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Van Gogh’s chair from 1888 is one of the most interesting still lifes in the history of art. And it is kept today in one of the richest museums in London: the National Gallery

Van Gogh is celebrated today as one of the best known and most respected artists in the world. And it has had and continues to have a strong influence on contemporary art as well. But that wasn’t always the case. Throughout his life, in fact, he was one of the most rejected artists in history, even by his friend Gauguin in the Arles period. And today we discover the symbolic work of their differences. 

Van Gogh’s chair. The subject of the work

From a first analysis, the subject of this work could be considered simple: a country chair in a late 19th century house. An unusual still life due to the fact that an object is used that decomposes in a much longer time than a fruit basket or a bouquet of flowers. But in reality, an important symbol that tells a story and makes the subject anything but simple. 

Van Gogh and Gauguin in Arles

When Van Gogh moved to Arles, a small village in the south of France, in 1888 his greatest desire was to create an artists’ colony. And the arrival of his friend Paul Gauguin obviously made him optimistic and happy. He buys several pieces of furniture for their country house and starts painting non-stop, to show his good intentions. This oil painting was created by Van Gogh just a few weeks before his famous emotional breakdown and at a time when his friendship with the now arrived Gauguin is disintegrating. 

Indeed, the choice to move to the south to an area far from the frenzy of Paris did not turn out to be as positive as he initially imagined. He doesn’t like the atmosphere and the people of Arles and can neither concentrate nor work well in this country. So he also begins to argue with Van Gogh, with whom he says he gets along as an artist on very few topics. 

And even Van Gogh must have realized the differences in style and ideology between the two. And so he decides to paint their two chairs. The chairs they sit on to create their masterpieces. Two works that will go down in history as: Van Gogh’s chair and Gauguin’s chair. The reason van Gogh painted them is not clear: perhaps to persuade Gauguin to stay in Arles or perhaps just to underline these strong differences of opinion. He also writes in his letters from that period

“What would life be like if we didn’t have the courage to take risks?”

Vincent Van Gogh Van Gogh

‘s chair. Details of the work

The chair in the country house

At the beginning of their adventure, having to furnish the house in Arles for the arrival of his friend Gauguin, Van Gogh gets busy and goes looking for furniture to buy in the country. Among the various objects that he decides to buy, there are also these chairs that make the environment more comfortable and rustic. The message that Van Gogh wants to convey to his guest is that of simplicity and hospitality at the same time. 

The objects on the chair

In this work the choice of objects on Van Gogh’s chair is not at all random. In fact, the artist has carefully chosen which objects to leave on this piece of furniture and how to represent them. The aim is to represent through symbols not only the person using the chair but also his artistic and philosophical approach. On Van Gogh’s chair there are simple objects from everyday life: a pipe and a packet of tobacco. This is because he doesn’t need anything other than the environment that surrounds him to create his works. 

Conversely, in the case of Gauguin’s other work The Chair the books and the candle indicate the need for Gauguin to represent through the imagination and the intellect. What he sees with the mind and not with the eyes. 

The still life in the work

In reality, there is a still life in Van Gogh’s work of a natural nature. In fact, in the background on the left the artist has represented a basket of onions which are sprouting, therefore probably already there for days. In fact, Van Gogh really liked painting natural elements at every stage of their development. In his famous pictures of sunflowers, there are sometimes even almost wilted flowers next to the fresh flowers. This is to underline once again the passage of time and his desire to represent the evolution of what surrounds him in nature. 

The floor of the work

Before moving to Arles, during his period in Paris, Van Gogh also discovered Japanese prints which began to have a very strong influence on his works. Of Japanese art he remains enthusiastic about the colours, the strong contours and the immediacy of the image. In fact, Japanese artists ignore some of the strict rules of Western art, such as those of perspective. Their purpose is to bring the viewer as close as possible to the subject of the work. And Van Gogh does the same in this work. He does not use the rules of perspective to create the floor, but instead exaggerates perspective through the tiles. Thus it creates a vertigo effect that makes the floor seem to tilt completely towards us. 

Van Gogh’s signature

Van Gogh also doesn’t always sign his works. But when he decides to add his signature, he always does so in the most discreet spaces and ways possible. In this case, for example, if it is not known that it is the artist’s signature, the writing could be confused with the name of the company that manufactured the box in the background. A detail that does not go unnoticed but that wants to remain discreet. 

The decisive and evident brushstrokes

From a technical point of view, Van Gogh is by no means discreet. Indeed, one of the characteristics of the 19th century art of the Academy is that of having a smooth finish. The viewer must not realize that the artist had to use paint and brush to create the work on canvas. The brushstrokes in classical 19th century painting must not be seen. This does not happen with Van Gogh. In his works he uses so much color that he even squeezes it directly from the tube onto the canvas. And due to this excessive use of the material, it is impossible to apply the colors and the brushstrokes remain very material. But this becomes one of the most appreciated characteristics by us today and in many of his works these wide and colorful brush strokes become his main characteristic. 

Van Gogh’s chair. The empty chair as a portrait

Van Gogh may have borrowed the idea of ​​using an empty chair as a form of symbolic portrait from a well-known illustration by the English artist Luke Fildes, showing the chair in which he died Charles Dickens. 

The objects on Van Gogh’s chairs as opposed to the work of Fildes, however, were certainly designed specifically to identify the chairs themselves. And the choice of colors and composition seem to be almost a representation of the two artistic theories of Van Gogh and Gauguin. In fact, Gauguin had always encouraged his friend to represent following his own imagination. The characteristic of Van Gogh’s works, however, is to enhance what he sees and is already in nature. And his artistic philosophy is based on the exaltation of the model, of what he finds around him.

Two distant points of view resulting in two completely different chairs. Van Gogh’s chair is represented in light colors in broad daylight and performs its functions as a chair, nothing more. Gauguin’s instead has a candle light that illuminates the darkness. The very representation of the imagination that illuminates his works. 

Cover: Vincent Van Gogh, Van Gogh’s Chair, 1888, oil on canvas, National Gallery, London

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