thoughts. In the summer of 1888, Bernard began studying the Bible. The son of a pastor, and once a lay-preacher, himself, Vincent wryly encouraged him, exalting:
An artist greater than all artists – disdaining marble and clay and paint – working in LIVING FLESH. I.e. this extraordinary artist, hardly conceivable with the obtuse instrument of our nervous and stupefied modern brains, made neither statues nor paintings nor even books….. he states it loud and clear.. he made.. living men, immortals. That’s serious, you know, especially because it’s the truth.
Although he detested organized religion after his many failures with it, Vincent still worshiped Jesus Christ. Their discussions about the Bible and Symbolism began to unfurl. This first exchange inspired Vincent to revisit an image he had practiced many times, Millet’s Sower. Now, however, he would tackle it from a new angle, as he explained:
Can we now paint the sower with color, with simultaneous contrast between yellow and purple for example (like Delacroix’s Apollo ceiling, which is precisely yellow and purple), yes or no? Yes — definitely.
Unleashing himself from perceived convention, Vincent was devising a symbolic language that resonated through color itself. A few months later, he revelled in the throes of his new artistic style, reflecting:
Later on, when I’ve taken those experiments further, the sower will still be the first attempt in that genre. The night café is a continuation of the sower, as is the head of the old peasant and of the poet…
Vincent was not referring to Café Terrace, but to The Night Café. He penned this sentiment hours after completing the latter, hours before beginning the former, outside at night on the Place du Forum in the center of Arles; further actualizing his newfound, undoubtedly symbolic genre.
As Vincent and Bernard’s discussions about the possibilities of a new, symbolic, and distinctly Biblical Renaissance in art blossomed, Bernard invoked the Symbolist poetry of Charles Baudelaire, mailing this quatrain:
Rembrandt – sad hospital filled full with murmurings
Decorated only with a great crucifix
Where the tearful prayer exhales from the filth,
And brusquely traversed by a ray of winter.
Vincent immediately seethed:
Ah… Rembrandt…. all admiration for Baudelaire aside — I venture to assume, especially on the basis of those verses…. that he knew more or less nothing about Rembrandt. I’ve just found and bought here a little etching after Rembrandt, a study of a nude man, realistic and simple; he’s standing, leaning against a door or column in a dark interior. A ray of light from above skims his downturned face and the bushy red hair. You’d think it a Degas for the body, true and felt in its animality. But see, have you ever looked closely at ‘the ox’ or the interior of a butcher’s shop in the Louvre? You haven’t looked closely, and Baudelaire infinitely less so.
The etching Vincent mentioned is Eugene Gaujean’s Christ at the Column. More on this influential contrapposto figure later. Why did Vincent think Bernard and Baudelaire failed to appreciate Rembrandt’s depiction of a seemingly straightforward ox carcass? Because they were unaware of its rich history. Today, it is widely accepted (among art history wonks) that Rembrandt distilled the essence of a storied Flemish vanitas tradition that depicted the Prodigal Son parable by prominently featuring a flayed carcass as allegorical of Christ’s crucifixion; which Vincent certainly knew. But there’s much more to it than that. The ox is also the symbol of Saint Luke. That summer, Vincent had reminded Bernard:
The symbol of Saint Luke, the patron of painters, is, as you know, an ox; we must therefore be as patient as an ox if we wish to labor in the artistic field.
He further explained:
The patron of painters––St Luke––physician, painter, evangelist — having for his symbol––alas––nothing but the ox––is there to give us hope.
This is fertile ground to examine how Vincent viewed symbolism. Numerous Correspondences are all happening at once in the Rembrandt: the butchered ox stands for Christ, for His crucifixion, but also for Luke, and also for butchers, and painters, and evangelists, and patience, and labor, and suffering and even castration. An allegorical self-portrait of the artist’s true plight and destiny, Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox ultimately embodies salvation as the artist lives on forever in his canvas. This is what the great minds ponder. Vincent chided Bernard’s lack of perception:
I can only reply, come on, just look a little more closely than that; really, it’s worth the effort a thousand times over. […] And to enjoy such a thing is like coitus, the moment of the infinite
“Nothing less than aesthetic ecstasy had become Vincent’s goal.”
Nothing less than aesthetic ecstasy had become Vincent’s goal. Discovering a hidden symbol on one’s own is the Eureka moment. Just as exciting; the moment an artist creates one, opening in essence, a conduit to the universe. In the same breath Vincent derided Bernard’s ignorance of Flemish symbolism, he praised one of Bernard’s ten pictures of a brothel he had just received:
A thousand thanks for sending your drawings. I very much like […] the one washing herself, a grey effect embellished with black, white, yellow, brown. It’s charming.
He was coy in his praise. The same day he applauded to Theo it was, “very Rembrandtesque.” And what is so “Rembrandtesque” about this prostitute washing herself? Perhaps because it is the first example of either artist crafting a subject within window mullions that form a cross as though bearing a crucifix. Vincent would add this image and the contrapposto Christ to his “well-stocked memory.”
