Paul Gauguin’s “Vision of the Sermon”

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Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), 1888

Yellow Christ

This last week I came across a reproduction of Paul Gauguin‘s painting “Vision of the Sermon” (pictured above) and was amazed all over again. I don’t know how, but I’d forgotten how beautiful and important this specific painting was (and still is) to me. Even though I may have temporarily forgotten, this painting influenced my artistic preferences and personal style as much as anything. In some small way, it changed the way I see the world, and also the way I look at art.

Paul Gauguin made many significant and beautiful religious paintings from this period, and I have included some of them here, but none of them had quite the same affect on me. Not like his “Vision of the Sermon”.

Green Christ

There are many interesting things going on in the “Vision…” painting. First off, Jacob wrestling the Angel would traditionally be the most important part of a religious painting, and those two figures would dominate everything else. But here, Jacob and the Angel are stuck in the background with a random cow, and none of those background figures are given much detail or importance. Even the simple tree in the middle, which divides the composition diagonally, has more visual significance.

The tree also seems to separate the women from the Jacob and the Angel. Now that I am thinking of the tree, I also want to mention that Gauguin was very influenced by Japanese prints, and I see that in this tree.

Christ in the Garden of Olives

I am also very drawn to the flatness of the shapes… and the huge red field of color! That flatness and use of color was probably also a Japanese influence. These colors and shapes predict abstract forms that would become more and more common with artists and painters who came later. Colors and shapes that are free from the natural world, but expressive and emotional. The red is so powerful, it forces itself forward and completely flattens everything else out. Gauguin did not want this painting to look real. He didn’t use much shadow or other techniques to create form. Just look at those women float in red space, and this helps it feel more otherworldly.

Self Portrait with Yellow Christ

What I like most about “Vision of the Sermon” though are the Breton women. That crowd of ladies who just got out of church, because I always felt like I was right there with them. I was a part of their group. They surround me and we all pray together, while we watch the biblical scene unfold down the hill from us in the most mundane and ordinary way. At the same time, with the way it is painted, we are kept separate and distant from that scene and it doesn’t seem to belong in our world at all.

This painting was amazing to my young eyes, and coming across it again, I can see why.

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