Published  28/10/2005

Gauguin's Vision

Gauguin's Vision

National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh
6 July–2 October 2005

One of the finest paintings in the collection of the National Gallery of Scotland, Paul Gauguin's 'Vision After the Sermon: Jacob wrestling with the Angel' (1888) formed the subject of an exhibition in Edinburgh this summer (July-October). Gauguin's iconic work is well known by art historians and students all over the world for the pivotal role it played in his career and the effect it had on his artist contemporaries, and subsequently the history of art. 'Vision After the Sermon' was purchased by the National Gallery in 1925 for a mere £1,150 by the then director, James Caw. Considering the animosity with which the British public had responded to the first exhibitions of post-Impressionism in London in 1910 and 1912, by Roger Fry, this was an inspired and courageous choice. The Gallery's status internationally has been maintained by this important work. The exhibition was expertly curated by Belinda Thomson, who has presented the work in an appropriate and proper context.

'Vision After the Sermon' broke convention from the artist's style. Formally, it is an exciting and dramatic work using clear-cut shapes of black and white against a dramatic red background. The apparent simplicity on first glance soon gives way to a complex meaning with layers of interpretation. As Thomson observes, 'Few paintings of its period can have given rise to more analysis and critique, more speculation, admiration or recrimination'.1 In both contemporary and art historical importance this painting has been described in superlative terms. In Gauguin's lifetime, 'Vision After the Sermon' was pronounced, 'Prodigious, illuminating, revelatory, capable of giving the initiated access to hidden mysteries'.2 More recently it has been described as, 'The greatest and most mysterious of Gauguin's works', the key by which 'all the doors of the 20th century were unlocked'.3 Gauguin has been described as the most important European symbolist of the fin-de-siecle. His influence on modern art and Art Nouveau is widely acknowledged.

In 1888, 'Vision After the Sermon' broke radically with Gauguin's previous work. He had considered himself to be an Impressionist. The dramatic red ground, a shrunken cow and large praying women in the foreground, were, indeed, the very antithesis of Impressionism. It was symbolic, spiritual and primitive in execution. It is generally accepted as the first masterpiece in his career, yet there is a rare quality in his early still-life works in spite of their more traditional form. Gauguin himself described 'Vision' thus:

I have just painted a religious picture, very clumsily; but it interested me and I like it. I wanted to give it to the church of Pont-Aven. Naturally they don't want it. A group of Breton women are praying, their costumes a very intense black. The bonnets a very luminous yellowy-white. The two bonnets to the right are like monstrous helmets. An apple tree cuts across the canvas, dark purple with its foliage drawn in masses like emerald green clouds with greenish yellow chinks of sunlight. The ground (pure vermillion). In the church it darkens and becomes a browny red. The angel is dressed in violent ultramarine blue and Jacob in bottle green. The angel's wings pure chrome yellow.1 The angel's hair chrome2 and the feet flesh orange. I think I have achieved in the figures a great simplicity, rustic and superstitious. The whole thing is very severe ...4

'Vision After the Sermon' exerted a tremendous influence on other artists, which this exhibition illustrates. From the point that this work was produced, Gauguin's status among his peers altered. He was considered as the leader of a new painting by some, yet the work also alienated artists such as Emile Bernard who resented Gauguin's rise to fame especially because he believed that his own painting of 'Breton Women in the Meadow' (1888), painted earlier, was the source for Gauguin's great painting. Bernard accused Gauguin of plagiarism.

The daring colour and dramatic composition that characterise Gauguin's canvas were of course, in great contrast to most work in the 1880s, where a truth to nature and a photographic representation were deemed necessary requisites for art. An apparently arbitrary use of primary colour and the distortion of visual truth enabled Gauguin to infuse the image with a spiritual resonance of a visionary kind. Intuition, imagination and dream images that later formed the basis of the Surrealist movement in art, and the formal manipulation of the picture plane that preoccupied Abstract Expressionists, were used by Gauguin in a wholly original and daring manner. In religious terms, the individual interpretation of Gauguin's 'Vision After the Sermon', offered tremendous freedom to interpret biblical scenes and spiritual phenomena, out with the traditional forms commissioned by the Catholic Church.

