What Was the Relationship Between Gauguin and Van Gogh?

Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin’s impassioned, yet tumultuous friendship was based on mutual admiration and shared artistic pursuits.

Mar 6, 2024By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art
gauguin and van gogh relationship
Portrait of Paul Gauguin (left), with Vincent van Gogh, by Victor Morin, 1886. Source: vintag.es


Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin were two of the most pioneering artists of the 20th century; each, in turn pushed their art into bold and unchartered territory, painting with a free and unbridled expressionism that had never been seen before in the history of art. The pair struck up one of art history’s most unlikely and tumultuous of friendships, which has since been a popular subject in both literature and film. Despite the difficulties they encountered during their rocky relationship, they sustained a long-lasting friendship that lasted until Van Gogh’s untimely death in 1890. We track the course of their unique relationship as it evolved over the years.


They Struck up a Friendship in Paris

The Vision of the Sermon (Jacob wrestling with the Angel) by Paul Gauguin, 1888. Source: The National Galleries of Scotland


Van Gogh and Gauguin met in Paris, while both were frequenting the city’s vibrant and spirited artistic circles. Quickly forging a strong bond, the pair discovered mutual interests in moving beyond Impressionism, towards a painterly language with greater freedom for self-expression, and room for the symbolic properties of color. Both shared a passion for breaking with artistic tradition, and a desire to blaze a new path into the future. They recognized in one another a kindred spirit, and in their early years together they provided a supportive platform for exchanging the most daring and experimental ideas.


Evidence of their profound connection has survived in the long, erudite letters they wrote to one another, in which they discussed their innermost artistic desires, alongside formal properties of technique, color theory and composition. What these letters demonstrate most fully is the encouragement each provided to the other in their differing artistic endeavors, giving one another the confidence to forge ahead in spite of setbacks or rejection. 


Living Together in ‘The Yellow House’

Vincent Van Gogh’s useless bed. Source: The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam


During May 1888, Van Gogh rented four rooms at a house on Place Lamartine in Arles, later known as ‘The Yellow House’. He invited Gauguin to join him, and the pair lived together for just over two months, working closely side by side. They drank absinthe and talked about art together long into the night. Yet despite their close camaraderie, tensions bubbled to the surface of their friendship during this period of close proximity. The pair often clashed over differing ideologies as they began to pull their art in individual directions, causing fractious debates. Van Gogh also had a tendency to rely on Gauguin for financial support and with day-to-day household chores. Meanwhile, they clearly had differing ideas about the sleepy town of Arles – Van Gogh dreamed of transforming the quiet rural backwater into a lively artistic community, with Gauguin by his side, yet Gauguin was quick to dismiss Arles as “the dirtiest hole in the South.”

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The Infamous Ear Episode

Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear by Vincent van Gogh, 1889. Source: The Courtauld Gallery, London


Sadly, it was during one of their most vicious clashes that Van Gogh went on to cut off the lower part of his own ear. While the exact circumstances of their quarrel remain unknown, it is thought their conversation that fateful evening became particularly heated, driving the already mentally unstable Van Gogh to an act of deliberate self-harm. Following this disturbing incident, Gauguin swiftly left Arles, returning to Paris. While they remained in touch, the pair would never see one another again. From this period onwards, the already troubled Van Gogh continued on a downward spiral, which eventually culminated in his death by suicide in 1890. Meanwhile Gauguin made his way to Tahiti, escaping the bustle of the city for a more rustic and unadulterated way of life.


Long Letters

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? by Paul Gauguin, 1897–98. Source: The Boston Museum of Fine Arts


Despite their catastrophic fallout, evidence reveals the two artists continued to write to one another right up until the end of Van Gogh’s life. What this demonstrates is that, despite their fractious relationship, the pair still held one another in high regard. Van Gogh’s brother Theo, who had already been acting as dealer to Gauguin, continued to work for the artist, keeping a family connection intact. Meanwhile Gauguin spent the rest of his life reflecting on their inspirational, if troubled, time together in Arles. In one diary excerpt he wrote, “Unbeknownst to the public, two men accomplished in that period a colossal amount of work, useful to both of them. Perhaps to others as well? Some things bear fruit.”

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.