Paul Gauguin’s painting, Vision After the Sermon, is a work about the struggle of temptation, the pain of love, and the conflict of the artist. Vision After the Sermon is inspired by the art of Japan, the Celtic roots of Britany, and a woman. More about her later.
Who was Gauguin?
Generally Gauguin is portrayed as a narcissistic man who deserted his wife and 5 children, then took off to Tahiti and French Polynesia where he proceeded to take several young teens as lovers. On top of that, he is generally credited with pushing Van Gogh over the edge and inciting the famous ear cutting incident. With just those few details it is easy to dislike the man, and be critical of his art. As is usually the case, the real story is not so clear cut, nor is Gauguin so easily slotted into the role legend, gossip, and history have given him.
I haven’t time here to tell his whole story, so I will stick to the parts that lead up to and influence this painting. However, if you want to dig deeper I’ll link in my sources to my favorite video on Gauguin.
Childhood in Lima, Peru
Gauguin was 18 months old when his father, a liberal journalist, became concerned about the political climate in Paris and decided to move the family to Peru where his mother had relatives, important relatives. Sadly, Gauguin’s father died of a heart attack on the trip and Gaugin, his sister Marie, and their mother were welcomed by her paternal granduncle to Lima. As it turns out, that uncle’s son-in-law became the president of Peru shortly after they arrived, and for the next years Gauguin was raised in the Presidential palace.
During these formative years, Gauguin’s mother, who had a fondness for Pre-Columbian pottery, began to collect Inca pots. Many of the European colonist’s living in Peru thought the pots barbaric, but I can imagine the fascination they would have held for a young child. Gauguin’s life long fascination with traditional and primitive cultures began here. Another lifelong fascination was with traditional women’s clothing.
Gauguin has said that one early memory of his mother was her going out wearing the traditional one eyed veil in Lima. The veil provided anonymity and freedom for women to move about the city. Several times the leaders of Lima tried to outlaw the veils, feeling they gave women the ability to “misbehave” and flirt when no one knew who they were. (Or perhaps they were afraid they would unintentionally flirt with a family member and be found out). But the women would go on strike, refusing to perform any household tasks until the bans were lifted.
While Gauguin left Peru when he was just 7, his time there seems to have left an indelible mark on him. He spoke of it often, and when he returned to South America as an adult he said it was like coming home.
Stock Broker and Husband
Gauguin’s family returned to Paris when he was 7, and it was a struggle for Paul. He didn’t speak the language, found the culture strange, and had no friends. His mother put him in the care of his grandfather and he was sent to a Catholic boarding school for a time. He hated it.
While we see his early religious training in his works, we also see the adult Gauguin abandoning organized religion and searching out other spiritual connections. I wonder if the roots of that rejection lay in the negative memories of his boarding school days.
After Gauguin finished school he went to sea, first as a merchant marine and then in the French navy. These travels expanded his exposure to other cultures, while also allowing for a great many sexual encounters. The “girl in every port” saying was evidently more than accurate when applied to Gauguin.
Finally, returning to Paris, a friend arranged for him to work as a stockbroker. He was evidently quite successful, at both his job and his own investments. During this time he met a lovely Danish woman, Mette-Sophie, and they married. Over the next 10 years they would have 5 children. By all accounts Gauguin was happy with his family and doted on his children.
While he would spend the next decade working as a stock broker during the week, he also began to paint. He lived near and became friends with many of the Impressionist painters, and would display some of his works in their shows.
Then the economy of France took a dive, and the family was struggling financially and had to move. At this juncture, Gauguin decided to quit his job and pursue painting full time. The family went from a very comfortable lifestyle to living in poverty. Eventually Mette had had enough and returned with their children to Copenhagen.
Mette had believed she’d married an up and coming financier who would be capable of caring for her and their children, but it was obvious to her things were changing and that art was more than hobby to her husband, and that his art was more important than supporting his family. Gauguin followed her to Copenhagen 6 months later, but he hated his life there. Mette’s family finally stepped in and told him to leave; Mette sided with her family. So, Paul, with his oldest son Clovis, moved back to France to pursue painting full time.
