Vincent van Gogh created two portraits of chairs in 1888 during the time that Paul Gauguin was visiting him in The Yellow House at Arles. One chair was Van Gogh’s the other Gauguin’s. Empty chairs have frequently been used as the personification of the people who own them. This leads to much discussion surrounding the idea that the companion paintings may have been intended to represent the contrasting temperaments of the two artists.
Gauguin’s chair is portrayed in the evening or night and is red, baroque style with curved backrest and upholstered seat, and has a burning candle and books sitting on it. The chair rests on a colorful carpet with a green wall and blazing lamp in the background. Van Gogh’s chair, on the other hand, is simpler, yellow in color and sits on a brown tile floor with a blue wall and closed blue door in the background along with a box of onions with his signature on it. Resting on the chair are a pipe and tobacco pouch.
Van Gogh’s chair is simple, surrounded by a sober room and in the natural light of day. Gauguin’s chair is more elegant and the surrounding room more luxurious and lit with artificial light. The books sitting on his chair are thought to be modern French novels which might act as signs of his modern flare or perhaps a statement of intellect.
Though offering no hint as to any underlying statements Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, about the chairs on January 17, 1889,
“I should like De Haan to see a study of mine of a lighted candle and two novels (one yellow, the other pink) lying on an empty chair (really Gauguin’s chair), a size 30 canvas, in red and green. I have just been working again today on its pendant, my own empty chair, a white deal chair with a pipe and a tobacco pouch. In these two studies, as in others, I have tried for an effect of light by means of clear colour, probably De Haan would understand exactly what I was trying to get if you read to him what I have written on the subject.”