GOGH, Vincent van
(b. 1853, Groot Zundert, d. 1890, Auvers-sur-Oise)

Vincent's Chair with His Pipe

December 1888, Arles
Oil on canvas, 92 x 73 cm
National Gallery, London

Catalogue numbers: F 498, JH 1635.

In early December 1888 van Gogh began a pair of pendant paintings of chairs, Gauguin's and his own. These pictures are not just still-lifes, however much the iconography is reminiscent of the allegorical use of motifs in seventeenth-century Dutch still-life. The flame of a candle, for instance, is a commonplace in these, symbolizing light and life. But these paintings are also oblique portraits. On Gauguin's chair van Gogh has placed two books, recognizable from the colour of their covers as contemporary French novels. On his own chair he has placed a pipe and a tobacco pouch, and in the background there are sprouting onions. Gauguin's Chair is a night scene; his own, a daylight scene.

There is a further level of connotation in this pair of paintings. In 1883 van Gogh told his brother of a story he had read about the English novelist Charles Dickens and the illustrator Luke Fildes. When Dickens died Fildes made a drawing which was reproduced in The Graphic, an illustrated periodical whose engravings van Gogh collected. The drawing showed Dickens's workroom and now empty chair. Van Gogh explained to his brother what this image signified for him. He saw it as a symbol of the loss, through death, of the great pioneers of literature and graphic illustration. Moreover these men - especially the illustrators, who had created images to accompany and illustrate modern literature - had, so van Gogh believed, worked in a collaborative and communal spirit. Their artistic community and shared endeavours provided van Gogh with a model for his own dream of a new co-operative society of artists, based on the Studio of the South, which had been initiated by Gauguin's arrival in Arles.