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Vision After the Sermon: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel

Paul Gauguin, 1888
Collection: 
National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh


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.


Pointon offers a feminist interpretation of the red background:
 
“The historical explanation for the red field is either that Gauguin had seen red fires and red flags in Brittany or that the red has been carried over from the functional red of Piero di Cosimo’s Forest Fire [1461; Ashmolean Museum, Oxford] along with the cow. The psychological explanation is that the event is happening on the inverse of optical reality (fields should be green and this one is green’s opposite, red) thus indicating that its medium is the dream. I want to suggest, however, that within an exploration of the symbols structure of The Vision after the Sermon the connotative relationship between the women whose vision it is and the crimson field is one of fertility in general and menstruation in particular….
A story which possesses all the ingredients of the fairy story, in which the hero crosses a barrier (a river in this case), is tested and prevails, and is blessed by God, a story [Jacob Wrestling with the Angel]…enacted in a field of blood before a host of mute female witnesses….It is worth recalling here that in Freud menstruation is experienced as castration….The bleeding female, devoid of penis, is thus also an emblem of castration and consequently an object of horror – and of fascination. In the vibrant red field man struggles detached and isolated by caught and contained within the ‘frame’ of woman. Thus it is the gendered physicality of the condition of woman and her fertility that are the field of struggle and the terrain for the giving of birth to the vision and consequently to the story. The red field acts as both a metaphor for the encounter of Jacob with the angel (the confrontation with the unknowable) and as the site of the vision experienced by the women….The story of Jacob wrestling with the angel can be read as an allegory of birth culminating in a naming and the acquisition of identity. In the light of this, Gauguin’s painting enacts not only fertility but also maternity.”
Marcia Pointon, “Interior Portraits,” in Naked Authority. The Body in Western Painting 1830-1908 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 105-6.
 


Similar Subjects by Other Artists

Eugene Delacroix, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, 1857-61 (fresco, Saint-Sulpice, Paris)

Gustave Moreau, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, 1870s (watercolor, Musée Gustave Moreau, Paris)

Maurice Denis, The Fight Between Jacob and the Angel, c.1892  

Web Resources

smarthistory: Gauguin, Vision After the Sermon 

About the Artist

Born: Paris, 7 June 1848
Died: Atuona, Marquesas Islands, 8 May 1903
Nationality: French