Van Gogh’s Chair Reconsidered
The famous painting of a chair reinterpreted as the artist’s throne
Perhaps it is not difficult to see the grave symbolism of an empty chair. Human habits tend people towards their ‘favourite chair’ which when left vacant can become a momento of the person who once rested there.
Van Gogh had a sensitivity to the image of an empty chair at least several years before he made this painting. The vacant seat left by his father when he died in 1885 brought the artist to tears.
And yet, we are so disposed to see Van Gogh’s paintings in the light of tragedy that it is too easy to find sombre pathos in everything he painted. It’s as if his failed attempts to set up an artists’ colony in the South of France and his eventual suicide in 1890 cast a backwards shadow over his output. And if the shadow isn’t immediately apparent in the paintings — after all, most of Van Gogh’s canvases are light-filled and exuberant — then we tend to invent the shadow through the identification of portentous symbols or a projected sense of melancholy.
But I wonder if Van Gogh’s chair was not painted in a more optimistic frame, as the artist’s throne, the very seat of creativity.
Some of the suggestion that Van Gogh painted his empty chair in the mode of tragedy comes from the fact that he owned an engraving by the British artist Luke Fildes, titled ‘The Empty Chair’. The engraving commemorated the death of the novelist Charles Dickens by showing his deserted study on the day he had died. Based on an original watercolour painting by Fildes, the engraving was published in a magazine called The Graphic in 1870; Van Gogh was apparently very fond of the image.
As an avid collector of engravings, Van Gogh was perhaps drawn to this image as symbolic basis for his own representation of empty chairs. Still it’s not obvious to me that Van Gogh meant his own chair to express the mortal finality of Fildes’ tribute to Dickens.
Van Gogh’s chair was in fact one-half of a duo of paintings he made based on the theme. The other painting in the pair was of chair belonging to Paul Gauguin; Van Gogh had begun working on both images in November 1888, soon after Gauguin had joined him in Arles where they lived together in the Yellow House. (Their famous falling out happened in a month later in December.)
In one of his letters to his brother Theo, Van Gogh explained how the two paintings were intended to hang side by side, with his own chair turned to the right and Gauguin’s to the left. He described the paintings, his own “a wooden rush-bottomed chair all yellow on red tiles against a wall (daytime). Then Gauguin’s armchair, red and green night effect, walls and floors red and green again, on the seat two novels and a candle, on thin canvas with thick impasto.’
The theme that was clearly in Van Gogh’s mind was the contrast between night and day, with Gauguin chair set among the flickering effects of the gas lamp, and his own set in the more resolutely vivid setting of daytime.
If there is a comparison to be made between the engraving of Charles Dickens’ chair and Van Gogh paintings, then it is surely with the Gauguin chair: both are turned to the left, both are seen from the same height and angle, both have similar structural properties, with armrests and curved backs.
The deeper colour palette of Gauguin’s chair perhaps suggest Van Gogh’s response to his friend’s more mystical conception of artistic creation, one that looked towards art as a product of imagination and symbolism (often prompted by literature — as represented by the two novels placed on his chair), for which he then sought a visual counterpart.
Van Gogh’s chair is far less mystical. The woven-rush seat is shown face-on and from above, almost as if the floor is tilted towards the viewer in that very Van Gogh manner of just-perceptible distortion, a creaking bulge here, a modest pitch there. The chair is silent, of course; that’s its purpose. An empty chair isolated inside the rectangle of a picture-canvas has a given poignancy. It asks you to look at it and consider its muteness.
But Van Gogh’s chair is not forlorn. It doesn’t spell disaster. It is functional, straight-backed and with no armrests, made of plain unpolished wood painted yellow, with a rush seat and the sense that it probably wobbles on the uneven floor tiles. A chair of practical value.
Some commentators have pointed to the pipe and tobacco pouch that sit on the seat of the chair — the objects of Van Gogh’s self-portrait — as evidence for a darker undertow to the work. For in the traditions of Dutch art, pipe smoking was used as a symbol of transience, following from Psalm 102 from the Bible, where “days vanish like smoke”:
Hear my prayer, Lord;
let my cry for help come to you.
Do not hide your face from me
when I am in distress.
Turn your ear to me;
when I call, answer me quickly.
For my days vanish like smoke;
my bones burn like glowing embers.
I have some doubts about this interpretation, for it hardly seems obvious that Van Gogh was painting an image that dwells on death. The pipe and tobacco are more appropriately read as an indication that the artist is nearby — just popped out of the room for a minute. In other words, a notice that this seat is taken.
Instead of a forlorn image, I see a light-filled interior painted in celebration of the artist in the full-swing of creative venture. “I have tried for an effect of light by means of pure colour,” He wrote of his chair painting, expressing his experimental approach to making work that was animating him so deeply at the time.
Behind the chair, to the left, is a box containing some sprouting bulbs, possibly onions. Upon the box Van Gogh placed his signature, “Vincent” — what more evidence is required that the work is far from a declaration of melancholy, but instead one of growth? The artist is at work, and this is his throne.
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