Site icon SimplyKalaa

Van Gogh’s Chair: Analysis of the Grieving Still-Life

Van Goghs Chair

Van Gogh's Chair and Self Portrait | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons and Van Gogh Museum

The most valuable thing which we clasp together in our hearts is memory. Regardless of how long we have held on to a memory, whether be it a person or vacation, good times or bad, we always go back and recall it in detail. And surprisingly, it always sticks to a pretty conspicuous and unquestionable thing. Don’t bother yourself with understanding these, as I am sharing a little story to let you perceive what I am trying to convey before we discuss the article’s content. It is about my father, who loved taking naps between his so-called efficient work and owned this chair. A black leather finished chair that has a better armrest and enough flexibility for you to nap or work is what I describe it as. I still remember how my dad firmly adhered to this black mass while working and had a small radio piece in the back for old soundtracks. Never taking his work as pressure and enjoying the slightest of things were a few traits of my dad. Well, words end while I put my heart to delineate him and the tale of his love towards his napping chair. So, when he died, we never let anybody sitted on his favourite chair. Today my brother put it into his favourite corner, and that empty chair always tried communicating with us in a way that the person we adored, loved and saw in so much fun is no more with us, and it kind of misses him too. Undoubtedly, the chair held a close place in my dad’s heart, which makes it one of his favourite memories. He would often narrate to me stories of spending hours with his friends in the chair, laughing and talking for hours. And so, even after all these years, the chair still holds a special place in our hearts as his reminiscence. Similar to these, many could relate that an empty chair of our beloved ones is most closer yet gut-wrenching for us. Today, in this article, we are looking at one such thing, the chair of our loved artist, Vincent. So, let us talk about the painting Van Gogh’s Chair.

General Information.

1. Artist Words.

“What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion. Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.”

2. Subject Matter.

The subject matter of this painting is the chair of an artist with a simple look and a dearly loved pipe lying on it. The chair is not just a portrayal of a piece of furniture but a prosaic setting of Vincent intended to reveal him as a true descendant of the realists. It further displays the fusion of two genres- the still-life and the interior view. Vincent described it in a letter to Theo as being ‘quite curious’ but offered no further explanation of this unusual imagery. {Letter 563}

Van Gogh’s Chair by Vincent van Gogh | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

Further, the painting is not in complete perspective as Van Gogh used the nature of this artwork unexpectedly and humorously.

3. Artist.

Vincent van Gogh, the famous post-impressionist painter, composed Van Gogh’s Chair. In his short life, he majorly lived in various places in the Netherlands, Belgium, Britain and France. Living in the Groot Zundert until he reached eleven and went to a local school, Vincent was a solitary boy who spent much of his time around the countryside. Never did well in his schools, Vincent was enough learned man to be multilingual and best in the brush strokes for the Post-Impressionism era.

4. Date.

The painting dates back to the place of Arles in December 1888.

5. Provenance.

The painting dates back to the time when Vincent moved to Arles and decorated the Yellow House with the furnishings. Now, Vincent painted two versions of the chair, Paul Gaugin’s chair, which was elegant and was in the guest room, which Vincent furnished specially for him. And second, his own chair, but the purpose of Gaugin’s chair was different. I will let you know about the entire story in later sections.

However, you must not forget that in mid-January, Vincent retouched this painting, which we know from his letter to Theo.

6. Location.

The painting is on exhibition at the National Gallery of London.

7. Technique and Medium.

The painting has a medium oil on canvas with varied brush strokes. The technique employed here in this artwork is impasto. Almost each of the artwork by Vincent showcased this technique. If you are wondering about the impasto word, let me tell you about it. The canvas employs the application of thick paint directly to the canvas, and then using a stiff brush or knife, the artwork is given texture. Impasto can produce an effect of movement and energy. In this way, texture allows some parts of a painting to stand out, making them more salient to the viewer.

