The Netherlands 1853 – France 1890
Eugène Boch (The poet)
[Le poète] 1888
oil on canvas
canvas 60.0 (h) x 45.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Bequest of Eugène Boch, through the Société des Amis du Louvre 1941
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Although van Gogh announced that he intended to acquaint the people of Arles with art through the medium of portraiture, he struggled to find suitable models in the south. Despite this fastidiousness, he was passionately committed to portraiture. In a letter to his brother Theo on 3 September 1888, van Gogh writes:
And in a picture I want to say something comforting, as music is comforting. I want to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolise and which we seek to confer by actual radiance and vibration of our colourings … Ah! portraiture, portraiture with the thought, the soul of the model in it, that is what I think must come!1
Rather than simply reproduce physical likenesses, van Gogh wanted to explore symbolism and mystery by using colour. He thought he might achieve this through a portrait of a fellow artist. In mid June 1888 van Gogh met Eugène Boch (1855–1941), a Belgian painter (and brother of Anna Boch, a founding member of Les XX), who was staying nearby in Fontvieille. Van Gogh spent considerable time in Boch’s company, fruitlessly planning future artist colonies. This painting sprang from their friendship, and van Gogh imbued it with the admiration he held for his Belgian colleague.
Initially van Gogh recreated Boch’s likeness as accurately as possible, before beginning to exaggerate the colours and tones. He also added supplementary elements: a thin halo encircles Boch’s head with gold, and the background becomes an infinite starry night.
Behind the head, instead of painting the ordinary wall of the mean room, I paint infinity, a plain background of the richest blue that I can contrive, and by this simple combination the bright head against the rich blue background gets a mysterious effect, like a star in the sky, in the depths of an azure sky.2
This work, which van Gogh originally titled The poet, was paired with an opposing portrait of Lieutenant Paul-Eugène Milliet, which he named The lover 1888.3 The poet was designed to represent ‘contemplation’, while The lover would evoke a sense of ‘activity’. Hung side by side in his bedroom at Arles, these works comprised part of a larger series, Décoration, which van Gogh created for his home. The two complementary works are visible on the wall in one of the versions of Van Gogh’s bedroom at Arles 1888.4 Van Gogh accentuated his application of colour theory by contrasting opposite colours not only within each individual work, but also between the pair of portraits when hung together.
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