“The painter, the true painter, will be he who can wring from contemporary life its epic aspect and make us see and understand, with color or in drawing, how great and poetic we are in our cravats and our polished boots.” -- Charles Baudelaire
Self Portrait dedicated to Vincent van Gogh (Les Miserables), Paul Gauguin. 1888.
The year 1888 was very important both for van Gogh and Gauguin. At this time, Gauguin began to go in search of “simpler settings”, and went at first to Brittany. He would later move to Tahiti, where his fascination with “primitism”, (I put this in parentheses because it is a very condescending term for the people concerned) the idea of non-Western or less technologically advanced cultures living purer, simpler lifestyles, and thus were more suitable for his study than say, Parisians. In 1888, van Gogh would leave the bustling city for the more calming, beautiful countryside of southern France, where many Impressionists before had fallen in love with the landscapes and abundance of natural light.
During 1888, van Gogh and Gauguin exchanged various self portraits with each other as a way to communicate how they wished the world to view them and their art. In this portrait, Gauguin paints himself in a rough manner, as an outlaw even. The title, “Les Miserables,” was of course a very popular French Romantic work by Victor Hugo at the time (and still remains a classic today), and he painted himself in the guise of Jean Valjean, an ex-convict, because he viewed himself as an outcast from decadent society. Van Gogh, however, expressed displeasure with this painting, because he believed “that it expressed torment while failing to offer any hope or consolation”. Both men were fascinated with Japanese block prints at this time, and their influence is obvious in the two-dimensional, bright colors of the wallpaper behind Gauguin.