The disappearance of Gauguin's chair

June 20 2022

Image of The disappearance of Gauguin's chair

Picture: via TAN

In The Guardian, Donna Ferguson reports on research by a Dutch academic on why Van Gogh's painting Gauguin's Chair (above right) became much less well known than his painting, Van Gogh's Chair (left), even though the two were originally painted by Van Gogh as pendants. The answer lies with Johanna Bonger, the widow of Van Gogh's brother, Theo, who took a great dislike to Gauguin:

“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.”

Back in 2020, Van Gogh scholar Martin Bailey also wrote about the history of the paintings, examining how Van Gogh's Chair came to be sold:

One of the mysteries, which does not appear to have been addressed in the Van Gogh literature, is why the two paintings were split up: Van Gogh’s Chair is now at the National Gallery in London and Gauguin’s Chair is at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

On Vincent’s death in 1890 both pictures were inherited by his brother Theo, and after he died the following year they passed to Theo’s wife Jo Bonger and her son. In 1923 they lent Van Gogh’s Chair to an exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in London. A few weeks later it was bought by the National Gallery for just under £800, with funds provided by Samuel Courtauld. In 1926, Courtauld suggested that Van Gogh’s Chair might be sold, in order to buy one of the artist’s landscapes, explaining that “we ought not to have too many Van Goghs”.

Fortunately, A Wheatfield, with Cypresses (1889) ended up being acquired without the sale of the chair painting. Considering that Theo’s wife Jo then owned around 200 paintings it is surprising that she chose to sell one which was quite so personal. It also meant splitting up what the artist very clearly regarded as a pair.

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