Revealed: why Van Gogh’s ‘empty chair’ paintings were never shown together

Shortly before Vincent van Gogh cut off his left ear and had a breakdown after quarrelling with his fellow artist, Paul Gauguin, in the French city of Arles in 1888, he created a pair of extraordinary paintings. One, Gauguin’s Chair, depicts a couple of books and a lit candle discarded on an ornate armchair. The other, Van Gogh’s Chair, shows a tobacco pipe and pouch on a rustic wooden chair and is instantly recognisable as one of the most famous paintings in the world.

Now, the mystery of how the diptych of paintings came to be split up – and why the picture of Gauguin’s chair was kept in the family collection while Van Gogh’s Chair was sold off – has finally been solved.

The answer lies in the decision of Johanna Bonger, who inherited the paintings as the widow of Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, not to exhibit the masterpieces together in the decades after Van Gogh’s death in 1890 due to her “dislike of Gauguin”.

While she was happy to lend out Van Gogh’s Chair to exhibitions, she kept Gauguin’s Chair back, abandoning the work to obscurity, research by a Dutch academic has revealed.

It was not until 1928, three years after she died, that Gauguin’s armchair was first selected for an exhibition. By that time, Van Gogh’s Chair was already famous and had been sold to the Tate.

“Johanna never showed Gauguin’s Chair, while Van Gogh’s Chair was promoted as a really important piece of art,” said Louis van Tilborgh, senior researcher at the Van Gogh museum and professor of art history at the University of Amsterdam, who published his research in the Dutch art journal Simiolus.

He thinks that the reason Bonger did not want to exhibit the painting was that she disliked Gauguin after the French artist publicly belittled his former friend. “Gauguin, very early on, spread the word that Van Gogh was not only mad but also that he, Gauguin, had to teach Van Gogh how to paint. I think Bonger knew that and my conclusion is that, for that reason, she didn’t want to put those two pictures together.”

Exhibiting the painting might have lent credence to the suggestion that Van Gogh was a disciple of Gauguin’s, and therefore an inferior artist. “Probably, by not showing the two works together, she wanted to avoid discussion about it.”

Van Gogh painted the pictures after inviting Gauguin, whom he deeply admired but hardly knew, to live with him in Arles and work on great art together. He purchased 12 “exceedingly simple” wooden chairs but only one ornate, luxurious armchair, which he placed in Gauguin’s room.

“In art historical literature, they have always been described as empty chairs. And the emptiness was connected to the fact that art historians and psychoanalysts believe Van Gogh predicted he and Gauguin would split up,” Van Tilborgh said.

Van Gogh wrote a letter to his brother about his work on the paintings, describing them as “rather droll”. Due to a mistake concerning the date of that letter, for nearly a century it was thought Van Gogh had painted the chairs immediately after Gauguin announced their temperaments were incompatible and Gauguin was thinking of moving out.

The date of this letter was corrected in 1984. But art historians have continued to suggest Van Gogh created the paintings in a state of dread and anxiety that Gauguin would abandon him and their studio collaboration, and their partnership would fail.

In fact, Van Tilborgh points out that Van Gogh completed the diptych long before Gauguin’s announcement, and the chairs are not empty but occupied by the belongings of their owners, indicating what they do to relax.

“It’s all about interpretation. Of course, you can say the chairs are empty, because there is nobody sitting in them. But, in principle, they are not empty. There are things on them, which suggest their owner’s presence.” He thinks Van Gogh painted the chairs in an optimistic frame of mind. “They symbolise a studio and a partnership, which gave him hope.”

After Gauguin left and Van Gogh was released from hospital, the injured artist deliberately added the tobacco pipe and pouch to his own – at that time, entirely empty – chair, ensuring his presence in the room of the painting was at least as obvious as Gauguin’s, whose chair already had the books and candle on it.

“He must have thought: ‘My own chair is empty. But I’m the only one who is here.’ So he had to add something to make this much more clear.”

Van Gogh then signed Van Gogh’s Chair but not Gauguin’s Chair, which – since Gauguin was no longer around to sit in it – he then described in a letter to his brother as “empty”. Van Tilborgh said: “He makes his picture of his own chair more important, because he has stayed.”

This status of Gauguin’s Chair as an unsigned painting might have been a factor in Bonger’s decision not to exhibit it, said honorary professor at the University of Edinburgh, Belinda Thomson, an art historian who specialises in the work of impressionists and post-impressionists. “She may have held it back, thinking it was one of the paintings Vincent didn’t consider to be important.”

Thomson thinks Van Tilborgh makes a “very compelling” argument that the chairs are not as “empty” as experts previously thought. “The dating of these chairs, well before the indications that the relationship was going wrong, just puts a different light on it. It makes them seem a much more positive, much more optimistic statement of their relationship.”

Given Van Gogh’s description of them as “drole” in French, she thinks they could almost be seen as slightly tongue-in-cheek or amusing, rather than paintings that depict a sense of longing, emptiness or failure. “It’s hindsight to make that reading. At the time they were painted, Van Gogh and Gauguin are getting along well.”

Later, when Van Gogh added a tobacco pipe and pouch to Vincent’s Chair, she suspects he was trying to make his own chair – which was, after all, one of 12 – just as personal and individual as Gauguin’s Chair. “It gives an equivalence between them.”

Richard Thomson, also a professor in the history of art at Edinburgh University,said he thought Van Tilborgh’s research could lead art historians to rethink not only other pictures of Van Gogh’s but his relationship with Gauguin. “It’s too easy to say Van Gogh and Gauguin fell out, and it was all very difficult and fraught, but here is a subtler, more complicated and I think deeper interpretation.”

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