France 1848 – French Polynesia 1903
Portrait of the artist with 'The yellow Christ'
[Portrait de l'artiste au 'Christ jaune'] 1890-91
oil on canvas
canvas 38.0 (h) x 46.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchase with the assistance of Philippe Meyer and patronage organised by the Nikkei newspaper 1994
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / René-Gabriel Ojéda
In the history of European portraiture, since the days of the Renaissance, the sitter was often painted with their personal possessions, and particular care was taken with gestures and facial expressions to denote the subject’s personality. In the tradition of self-portraiture, an artist posed himself surrounded by his work.
As seen here, Gauguin has provided an innovative new take on the art of self-portraiture. He has placed himself in front of two works of great personal significance. One of these is a glazed stoneware pot which is a self-portrait from early 1889.1 Gauguin considered the ceramic to be ‘one of my best things’, and intended it as a gift to Madeleine Bernard (Emile Bernard’s sister), with whom he was infatuated. The distorted self-portrait was in keeping with its medium of stoneware—according to Gauguin, taking on the appearance of being ‘scorched in the ovens of hell’, as if ‘glimpsed by Dante on his tour of the Inferno’.2
The other reference work Gauguin includes in his self-portrait is a cropped mirror image of his painting The yellow Christ 18893, painted not long before.The yellow Christ was one of Gauguin’s most important paintings of this period, interpreting a religious subject in a radical style combining traditional Christian imagery with a fantastic coloured palette. The motif of the Christ was derived from a polychrome wooden sculpture of a crucifixion from the eighteenth century, in the Chapel of Trémalo near Pont-Aven. Gauguin’s Christ, however, is painted in brilliant yellows, oranges and browns, blues and greens. The almost abstract forms, outlined in blue, add further to his radical interpretation of the subject and are a perfect summation of Gauguin’s mature Pont-Aven style.
The incorporation of these two important works in his self-portrait reveals much about the artist’s self-perception—Gauguin considers himself both martyr and savage. His letters in late 1889 make reference to his keen sense of martyrdom in his fight against artistic mediocrity, as he writes to Bernard advising that in comparison to his own predicament, Bernard was too young ‘to carry the cross’.4 When arranging the gift of his ceramic self-portrait to Madeleine Bernard, he described the work as ‘the head of Gauguin, the savage’.5
For the self-portrait, Gauguin has set himself between these two objects which express the duality of his existence. His face seems burdened by the path he has chosen. Yet he portrays himself as a determined character, dressed simply, with a steely gaze; as a man who despite the loss of his family and his failure to sell his art continues to pursue his dream.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
- Richard Brettel, Françoise Cachin, Claire Frèches-Thory et al., The art of Paul Gauguin, Washington D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1988, cat. 65, pp. 128–29.
- Letter to Emile Bernard, June 1890, letter 106, in Maurice Malingue (ed.) and Henry J. Stenning (trans.), Paul Gauguin: letters to his wife and friends, London: The Saturn Press, 1946, p. 148.
- Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo NY.
- November 1889, letter 92, in Malingue and Stenning, p. 130.
- Letter to Madeleine Bernard, end of November 1889, letter 96, in Malingue and Stenning, p. 133.