Vision After the Sermon: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel
Gauguin, The Vision After the Sermon: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel
In a September 1888 letter to Vincent van Gogh, Gauguin described Vision After the Sermon :
“Grouped Breton women, praying, very intense black dress – very luminous yellow white hats. The two hats on the right are like freakish helmets – an apple tree traverses the canvas, dark purple, and the foliage is drawn in masses like emerald green clouds with sunny yellow-green interstices. Ground pure vermilion. At the church it declines and becomes red brown. The angel is dressed in strong ultramarine and Jacob in bottle green. Angel wings pure chrome yellow no. 1 – Angel’s hair chrom no. 2 and feet orange flesh – in the figures I think I’ve attained great simplicity, rustic and superstitious – all very severe – The cow underneath the tree, tiny compared to reality, is bucking – For me, the landscape and wrestling match in this picure exist only in the minds of the people praying after the sermon, that’s why ther’s a contrast between the natural people and the wrestling match in a non-natural, disproportionate landscape.”
Cited in Rodolphe Rapetti, Symbolism, Deke Dusinberre, trans. (Paris: Flammarion, 2006), pp. 108-9.
Art critic Albert Aurier explained the significance of Gauguin’s Vision After the Sermon in his famous essay “Symbolism in Painting: Paul Gauguin”:
“[N]ow that we are witnessing the agony of naturalism in literature and, simultaneously, the preparation of an idealist, even mystical, reaction, we should wonder whether the plastic arts are revealing a similar evolution. The Struggle of Jacob and the Angel, which I have attempted to describe by way of an introduction, is sufficient proof that this tendency exists, and one must understand why painters treading this new path reject this absurd label of impressionist, which implies a program diametrically opposed to theirs. This little discussion about words – which might appear ridiculous at first – is nevertheless, I believe, necessary, for everyone knows that the public, supreme judge in artistic matters, has the incurable habit of judging things according to their names. One must, therefore, invent a new term ending in ist…for the newcomers whose leader is Gauguin: synthetists, ideists, symbolists, as one likes best…”
G.-Albert Aurier, “Le Symbolisme en peinture: Paul Gauguin,” Mercure de France, no. 2 (March 1981); cited in Henri Dorra, Symbolist Art Theories: A Critical Anthology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), p. 197.
Kirk Varnedoe considers Vision After the Sermon in the context of “Primitivism”:
“While Vision may seem at first sight a picture about religion, its basic subject, taken in the context of Gauguin’s oeuvre, is clearly the Primitive mentality. This painting is the first clear announcement of Gauguin’s belief in the kinship between the unsophisticated mind and the creativity of the modern artist. By joining caricatural formal simplification to the subject of folk imagination, the Vision did not indulge in mere mysticism, but revived a central primitivist tradition in an aggressively new and timely fashion. Ever since eighteenth-century philosophers such as [Etienne] Condillac and [Jean Jacques] Rousseau associated simple lives with simplified thoughts, the study of less materially developed societies has been linked to the study of the mind. Primitive expressions have been thought to illuminate, in purer or more sharply defined form, the basic way the human mind works.”
Kirk Varnedoe, “Gauguin,” “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, William Rubin, ed. Exhibition catalogue (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1984), p. 183.