The National Gallery of Scotland's exhibition examines the creation of Gauguin's famous work from historical, iconographic and technical perspectives; it draws upon a wide range of sources including aspects of the area of Brittany's history and piety. Gauguin valued popular forms of art such as woodcuts, pottery, carving and Japanese prints. In many respects, he was ahead of his time, not least of which is the lack of regard for the hierarchy that existed, whereby painting and sculpture were more important than ceramics or print making. In all media, Gauguin adopted a personal approach. His pottery vase in the exhibition is a case in point and his ceramic sculptures and fans.

Gauguin first described 'Vision After the Sermon' as a religious painting, calling it 'Apparition'. In late 1888, he was obliged to title it formally for an exhibition when it became 'Vision After the Sermon', after 'Women in Prayer' and 'Struggle between Angels' were rejected. It has also been known as 'Jacob Wrestling with the Angel' and 'The Struggle of Jacob and the Angel'.

The painting depicts a very physical encounter between Jacob and the angel; the flanking of the picture with the distinct shape of the Breton women's headdresses give it a spiritual theatricality unlike any other painting. The exhibition plays an important role in placing the work in context and including in the show works depicting Breton girls and women by numerous artists, such as Emile Bernard, Paul Sérusier, Maurice Denis, Armand Seguin, Wladyslaw Slewinski and Charles Laval. Maurice Denis also painted 'Jacob Wrestling with the Angel' (1893), which is a decoratively rich work but one that does not approach the spiritual drama of Gauguin's masterpiece.

'Vision After the Sermon' was painted by Gauguin on his second trip to Pont-Aven in 1888 where he planned to stay for seven or eight months. Two years earlier, he had spent a three-month period there - like many artists he sought the opportunity of working plein air in the country during the summer months. He responded too, to problems with money and a general dissatisfaction with urban life, with 'a broad pessimism about the corrupt state of modern urban society, its blind belief in scientific progress, and its loss of contact with the soil and with the natural cycles of life'.5 What began as a necessary retreat turned out to be a significant move in terms of his future as an artist.

Pont-Aven was a small town with a population of some 1,400, but still had basic amenities. The country was varied and artists gravitated there during the summer months. The presence of foreign artists was noted by Gauguin in a letter to his wife: 'There are almost no French, all foreigners, a Dane and two Danish women, the brother of Hagborg and lots of Americans'.6

Drawing underpinned Gauguin's painting and served a number of purposes. His sketchbooks of this period 'veer from one subject to another, and are often interspersed with diagrams, notes, names and addresses. He also made a number of fine figure drawings on large sheets of superior paper, working in charcoal and pastel from the life'.7 Gauguin did many drawings of the intricate Breton ceremonial headdresses: 'Whether or not he was aware of the fact, different headdress shapes denoted the wearer's class, occupation, and marital status as well as geographical origin'.8 Variations were worn for work, formal occasions and for mourning, ribbons were added for individual display. Among Gauguin's drawings are rapidly executed pages of sketches of animals, birds and children - simple and illustrative. His illustrations on ceramics possess a simple, somewhat primitive drawn quality.

The first experience of Brittany in 1885 enabled Gauguin to work in a new environment and in the company of strangers. In 1887, he went further afield to Martinique. In the Caribbean, he wanted to find new energy living with nature 'as a savage'. Following this trip he was in poor health, but had found a new sense of direction. He developed a friendship with Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), who was very keen on Gauguin's Martinique work. Although Van Gogh went to Provence, and Gauguin to Brittany, they developed a close friendship through letters. Through the experience of Martinique and a supportive friendship with Van Gogh, Gauguin developed a more confident style, a 'virile eloquence of lines',9 to quote the critic Félix Fénéon. The works were underpinned by rigorous drawing and original compositions; the colours were powerful and distinctive.