ArtistVincent van Gogh
Date PaintedDecember 1888
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions93 x 73.5 cm
WorthNot on sale
Where is it housed?National Gallery, London

Van Gogh’s Chair | Fast Knowledge

Van Gogh’s Chair is a still life by Vincent van Gogh painted in December 1888. With no specific explanation by the artist, the painting subjects Vincent’s simple chair and his pipe lying on it. Residing in the National Gallery, London, this unusual scene depicts Van Gogh’s personality, such as his love of nature and homely comfort.

Now, that you understand a brief information about the painting, let us move to the next section to learn it in detail.

Detailed Account of the Painting Van Gogh’s Chair.

About the Artist: Vincent van Gogh.

Vincent van Gogh, an artist who transferred small parts of himself in everything, bent everything in his own forms and allowed every single element to show the extremely best in itself, is the artist behind this extraordinary representation of his chair. Madame Homcoop, one of his former maids and nanny, described him as,

“young Vincent, who was so strange, so difficult. Vincent had something odd about him; he was very childish and not like the others, and he had earthy manners to boot.”

Vincent had this blind rage to achieve the most in the artistic world, and his destiny was to paint. However, this passion cost him earn nothing in his lifetime but become one of the most famous and loved painters of the modern age after his death. Vincent believed in his art, and he always knew that it was different from all the paintings drawn around him. With a big family and a little house in his childhood, Vincent and his siblings spent heaps of time outdoors. If I draw an image of our beloved artist from his childhood, he was a freckled, red-haired, solitary by nature type of kid, who usually wandered by himself in the fields and heaths surrounding the personage. Became familiar with the seasons of planting and harvest, he usually had strong feelings for the hardworking local farm families, whose labours connected them to the soil and nature. Hence the early lifestyle of the artist affected his paintings in his later years of life and his immense love towards the countryside. From collecting bugs, and bird nests to teasing his sisters and building castles in the garden with Theo, he sometimes even invented games for all to play.

Self Portrait, Vincent van Gogh | Source: Van Gogh Museum

I have briefly discussed him in my previous articles, like Sunflowers, Cafe Terrace at Night, and Wheatfield with Crows. So, you can refer to them for knowing the most of his life. For now, let me take you straight to the next section, which will tell you the entire provenance of the artwork.

History and Background of the Artwork.

As I described earlier, Vincent painted two chairs; Van Gogh’s Chair and Gauguin’s chair. So, let me explain the events to you step by step.

One December night in 1888, Vincent was in serious harm as he mutilated his own ear due to the hallucinations he experienced in the bouts of madness. You know that by this time, Vincent, who shifted to Arles during the summers of 1889, had the company of his friend Paul Gauguin from October 23rd. But in November after Paul joined him in Arles to live in the Yellow House, he started painting the two paintings; Van Gogh’s Chair and Gauguin’s Chair.

Vincent described the paintings,

“The last two studies are odd enough. Size 30 canvases, a wooden rush-bottomed chair all yellow on red tiles against a wall [daytime]. Then Gauguin’s armchair, red and green night effect, walls and floors red and green again, on the seat two novels and a candle, on thin canvas with thick impasto.”

However, after a period, their relationship began to deteriorate. And then came the December when he mutilated his own ear following a violent dispute, and wraps it in a newspaper, further asking Gauguin to send it to a prostitute Rachael for safekeeping. It made Paul leave the place and shattered the friendship of Vincent with him. And he retouched the paintings again.

In December 1888, Vincent wrote a letter to his brother Theo, when he painted both chairs. He said, “I can tell you that the latest two studies are most remarkable. One chair made of wood and extremely yellow wicker, up against the wall, on red tiles. then Gauguin’s armchair, red and green, two novels and a candle on the seat. On canvas, the paint thickly applied.”

The curious subjects Van Gogh painted became the everyday meeting place for him and Paul Gauguin. A debate would break out between the two painters about art and world affairs, and things would go up in their faces; Gauguin’s sojourn would be directly linked to the nervous breakdown for which Van Gogh later wrote to Aurier, describing a nocturnal painting of Gauguin’s chair as,

“before illness forced me to enter a home, I tried to paint his empty chair.”

Now to understand more, we have to step into the next section.

Understanding the Meaning of Van Gogh’s Chair.