Vincent’s search for a “Southern Renaissance of Biblical Symbolism” was influenced by a style Bernard had been developing, Cloisonnism. Almost a knee-jerk reaction to Georges Seurat’s Pointillism, which Bernard and fellow artist Louis Anquetin considered a “reduction of pictorial intensity, resulting in static, wooden figures,” they developed this form. They took a cue from Japanese prints, by outlining bold, flat color fields with dark contours, giving their work a stained glass window effect.
Vincent introduced the newly imported Japanese prints to both Bernard and Anquetin while living in Paris; perhaps even Hiroshige’s View of the Theater Street by Night. Vincent owned this print and art historian Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov explained that it likely inspired both Anquetin’s Avenue de Clichy and Vincent’s Café Terrace.
Art critic Edouard Dujardin hailed Avenue de Clichy as “the first appearance of a rather new and special manner,” defining the style as Cloisonnism. Vincent’s feelings about this review were mixed. While he was elated for Anquetin to receive such acclaim, he knew Bernard and Anquetin had developed the style together. He also believed Bernard had surpassed Anquetin’s attempts in this new art form. He thus shared Bernard’s ire that Dujardin failed to mention Bernard’s contributions. From then on, Bernard would be guarded about who should receive critical acclaim for movement births, like Symbolism. While devising his first Symbolist project, The Sower with Setting Sun, Vincent praised the symbolism and influence from Anquetin’s Harvest:
There are many repetitions of yellow in the earth, neutral tones, resulting from the mixing of violet with yellow, but I could hardly give a damn about the veracity of the colour. Better to make naive almanac pictures — old country almanacs, where hail, snow, rain, fine weather are represented in an utterly primitive way. The way Anquetin got his Harvest so well. I don’t hide from you that I don’t detest the countryside — having been brought up there, snatches of memories from past times, yearnings for that infinite of which the Sower, the sheaf, are the symbols, still enchant me as before. But when will I do the starry sky, then, that painting that’s always on my mind?
Vincent wouldn’t tackle a starry night until Café Terrace several months later. “Always on his mind,” it would be a distinctly Symbolist venture as his “search for sacred art” incorporated Cloisonnism with his plein air and impasto techniques; developing an identity all his own.
We will briefly consider one more example, so far, overlooked by art historians. Vincent’s Quay with Sand Barges is a Symbolist rendering of Delacroix’s Christ Asleep during the Tempest.
Vincent loved this Delacroix, praising it in five summer, 1888 letters, with descriptions like:
Delacroix paints a Christ using an unexpected light lemon note, this colorful and luminous note in the painting being what the ineffable strangeness and charm of a star is in a corner of the firmament.
He wrote Theo, the “little lemon yellow for the halo, the aureole — speaks a symbolic language through color itself.” Delacroix created a representation that anyone with eyes, despite knowing anything about Christianity, could at least, on a visceral level, understand. The men fear for their lives. Except one. He must know something the others do not. He knows, they will be okay. The Delacroix is, at the very least, a drama that inspires the curious viewer to learn more about this boat full of men in perilous waters.
When we consider Quay with Sand Barges replicates not only the color of Delacroix’s sea and likeness of his boat, but also, as evidenced in an earlier sketch, Vincent has transformed Arles’ cityscape into a mountain; there is little doubt the Delacroix heavily inspired Vincent’s composition. In fact, we need only read this admonition to Bernard when he gifted it to him, “If the study I’m sending you in exchange doesn’t suit you, just look at it a little longer,” repeating this demand again in the next paragraph; echoing earlier calls to study Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox more carefully. Or, as I would sometimes like to scream, in my best Jessie from Toy Story 2 voice, “Dammit, Bernard, there’s symbols in there!”
How bold should an artist be in allegory crafting? There are vast tracts of land. An as-yet uncontacted South American tribe could supply a gut-level interpretation of Christ Asleep During the Tempest. The same cannot be said for the Slaughtered Ox. While the ox was a common European symbol four hundred years ago, today its meaning is largely lost. Even farther down the scale, to perceive the symbolism in Quay with Sand Barges, requires an intimate understanding of Vincent and his relationship with Bernard. Writing about his Sower with Setting Sun, Vincent hoped to inspire the largest group possible:
I’m beginning more and more to look for a simple technique that perhaps isn’t Impressionist. I’d like to paint in such a way that if it comes to it, everyone who has eyes could understand it.
But was his inspiration successful? His words invoke the Biblical parable of the Sower. And as I write this, seed falls barren on the reader who does not comprehend my reference (assuming such a reader has made it this far). One can only cast a net so wide, but still hopes the diligent neophyte discovers, through research if need-be, the deeper meaning. Crafting an allegory that is subtle enough to evoke that sense of awe puzzling-it-out-on-your-own provides, but can also be understood by many, comes down to a lucky stroke of artistic genius. Perhaps, while dining one evening in Arles, just such a thing happened to Vincent. And perhaps, careful viewers today will discover that his Symbolist art sought to sow the seed of Christ’s message.
To be continued…
Part 2 of 2 of this article can be found here.