On his second trip to Pont-Aven, Gauguin wrote to his artist friend, Claude-Emile Schuffenecker (1851-1934), 'Give me the country. I love Brittany: I find in it the savage and the primitive'.10 Later, he referred to Brittany as having, 'an abstract sadness about it'. In August 1888, in another most revealing letter to Schuffenecker, he wrote:

Do not paint too much from nature. Art is an abstraction; extract it from nature while dreaming in front of it and pay more attention to the act of creation than to the result ... I'm making good progress with my latest works, and I think you will find a new note, or rather the affirmation of my earlier attempts at synthesising one form and one colour, without either being the dominant.11

In the same year Gauguin introduced red into his landscapes - at times suggesting the influence of Japanese prints such as Hiroshige and Hokusai, which he owned, with flat blocks of colour and a calligraphic, sensitive, linear division of the picture plane. Red had also been used in still-life paintings, making the dramatic red in 'Vision After the Sermon' less of an enigma than is perhaps first perceived. Indeed, Gauguin's use of non-naturalistic elements was becoming increasingly important in his work. The softer brushwork and palette of Gauguin's impressionist work gave way in Brittany to a melancholy and severity in mood, and to a freer use of expressive colour that enabled him to convey the religiosity of the local people. Gauguin wrote to Van Gogh in October 1888:

I think I have achieved in the figures a great simplicity, rustic and superstitious. The whole thing is very severe. The cow under the tree is very small in comparison with reality and rearing up. For me in this picture the landscape and the struggle exist only in the imagination of the people praying owing to the sermon, which is why there is contrast between the life-size people and the struggle in its non-natural, disproportionate landscape.12

The theme of Jacob wrestling with the angel has been portrayed throughout the history of art. The story itself, from the Old Testament Book of Genesis, tells of Jacob's encounter with the angel. There are a number of interpretations theologically: the angel is seen by some to be Angel Uriel, by others to be God, or goodness itself. More plausibly in modern theology is the notion that Jacob's struggle with the angel is, in fact, the inner struggle that takes place in every Christian soul. For 19th-century Romantics, Jacob came to represent the artist, the anguished soul whose lot it was to reveal the secrets of life itself by wrestling with nature, by a confrontation with the world. Eugène Delacroix's mural of 'Jacob Wrestling with the Angel' (c.1861) in the Church of Saint-Sulpice, Paris, established considerable interest in the subject among artists in France in the mid-19th century. Gustave Doré (1866) and Gustave Moreau (c.1878) also made works on the subject of Jacob, which Gauguin would most probably have seen. Belinda Thomson states:

In this remarkable picture Gauguin succeeded in imbuing a deliberately crude and simplified composition with a higher level of sophistication, raising it to a higher plane of meaning. His masterpiece resulted from a slow distillation and sudden insight: an awareness of widely different traditions of art; a readiness to work with those traditions but cast them in a new, reinvigorated style; an ability to imagine afresh an ancient story through reference to contemporary customs and religious practices.13

The Edinburgh exhibition is visually splendid with Gauguin's masterpiece taking centre stage. It is accompanied by an excellent scholarly catalogue - the product of meticulous research. Connections are made with works prior to Gauguin's painting and subsequently the remarkable effect his work had on contemporary artists and many who followed. This is an exemplary exhibition in all respects.

Dr Janet McKenzie

1. Thomson B. Introduction: Paul Gauguin's 'Vision of the Sermon'. In: Gauguin's Vision. Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 2005: 13.
2. Ibid: 13.
3. Ibid: 13.
4. Paul Gauguin to Vincent Van Gogh, quoted by Lesley Stevenson. Gauguin's Vision: A Discussion of Materials and Technique. In: Ibid: 111.
5. Thomson. Ibid: 25.
6. Ibid: 26.
7. Ibid: 29.
8. Ibid: 29.
9. Ibid: 35.
10. Ibid: 39.
11. Ibid: 42.
12. Gauguin to Van Gogh. Ibid: 53.
13. Ibid: 75.

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