The painting is a statement of the friendship between two artists. His chair is simple, none too comfortable, with his dearly loved pipe over it, whereas metaphorically, Gauguin’s chair means an elegant, comfortable armchair where Paul liked to settle. Purely functional things can acquire symbolic power, which this chair embodies correctly.

Van Gogh’s earliest impressions of art came from the pictorial tradition, which everyone should understand. Nonetheless, Dutch Calvinism strictly prohibited all iconographic representations of the Holy Family, except symbolic ones; the fear that praying faithfully might be distracted by the beauty of the human form, so it had to be avoided at all costs. So, Christ is usually represented by a vacant throne, the symbol of judgement and power. And this symbolic tendency is also in Van Gogh’s chair, which pays respect to a tendency to avoid representation of the human figure, representing the presence of Gauguin through the Gauguin chair and the friendship through a combination of his chairs.

Now, there is one more thing behind the chair, the emptiness and the omnipresence of death. He writes,

“After I had seen Pa off at the station, and had watched the train as long as it, or even only its smoke, was still in sight, and after I had returned to my room and Pa’s chair was still drawing up to the table where the books and periodicals still lay from the day before, I felt as miserable as a child, even though I am well aware that we shall soon be seeing each other again.”

Hence, the chair is a symbolic still life of grief.

Additionally, the painting has one more meaning. The English novelist Charles Dickens recommended a pipe as a prophylactic against suicide. Dicken’s vacant chair was famous for an illustration in the Graphic: Edwin Drood was Dickens’s last work. Now Vincent wrote to his brother Theo,

“and Luke Fields, who had got to know Dickens through doing the little illustrations, entered his room the day he died and saw his vacant chair. And that is how t came about that one of the old issues of The Graphic carried the moving drawing, The Empty Chair.”

He further adds,

“Empty chairs- there are a great many of them, more will be added to their number, and sooner or later there will be nothing left… but empty chairs.”

The Australian art historian Hans Sedlmayr gives the painting the title “The Vacant Throne” as the final chapter of his essay in The Loss of The Centre. He writes,

“It must be added that the artists have been among those who suffered the most in the 19th and 20th centuries, the very people whose task it has been to render the Fall of Man and his world visible in their terrible visions. In the 19th century, there was an altogether new type of suffering artist: the lonely, lost, despairing artist on the brink of insanity. It was a type that previously only occurred in isolated instances if that. The 19th century artists, great and profound minds, often have the character of sacrificial victims, of victims who sacrifice themselves. From Holderline, Goya, Friedrich, Rung and Kleist through Daumier, Stifter, Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky to van Gogh, Strindberg and Trakl, there was a line of solidarity in suffering at the hands of the times. All of them suffered from the fact that God was remote and dead and Man debased.”

Hence we understand that Van Gogh’s chair is a metaphor for the crisis of the entire century, which is why it connects to us.

Difference Between the Two Chairs.

Like Fildes’ engraving, Van Gogh did not use a sitter to depict the personalities and differences between himself and Gauguin in his chair paintings. Instead, he used specific objects and visual effects to represent their distinctive artistic outlooks. This is in essence a still life that serves as a form of surrogate portraiture.

Van Gogh’s Chair | Source: Via Wikimedia Commons
Gauguin’s Chair | Source: Van Gogh Museum

The chair made by Van Gogh is functional and artisanal, while the armchair made by Gauguin is elegant and more intricately carved. As the chair is shown in the bright daylight of southern France, the natural lighting is accentuated by sprouting onions, which are also a reference to Van Gogh’s love of nature, as emphasized by his name, Vincent. It is possible that he sketched his father’s pipe shortly after his death, perhaps representing simple, homely comforts. Dutch paintings also used pipe smoking to symbolize transience in the seventeenth century. Whereas, the Gauguin chair is more a symbolic gesture of friendship with Vincent, as I told you earlier. For instance, Gauguin’s chair is at night, with a candle and a gas light in the upper left corner. Dickens and Fildes collaborated on The Mystery of Edwin Drood – in the illustration titled ‘Sleeping It Off’, a candle illuminates the darkness of an opium den. The ‘night effect’ suggests Gauguin’s interest in nightlife and his more mystical conception of artistic creation based on symbols or ideas often derived from the literature (represented by the two novels on his chair). It may be a reflection of Gauguin’s love of nightlife, but it also reflects his mystical concept of artistic creation. Among these differences, the yellows and blues of Van Gogh’s chair contrast with Gauguin’s reds and greens.

