Empty chairs are often used to describe the people that occupied them. Paul Gauguin, a fellow painter from the Post Impressionist period, was a good friend of Vincent van Gogh’s, until they had a serious dispute in December of 1888, causing Gauguin to leave Arles and van Gogh to fall into a deep depression.
Van Gogh’s ‘portrait’ of Gauguin’s chair is literally a counterpart or pendant to his own. This chair is more elegant, the room is more luxurious and is painted by artificial light. The modern French novels on the seat, identified by their yellow and faded-pink covers, could be signs of modernity or the fruits of intellectual labor. Van Gogh thus seems to characterize his colleague as a modern and intelligent artist. Van Gogh’s depiction of the chair is naturalistic but does not adhere strictly to perspective. The cool greens and blues blend together to form a shadowy image, lit by the candle in the center—perhaps lit in the hopes that one day, his friend would return to his “Studio in the South,” and paint with him awhile longer.
Van Gogh later used this same wicker chair in his painting The Bedroom. I find it very compelling that “Gauguin’s” chair was done in a darker setting, while van Gogh used the same chair in his bedroom a few months earlier, filled with sunlight instead of lamplight. His “yellow house” is filled with happiness in October of 1888, only a few months prior to their falling out. It seems very likely that the darkness in Paul Gauguin’s Armchair is indicative of van Gogh’s emotional state afterwards.
The walls are of a pale violet. The floor is of red tiles.
The bedstead and the chairs are fresh butter yellow.
The sheet and the pillows very bright lemon green.
The bedspread scarlet red.
The window green.
The dressing table orange, the basin blue.
The doors lilac.
The frame — as there’s no white in the painting — will be white.
—Letter to Theo van Gogh, October 16, 1888.