Three friends. Three beards. Three paintings.
In August 1888, a sensitive, anxious, yet quite ambitious 20-year-old man set out to walk by foot the more than 500 km distance between Paris and Pont-Aven, in order to paint with French artist Paul Gauguin. His beautiful younger sister, 17-year-old Madeleine, accompanied him. His name was Émile Bernard and, despite his young age, he was already on course to leave his mark on the history of modern art. Vincent van Gogh had already met him during their years in Paris, and the two of them kept a tight correspondence afterwards, discussing ideas about art and sending each other sketches. Bernard would often share his poems too, which interested van Gogh and earned his appreciation. They even gossiped at length about fellow artists’ sex lives. Pardon their French.
As Gauguin and Bernard got together and worked side by side for several weeks, a friendship budded between them. But it would be difficult, if not impossible, to imagine their brief honeymoon in Pont-Aven without van Gogh’s binding enthusiasm. After learning that Japanese printmakers often exchanged works among themselves, van Gogh encouraged his colleagues to do the same, as a way to cement their friendship.
Since Bernard and Gauguin were to spend a couple of months together in Pont-Aven, van Gogh was especially keen on seeing them paint each other’s portraits. Bernard felt intimidated by the task at hand, given Gauguin’s seniority and his acclaimed artistry, so he opted instead for a self-portrait. As for Gauguin, in several letters he mentions “studying” Bernard, without being able to figure him out, although he did paint Madeleine’s portrait, after becoming smitten with her beauty and youth. On September 8, 1888, he wrote to van Gogh, giving us an idea of what he thought about his new friend:
“I’m studying young Bernard, whom I don’t know as well as you do; I believe you’ll do him good, and he needs it. He has suffered, of course, and he’s starting out in life full of bile, ready to see man’s bad side. I hope that with his intelligence and his love of art he’ll see one day that goodness is a force against others, and a consolation for our own ills.”
On September 26, 1888 he writes again, complaining about his low morale and “lousy existence, which, aside from work, weighs on me so horribly”. At that time, we know that Gauguin was still set to do a portrait of his friend, as it was initially suggested by van Gogh, but he was feeling rather uninspired. “I shall perhaps do it from memory, but in any case it will be an abstraction. Perhaps tomorrow, I don’t know, it will come to me all at once”, he pondered.
Yet five days later Gauguin completed Self-Portrait with Portrait of Émile Bernard. Dedicated to van Gogh, the painting shows us a troubled and pensive Gauguin, whose melancholy and gravity are contrasted by the vibrant yellow, floral-patterned wallpaper behind him. In the right upper corner hangs a simple sketch of Bernard’s profile awash in blue-green. Down below he scribbled “les misérables”.
We’re very fortunate to have Gauguin’s actual description of the painting, walking us through his thought process. Writing to van Gogh on October 1, 1888 the artist compared his self-representation to Jean Valjean, the oppressed hero in Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables:
“I feel the need to explain what I was trying to do, not that you’re not capable of guessing by yourself, but because I don’t believe that I’ve achieved it in my work. The mask of a thief, badly dressed and powerful like Jean Valjean, who has his nobility and inner gentleness. The rutting blood floods the face, and the tones of a fiery smithy, which surround the eyes suggest the red-hot lava that sets our painters’ souls ablaze. The drawing of the eyes and the nose, like the flowers in Persian carpets, epitomizes an abstract and symbolic art. That girlish little background, with its childish flowers, is there to testify to our artistic virginity. And that Jean Valjean, whom society oppresses, outlawed; with his love, his strength, isn’t he too the image of an Impressionist today? By doing him with my features, you have my individual image, as well as a portrait of us all, poor victims of society, taking our revenge on it by doing good.”
As emotionally charged as Gauguin’s artwork is, I find that it takes on a whole new dimension when compared to Bernard’s own self-portrait, subdued in a bluish melancholy. It’s an unfair comparison, given their differences in experience and maturity at the time, but look how much more voluptuous, alluring and infinitely complex Gauguin’s self-portrait suddenly becomes, how much more lively his skin seems to glow, his misery blending in so effortlessly with the cheerful background. Despite Gauguin’s complaints about an artist’s status, there’s still the faintest glimmer of hope shining through – the hope that art can rehabilitate one’s self, one’s future.
So what did van Gogh think about these two portraits? A few days later, in a letter to Theo van Gogh, his brother and best friend, he writes:
“The Gauguin is immediately remarkable, but I myself like Bernard’s very much, it’s nothing but an idea of a painter, some cursory tones, some blackish lines, but it’s as stylish as real, real Manet. The Gauguin is more studied, taken further. […] For me it certainly has above all the effect of representing a prisoner. Not a hint of cheerfulness. It’s not flesh in the very least, but we can boldly put that down to his intention to make something melancholy; the flesh in the shadows is lugubriously tinged with blue.”
Although physically isolated from his friends, in Arles, van Gogh also painted a self-portrait and dedicated it to Gauguin. The artwork was meant to be not only a representation of himself as an individual, but also as an Impressionist, an endeavor which he described to Theo as follows:
“It’s all ashy against pale Veronese (no yellow). The clothing is that brown jacket trimmed with blue, but in which I’ve exaggerated the brown into purple, and the width of the blue trim. The head is modeled in light-colored thick impasto against a light-colored background with almost no shadows. But I’ve slightly slanted the eyes in the Japanese manner.”
Shortly thereafter, Gauguin joined van Gogh in Arles for nine weeks, until one dramatic and mysterious night which resulted with the latter cutting his ear. Gauguin left for Paris in a rush and later sold van Gogh’s self-portrait for 300 francs, though they continued writing to each other. As for Bernard, he grew very spiteful of Gauguin, who never acknowledged the influence of his younger friend in his Symbolist paintings. Amid bruised egos and hot tempers, these fickle relationships were doomed to fail. At least the portraits they leave behind are more enduring: different in style, but alike in their creators’ pursuit to define themselves as individuals and artists.