That first year back in Paris was a hard one. Living in extreme poverty, Clovis became ill. Since Gauguin couldn’t adequately care for him, Gauguin’s sister (Marie) paid for Clovis to attend a boarding school. Finding it difficult to break back into the art scene in Paris, and at odds with some of his old Impressionist friends, Gauguin decided to move to an artist colony, Pont-Aven in Brittany.
And, here is where our story of The Vision After the Sermon, really begins. Brittany provided some financial relief, as living in the area was much cheaper than Paris, and it provided Gauguin with a new group of artists as companions. Most of these men were much younger than Gauguin and he found himself in the role of leader and mentor. After the pain of the past couple years, the failure of his marriage, losing his family, failing to sell much of his art, this new community provided Gauguin with renewed purpose.
The women of Brittany, when donning their distinctive traditional outfits of bonnets, dresses, and clogs captured Gauguin’s imagination and hinted at a simpler time. Their Catholic religious practices had elements of mysticism which intrigued him, even if he didn’t share their beliefs. Brittany, which means ‘Little Britain’ or Briton in French, was settled by 5 Celtic tribes during Roman times. Retaining their own language and traditional clothing, added a unique ethnic spin to the region. Gauguin seems to have felt a resonance between the people of Brittany and those of his old home in Peru.
Emile and Madeleine Bernard
Among the artist’s in Pont-Aven was a talented 18 year old, Emile Bernard, a deeply religious man who wished to unite his painting and his faith in a new visual language. Some of what we know of the Vision After the Sermon is from letters Bernard wrote years later as he looked back on this period with Gauguin. More importantly, to our story, was the fact that Bernard had a beautiful younger sister, Madeleine.
Madeleine was even more religious than her brother, and was just 17 years old. While Gauguin and Madeleine became friends, and Gauguin painted her, nothing ever developed between the two of them. While Gauguin seems to have had strong feelings for Madeleine, and she will influence several of his paintings, any relationship between them was impossible. Gauguin was 36 years old, married, and without any financial stability. He had nothing to offer the young beauty.
We know that over the course of his life Gauguin would take multiple mistresses, many of them much younger than Madeleine, even have children with them, and then move on, it would seem without a thought. But Madeleine was different. She was the sister of a friend, a deeply religious woman, and this was in an earlier period of Gauguin’s life. Instead of pursuing an affair, it seems, he pined for and lusted after the woman who couldn’t be his.
While many debate the exact meaning of the Vision After the Sermon I think it is this unrequited love (or perhaps unrequited lust) that drives this work.
The Red Background
The red color of the background takes us further out of the natural world. The color dominates Gauguin’s work and is easily the first thing we notice. Using red in this way presents us with a one dimensional, flat space. The cow doesn’t appear to be standing on solid ground, and there is no sense of any mountains or city off in the distance. There is no attempt to create a real landscape. Jacob and the angel are not in a meadow, on a mountain, or along a road. This is not a ‘real’ place.
Naturalism and realism had dominated art for quite some time and this work by Gauguin broke with traditional art, and with the Impressionism that had gained a following. His ground-breaking advancements were neither recognized nor accepted during his life time, but after his death, history would recognize this work as one of the turning points in modern art.
Gauguin described his work as abstract. It is not the true abstraction that will develop over the next decades but it is a movement toward it. By eliminating depth, perspective, and shadow he was moving out of the physical world and into the world of ideas.
Influences: Cloisonnism, Bernard and Japanese prints.
This style, of flat swaths of color with no gradation and no concern about perspective, was influenced by folk art, Japanese prints, and Gauguin’s friend, Emile Bernard. Bernard’s work, which often consisted of bold outlines filled with flat areas of color, is similar to what we see in this work, and resembles Medieval Cloisonné enamel work. The art critic Edouard Dujardin coined the term, cloisonnism, when describing Bernard’s art.
Interestingly, in most Art History texts, the example used to illustrate the characteristics of cloisonnism is not Bernard, but Gauguin’s, particularly his, The Yellow Christ.
In some ways similar to the medieval cloisonne work, are the woodcuts of Japan. The subject matter in Japan was different, often landscapes and plants, but the aesthetic feels similar. Gauguin collected Japanese prints and owned several woodcuts by the artist Hiroshige. It is believed that he borrowed the imagery of the tree cutting across the picture along with the color red, from this print of a plum tree.
