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

Portrait of Eugène Boch (The Poet)

September 1888, Arles
Oil on canvas, 60 x 45 cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Catalogue numbers: F 462, JH 1574.

In August 1888 van Gogh told his brother of his plan to paint a picture of an artist friend - he called him a dreamer - using exaggerated colours. Instead of the plain background of an ordinary room, he would create the effect of a night sky, against which the head would stand out 'like the mysterious brightness of a pale star in the infinite'. This letter indicates the kind of meanings van Gogh wanted portraits to convey. As ever, he did not feel constrained to attend to the specific identity or character of the person who sat as his model.

In this portrait the Belgian Eugène Boch, a painter by profession, is portrayed as van Gogh's image of a dreaming poet. He is simply shown, dressed in modern costume, but to the background stars have been added. Van Gogh later called the portrait 'Poet against a Starry Sky'. Boch is painted in a combination of brilliant yellows against deep blues. The placement of a man's head against the imaginative background of a starry night was meant to raise the portrait to the level of a more symbolic representation, the artist as dreamer, a statement about the artist's own dislocation from immediate social reality. The problem was that despite such ambitious ideas for the modern portrait, based on combinations of colour and assisted by symbolic attributes, van Gogh could not convey such a burden of meaning without the ample textual explication he was obliged to offer in his letters.