More about Self-Portrait with Portrait of Emile Bernard

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Self Portrait with Portrait of Émile Bernard by Paul Gauguin was made as a part of a portrait pact with van Gogh and Émile Bernard.

Gauguin, van Gogh, and Bernard were all on the outskirts of the Paris Salon. None of them fit into Parisian society nor did they want to. van Gogh lived in the south of France and Bernard and Gauguin lived in Pont-Aven, Brittany, but the three of them made up a cool little crew of outsiders. One day van Gogh had the brilliant idea of emulating Japanese printmaking and sending each other their work. So Bernard and Gauguin put their heads together (literally) and made self-portraits, each with both of their faces in the background, and sent them to their buddy van Gogh.

Gauguin did something a little funky with his self-portrait though. He made himself look like Jean Valjean, a character in Victor Hugo’s novel "Les Misérables," to insinuate that he is an outcast, but also the best of society. The character Jean Valjean is an ex-con who was imprisoned for stealing bread for his sister’s starving children. So in this painting Gauguin is hinting at the fact that he and his little collective were the good guys and were breaking the rules in order to do the right opposed to those miscreants in Paris.

The colors in the piece, at least for the time period in which it was made, are gaudy. Gauguin’s guava-colored face contrasts harshly with the green portrait of Bernard (done by Bernard himself). The unsettling yellow of the background wallpaper features flowers that are supposed to indicate their “artistic virginity.” They were definitely working outside of the box, which made their geographic location outside of Paris all the more fitting.

The portraits done for van Gogh by Bernard and Gauguin hang together in the van Gogh Museum, while the one van Gogh did for them hangs in the Harvard Art Museum. It’s fitting that the pieces don’t hang together because soon after this exchange of work van Gogh and Gauguin had a falling out and Gauguin sold his portrait of van Gogh for three hundred francs.


Comments (2)

Kent Z

I like Gauguin's idea to put some flowers or whatever on his self-portrait. It filled the emptiness of painting and also made himself to be more kind and younger.


Giant eyelids, Interesting back story. Four stars...