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Paul Gauguin: “Agony in the Garden”

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Paul Gauguin’s “Agony in the Garden” was painted in 1889 at a pivotal point in his career, while living among the peasants in Le Pouldu, Brittany. The piece is displayed upon the works of other European painters and is painted in oil on canvas, measuring 28 by 36 inches. Paul Gauguin’s pieces can be refereed to the paintings of Post Impressionist’s. Not satisfied with the spontaneous painting of the Impressionist’s, Post Impressionist’s returned to careful compositions, the deliberate arranging of colors as well as forms. Unquestionably one of Gauguin’s masterpieces, Agony in the Garden, shows his close tie with Christianity, a belief many thought was inexistent in his life, and his superb use of color demonstrates his bold artistic innovations, which served to heighten symbolic and emotional impact in many of his paintings.

What is interesting in itself is the direct use of the title “Agony in the Garden”, with numerous precedents in the history of art; the theme of agony in the garden typically represents Christ after the Last Supper and immediately before his betrayal by Judas Iscariot and his arrest by the Roman soldiers in the Garden of Gethsemane. (1) “Agony” (from the Greek agon, or conflict) refers to the struggle within Christ as he grapples with the divine and the human sides of his nature. (1) Here we find Gauguin’s further use of symbolism as the work itself depicts his own self-portrait in the form of the figure Christ. This seems to personalize the grief and suffering of the Son of God to his own self. Like Christ, who was betrayed by his disciples, Gauguin felt his efforts as an artist were unappreciated by the world.

He even wrote ” That’s my portrait I’ve done there…but it also goes to represent the crushing of an ideal, a sadness as divine as human, Jesus abandoned by everybody, his disciples are leaving him, a scenario as sad as his own soul. (2) Gauguin always sought out faraway places, uncontaminated by civilization, this grew in part with his ideas of society and in his constant approach to rid himself of the influences of normal civilizations, abandoning in his own way his own reality that was suffocating him. By comparing himself to Christ Gauguin presents himself as a tragic hero, a martyr to his own art. The figure itself exaggerates its every form of symbolic reason.

Gauguin painted Agony in the Garden soon after his return visit from seeing his friend Vincent van Gogh. Looking at this painting one can observe the influence of Vincent van Gogh’s colors. For example in this composition he used strikingly bold orange in his hair, mustache, and beard, which resembles the colors of Vincent’s persona. That same orange is tactfully and strategically used through out the whole composition. The usage of the same orange through the path, that Judas leads the soldier to arrest Christ, takes us to the background that gives us the perspective and depth to the piece. In the background the orange is placed against the horizon line of blues and greens, which takes us to the illuminating light at the center of the background. This light takes our eyes to the main figure of Christ looming in the large left hand side of the foreground. Color began to inspire many artists in this point of the century.

This was also the very beginning Gauguin’s usage of orange, which he continued to use through out his life in many of his paintings. One can notice his skillful mastery of the paint palette. The usage of the blue and orange found throughout the painting compliment each other in a very harmonious way. Gauguin himself said that his use of complementary colors was ” analogous to Oriental chants sung in a shrill voice.” (3) The drama of the Christ figure is surrounded by the deep darkness of the blacks and browns. There is also a usage of silvery white in the mysterious object that the Christ figure holds in his hands. Is it a letter or is it a piece of clothe?

One will never know. That same silvery white color can be seen underneath the trees in the very background, capturing the movement of the shrubbery and the moonlight that shimmers across the scene. By using the dominant blue-green shades they seem to impart a melancholy, somber feeling that relates within the subjects suffering betrayal of his disciples. Since blue is also a color that is rarely produced in the natural world, it has been commonly associated with spirituality, wisdom, and the afterlife. Painters and designers have long known that blue can be used to create an increased sense of depth. (4)

In this painting we can also see Gauguin’s use of strongly marked outlines and verticals, exemplifying the characteristic techniques of the period, through his life just before his departure for Tahiti. In this dramatic painting the artist focused on the Christ figure in a landscape, by using the vertical brush strokes. The placement of the trees take us to the focal point of Christ’s head, while the diagonal lines give us a dynamic sense of movement. The artist uses the approach of vertical line which emphasis contours and edges of other objects.

Inspired by Japanese prints, he uses bold compositional techniques, a full somewhat off centre composition, which is split in half by the vertical tree that was placed in the middle of the canvas. If one were to cut this painting in half you could have two independent paintings, yet they were masterfully brought together to form a very close, involved, and tight composition. In some of Gauguin’s later work, he abandoned perspective, but in this piece the perspective is greatly diminished; forms are flattened and defined by outlines. The composition is asymmetrical but the figures harmoniously relate to one another. Through his perspective, in which Gauguin captured Judas and the soldier walking towards Christ, he truly captures the betrayal that was made upon this larger than life figure of Christ.

Gauguin’s objective was to go beyond the sensory limits of Impressionism with the avowed intention of seeking (suggestion rather than description), shifting attention from the physical world to that of the mind. (5) My attraction to this particular piece was the artists’ choice in colors that depict an immense feeling, felt throughout the entire composition. The way Paul Gauguin chose the colors of Christ’s face depicts his sorrow, sadness, and acceptances. The black color he used on Judas and the soldier’s clothing gives you a feeling of the tragedy, darkness, and depiction of the moment. Although this was a tragic moment for Christ, Gauguin was able to still capture the serenity and tranquility of the nightly landscape. Gauguin’s knowledge of color and symbolic usage created a beautiful masterpiece for all to experience on many levels. Whether you connect with the piece religiously, spiritually, or just for mere pleasure, it is a beautiful painting capturing a painful betrayal in life.

Works Cited:

(1) Hall, James. Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols. New York: Harper and Row, 1974. pg.11

(2) Huret, Jules. Paul Gauguin devant ses tableaux . De Paris, 1891. pg.256

(3) Barnet, Sylvan. A Short Guide to Writing about Art 7th edition. NY Longman

Publishers, 2003. pg.35

(4) Laff, Janice. “The meaning of blue.” E-mail to Jeanette Gonzalez. Fall 2005.

(5) Zuffi, Stefano. Dictionary of Painters From A to Z. New York: Barnes And Noble , 2004.

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