Interpretive Resource

Overview: Gauguin's Belief in the "Art of Abstraction"

An overview of Gauguin's imaginative, decorative painting of women caught in violent winds in an Arles park.

Art Institute of Chicago. Impressionism and Post-Impressionism in The Art Institute of Chicago. Art Institute of Chicago, 2000, p. 117.

After weaning himself away from the Impressionism that he practiced until the mid-1880s, Paul Gauguin began to maintain that "art is abstraction." He shared this theory with Vincent van Gogh during their brief sojourn together in Arles in late 1888, urging the Dutch artist to paint not from nature but entirely from his imagination. Gauguin apparently conceived The Arlesiennes (Mistral), one of seventeen paintings he produced in Arles, in part as a pedagogic demonstration piece for van Gogh’s benefit. Like some of the latter’s works, it pictures the Poet’s Garden, a public park in front of the Yellow House, but in a completely different, radically simplified style. We readily make out a path, fountain, bush, fence, and the figures of four women in distinctive local costume, two of whom seem to protect themselves against the mistral, the violent wind that often sweeps the region. But Gauguin arranged these elements with an eye primarily to decorative effect, paying scant attention to conventional notions of perspectival coherence or realistic detail. A sense of enigma pervades the scene, epitomized by the curious yellow cones on the right, which in fact represent packed hay used to protect plants from harsh weather. Some have been tempted to read a face in the bush, but scientific study of the paint layers offers no evidence that the artist intended to create such an effect.

Initially, van Gogh was receptive to the approach exemplified in The Arlesiennes, writing in mid-November to his brother Theo that Gauguin had given him the "courage to imagine things." Ultimately, however, van Gogh required a dialogue between the material and the imaginary. Disagreement over this question exacerbated the tensions between the two men, fostering the crisis that scuttled van Gogh’s dream of a "Studio of the South."

landscapes, weather/seasons, women


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