Great Paintings: Vision After the Sermon by Paul Gauguin
It’s been a while since I’ve talked about a painting by Paul Gauguin (a terrible person, yet a wonderful artist), so today I want to touch on one of his earlier pieces: Vision After the Sermon.
As I noted, Vision After the Sermon was one Gauguin’s earlier works, completed before he left France for Tahiti. Although his most famous pieces were based on his experiences in the Pacific, Gauguin established the basis of his artistic ethos in France.
Vision After the Sermon depicts a group of Breton women, looking on with prayerful expressions as an angel wrestles a man under a tree. The painting references the biblical story of Jacob wrestling an angel. As art historian Zuzanna Stanska explains, the piece suggests, “that the faith of these pious women enabled them to see miraculous events of the past.” Gauguin himself explained:
“For me, the landscape and wrestling match in this picture exist only in the minds of the people praying after the sermon, that’s why there’s a contrast between the natural people and the wrestling match in a non-natural, disproportionate landscape.”
The painting prefigures the interest in color and religious experience that recur constantly in Gauguin’s later work. However, more importantly, it represents Gauguin’s enduring interest in spiritual and psychological reality. Painting on the brink of the twentieth century, Gauguin looked inward for his subjects in a way few artists did before.
Within the world of Gauguin’s paintings, the human psyche is vast and unknowable, with an underlying aura of mysticism. In this case, Gauguin uses the red background and garish, yellow wings of the angel to create a sense of otherworldliness. The tree, which runs through the center of the painting, represents the dividing line between the spiritual and physical worlds. On one side, the Breton women’s stark, white hats and the prosaic presence of the cow suggest a scene rooted in reality. While, on the other side of the tree, the vision of the angel becomes vital and true. Taken together, the painting reflects a bisected view of reality, with Gauguin contrasting the mundane lives of the Breton women with their fierce spiritual exultation.