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 foreground, dressed in a blue jumper and collared shirt, the artist, Paul Gauguin, directs his determined gaze toward the viewer. His angular jaw line and mop of thick, brown hair create a strong shape in the centre of the composition.
Behind this self-portrait, the gaunt figure of Christ on the cross is not only a mirror image of Gauguin’s earlier painting, The yellow Christ, but a representation of himself as a suffering and betrayed artist. This radical interpretation of a religious subject with bold colouration and abstracted forms is a significant example of Gauguin’s mature painting style.
To the right is another distorted self-portrait in the form of a glazed stoneware pot he made in 1889. Gauguin was pleased with the ceramic, and likened its appearance to an object “scorched in the ovens of hell”. The painting is, therefore, a triple self-portrait.
The genre of portraiture grew more popular in the French salon in the nineteenth century. A subject was often painted surrounded by personal possessions and care was taken to portray the personality of the sitter through gestures and facial expressions. When painting self-portraits artists such as Nicholas Poussin and Gauguin surrounded themselves with their creative work.
The inclusion of two works of art by Gauguin along with his self-portrait tell us much about the artist’s self-perception and creative struggle. The raw nature of the ceramic highlights the artist’s description of the piece as “the head of Gauguin, the savage”. He also likened his desire to battle against artistic mediocrity as “toiling up the steps of a rugged Calvary”
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From audio tour Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay