Gauguin, Self-Portrait with Portrait of Émile Bernard (Les misérables)

Paul Gauguin, Self-Portrait with Portrait of Émile Bernard (Les misérables), 1888, oil on canvas, 44.5 x 50.3 cm (Van Gogh Museum). Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re in the Van Gogh Museum. We’re looking at two paintings, both self-portraits, one by Paul Gauguin and the other by Émile Bernard.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:13] There’s a third self-portrait associated with these two, but it’s not here in this museum.

Dr. Zucker: [0:18] It’s by Van Gogh. The idea behind all three of these was that these artists, who were living in separate places, were going to exchange self-portraits as a way of building a community of artists that were outside of the academic salon.

Dr. Harris: [0:30] This was Van Gogh’s idea, which makes total sense to me because he was always searching for artists who he could feel really in sync with.

Dr. Zucker: [0:38] He got the idea from a tradition that came from Japanese printmakers, who would exchange prints among each other. It’s really a lovely idea.

Dr. Harris: [0:45] It is a lovely idea, and especially for someone who was as lonely and as difficult as Van Gogh was. You could also think about it in the context of just how isolated it often felt in the late 19th century to be an artist and looking back across cultures and across time to a moment when artists worked together in communities and workshops.

Dr. Zucker: [1:05] Now, Van Gogh was down in Provence. He was in the south of France. Gauguin and Émile Bernard were together up in Pont-Aven in Brittany. Both quite rural places but on opposite ends of France.

Dr. Harris: [1:17] Pont-Aven actually was an artists’ community in the late 19th century, a place where artists would come together and paint nature.

Dr. Zucker: [1:24] Gauguin had gone there in hopes of getting away from what he saw as the corrupt society of Paris, into what he hoped would be a more authentic place where people lived much more closely to the land.

Dr. Harris: [1:37] Here in this painting though, he’s specifically identifying himself with a character from a Victor Hugo novel, “Les Miserables.” The idea is a hero very much like the kinds of heroes we have in Hollywood movies today, a loner who does the right thing.

Dr. Zucker: [1:52] Think John Wayne, Harrison Ford. These are people who are often breaking laws in order to do the right thing. He is, while not breaking laws, at least breaking rules.

Dr. Harris: [2:02] It may be hard for us to see that today when we look at this painting, because it looks very beautiful and like many other Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings that we love. To 19th-century eyes, this looked harsh and garish in its colors. It looked unfinished. It looked uncomposed.

Dr. Zucker: [2:18] Gauguin says in a letter to Van Gogh describing the painting that this was abstract. It’s so interesting because now, when we think of abstract, we often think of geometric shapes and not representational painting. For Gauguin, this was abstract.

[2:31] It was the turning away from the careful delineation of light and shadow, what would’ve seemed to the eyes of a 19th-century viewer to be very aggressive painting.

Dr. Harris: [2:40] Let’s go back to that idea of the loner. How does Gauguin attempt to communicate that idea of the outsider here?

Dr. Zucker: [2:48] For one thing, he’s not in the center of the canvas. He’s pushed himself off to the left. He’s placed a floral wallpaper in back of him, which he actually makes fun of in his letter to Van Gogh.

Dr. Harris: [2:57] He characterizes it as girlish, or feminine.

Dr. Zucker: [3:00] He’s trying to create a contrast between that ornate bourgeois wallpaper and the harsh figure himself.

Dr. Harris: [3:06] He forms that stark diagonal line across the lower left corner of the painting.

Dr. Zucker: [3:11] He does it with shadow. He does it with color. He does it with the heavy outline that describes these forms.

Dr. Harris: [3:18] When you compare it to the Bernard painting, he’s given himself a real look of intensity.

Dr. Zucker: [3:23] This is a little bit confusing because you were referring to the other painting by Bernard. But Bernard also shows up in the upper right-hand corner of this painting. What we’re seeing is a canvas by Gauguin that’s being sent to Van Gogh.

[3:36] Bernard paints his own self-portrait in the upper right corner of Gauguin’s painting. This is actually two self-portraits. You’re right. Gauguin really does look mischievous.

Dr. Harris: [3:46] I think mischievous is an understatement. [laughs] If I saw him coming down the street, I would go the other way.

Dr. Zucker: [3:51] This intensity also comes out so clearly in Van Gogh’s portrait that he sent to Gauguin in turn.

Dr. Harris: [3:56] I see it as a kind of scrutinizing, a kind of questioning to us. Who are you? What are your values? Are you sure you think that’s right?

Dr. Zucker: [4:05] There’s a real certainty of his role as existing outside and revealing the truth, even if he has to do so violently. This notion of the avant-garde, this notion of an artist who stands outside but has a greater perspective, is so much based in the previous 100 years of French history, if you think about the French revolutions that took place and a series of political upheavals.

Dr. Harris: [4:26] By the end of the 19th century, you have not only this history of political revolutions but also an enormous mass middle-class marketplace. It’s oppressive. It is demanding art that does certain things, that looks a certain way, that tells certain kinds of stories.

Dr. Zucker: [4:43] The traits that the middle class were looking for, that were expressed in the salon, were sentiment, virtuosity in terms of painting, a kind of rehashing of the traditions of the Baroque and of the Renaissance, but now in more modern scenes.

Dr. Harris: [4:56] Well, and much more sentimental. I mean, that’s what the middle class wanted, was paintings that told a nice story, just like we go see Hollywood movies that tell a nice story. Outside of that arena, art is vilified, but these artists wanted to do something different.

[5:10] As they’re vilified, these artists are making themselves into outsider heroes.

[5:15] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Gauguin, Self-Portrait with Portrait of Émile Bernard (Les misérables)," in Smarthistory, February 8, 2017, accessed June 13, 2024,