Vision After the Sermon melds the many influences on Gauguin up to this point in his career. His early exposure to the folk art of South America, to Incan pottery, and then to Japanese art, combined with the stories of his religious past, give rise to this startling work.
An interesting and charming detail is the cow. It’s an odd addition and one I have no real explanation for. The cow is on our side of the trunk of the apple tree, so perhaps it is to anchor the women in the real world, as opposed to the vision on the opposite side of the trunk. Gauguin himself comments about the work and the cow:
“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.”
Interpreting the Vision After the Sermon
There have been many attempts to interpret what Gauguin intended in this work, most commonly that it is the struggle of every Christian soul between good and evil. I think it’s more specific than that.
The 19th Century Romantics saw the artist’s soul as anguished as it tries to reveal truth, and so Jacob is the struggling artist. Struggling against what, who can say. We do know that Gauguin was struggling with the Parisian art scene and all of its expectations. We know that he was struggling personally with his art, wanting to push the boundaries into new territories, and we know that he felt he was a “savage” living in civilization. So perhaps Jacob is Gauguin, and the angel represents his many different oppressors. Perhaps, but I don’t think so.
I think the painting is about Gauguin’s struggle with his feelings for Madeleine. She is a teen, he a grown man. She is deeply religious and in his mind, pure. He was definitely not. She has her life ahead of her, and is still free to choose a partner. Gauguin is married with a large family. Taking her as a mistress is not an option, marrying her is not an option, but his feelings persist.
A close look at the two figures in the bottom left and bottom right hand will reveal, Madeleine on the left and Gauguin on the right. We have Madeleine’s beautiful, full red lips, and the distinctive shape of her eye, dressed in the traditional bonnet of Brittany. After Madeleine’s family moved to Brittany she adopted the traditional clothing when she attended church services.
Madeleine is pictured in an attitude of prayer, eyes closed. We can imagine that behind those closed eyes she is seeing the vision that Gauguin has painted. Likewise, Gauguin has painted himself as a priest, eyes closed, also, presumably, seeing the vision. We can identify Gauguin by the prominent nose which is present in all of his self-portraits.
Madeleine and Gauguin frame and anchor this work, they provide the context to interpret the struggle that is pictured.
The Apple Tree
We’ve noted the trunk of the tree slashing across the painting, one of the more distinctive features of the work. This is an apple tree, the traditional symbol of temptation in religious art, as it ties the apple to the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden.
In this work, Madeleine is on one side of the tree, Gauguin on the other, symbolizing the temptation. The struggle against the temptation is pictured in Madeleine posed in a position of prayer, and Gauguin painted as a priest.
Throughout his life Gauguin seemed to be seeking some sort of spiritual connection, one that many in his group felt had been lost in the modern age. He didn’t find what he was looking for in the church or in the philosophies of his day, or even in his art. His searching eventually led him to retreat to, what he believed was a simpler, more primitive culture that felt more ‘real’ on the islands of French Polynesia.
After his death he achieved the success he had hoped for in life. His work influenced many of the modern artists who were to follow, particularly Matisse and Picasso.
The sacred and the profane often reside side by side, and we see that in Gauguin. I’m repulsed by the 50 year old man taking a 13 year old mistress, and then deserting her, and then, taking another. His life repels, but his art is challenging and often beautiful. Mostly when I think of him, he just seems sad. The dissonance in his character is likely what made him a compelling artist.
Gauguin died of complications from syphilis at the age of 54, alone on an isolated island in French Polynesia.
Here is the video that I recommended at the beginning of the post.
E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art. (New York, Phaidon Press, 2016)
Professor Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, How to Look at and Understand Great Art, Lecture series, Great Courses
Professor William Koss, History of European Art Lecture series, Great Courses
Sister Wendy Beckett, The Story of Painting (London, Dorsey Kindersley, 2000)
Marilyn Stokstad, Art History. (New Jersey, Pearson Education, 2005)
National Gallery of Art website www.nga.gov
Metropolitan Museum of Art website www.metmuseum.org
The Getty Center www.getty.edu
And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.