A reconsideration of religious elements in the work of van Gogh and Gauguin, who lived together in the French provincial town of Arles for a brief but productive period in both their careers.
Generations of art critics have regarded both van Gogh and Gauguin as the prototypes for Modernist artists, rebellious individualists who spurned narrow social norms to follow their muses. Popular songs and big-budget movies have celebrated Gauguin’s flight from civilization to a tropical paradise and van Gogh’s inspired, Romantic madness. Cultural historian Silverman (Art Nouveau in Fin-de-Siècle France, 1989, etc.) looks beyond the formulas to examine the religious institutions that influenced the two artists’ spiritual quests and aesthetics. Drawing on their letters, journals, and other writings, she traces the effect of Gauguin’s Catholic upbringing on his imagery and uncovers van Gogh’s roots in the Protestantism of the Dutch Reformed church. Gauguin’s education, at the Petit Séminaire near Orléans under the tutelage of the dynamic educational reformer Bishop Dupanloup, she argues, instilled the principles of “idealist antirationalism” and “cultivation of interior vision” into the young artist, beliefs that persisted through all his conscious rebellions against the Church. Silverman contrasts this attitude with that of van Gogh, who absorbed a respect for the concrete, for material objects and daily tasks, through a religion that regarded labor as a form of worship. Eschewing Gauguin’s allegorical, mystical images, the Dutch artist “expressed his persistent need to render an image so as to be as tangible, physically present, and textural as the canvas on which it was applied.” Analyses of carefully chosen and beautifully reproduced works reveal the lingering presence of each artist’s religious heritage in composition, palette, and content, although Silverman occasionally lapses into baffling abstraction when discussing the artists’ spiritual innovations.
Not the last word on either artist’s creations, but a valuable and timely revision of standard wisdom about the first phase of Modernist art. (198 illustrations, 147 in color)