Subject Matter Analysis of the Artwork.

The subject matter of this painting is a simple chair with a bare floor of terracotta tiles and is one of the most iconic and connected images of Vicent. Straight-backed with no armrests, this chair is manufactured with plain unpolished wood painted yellow with a rush seat. Entirely functional, Vincent gives us the idea of an elementary construction. Though it appears to be sturdy and rough, but the legs of the chair are not properly aligned, which recalls the rustic peasant chairs in his paintings from the 1880s. The chair resembled similar to that of the Bedroom in Arles. On the seat, Van Gogh has placed his pipe and tobacco pouch. There is a low box signed ‘Vincent’ behind the chair; it contains sprouting bulbs, possibly onions. There is part of a blue door visible to the right, whose hinge echoes the chair’s lines.

Formal Analysis of the Post-Impressionist Artframe.

1. Line.

The painting represents a fusion of vertical lines and diagonal lines. However, even the vertical lines represent a small tilt in the other direction. Now, for example, the tiles show diagonal line movements, as do the chair parts as well. Vincent clearly speaks of loneliness, grief, and heartbreak through these diagonal lines that display a tense environment. Even the knitted sitting has a texture of slanted lines instead of horizontal and vertical. Also, because they are neither vertical nor horizontal, and showcase diagonal movement, they are either about to fall or are already in motion.

Line Analysis of the Van Gogh’s Chair, Vertical lines (red), Diagonal lines (white)

2. Light and Value.

The painting showcases a high contrast and moderately light brightness lightness. Furthermore, it suggests a lack of light with slightly dull colours, representing a sense of foreboding.

Black and White version of Van Gogh’s Chair (depicting light and value of the painting)

3. Colour.

We saw that the paintings, that Van Gogh painted during his tenure in Arles have a symbolic effect, and he even urged his brother to study colour theory. He says,

“I have tried for an effect of light by means of pure colour.”

Here in this canvas, he used an emphatic use of colour outlines- including red lines to highlight the sunlight on the back of his chair and blue edging around its yellow legs and below the seat. It related to his experiments with Coloisonnism, a style derived from popular prints and Japanese woodcuts.

In his move away from Impressionism, Van Gogh exchanged paintings with artists associated with Cloisonnism, such as Emile Bernard. Van Gogh’s chair has a physical presence and expressive immediacy because it is painted directly from the motif in vibrant colours with thick impasto.

Opinions and Conclusions.

With subtle use of colour, imperfect perspective and instability in the legs of chairs, Vincent showcased the emptiness in general, which fits the entire world. When I first saw it, I literally stared for over more than 30 minutes continuously. The attraction it holds due to genuine feelings of loneliness and grief implies in everyone’s life.


1. Van Gogh and His Letters by Leo Jansen.

2. Vincent Van Gogh, Rizzoli New York.

3. Van Gogh by Josephine Cutts and James Smith.

Frequently Asked Questions.

What is the meaning of Van Gogh’s Chair?

Van Gogh’s Chair has no specific meaning by Vincent, unlike most of his other paintings. However, the objects and the effects of the scene exhibit his simplicity, love of nature, and the comfort of home. Further, as the artist mentioned in his letter to Theo, the chair is a symbolic still life of grief.

Is Van Gogh’s Chair real or fake?

Van Gogh’s Chair is one of the two compositions Vincent painted in December of 1888, shortly after Paul Gauguin joined him to live in the Yellow House in Arles. The painting portrays a real chair the artist had at the time.

Where was Van Gogh’s Chair painted?

Vincent painted Van Gogh’s Chair along with Gauguin’s Chair during his time in Arles in December 1888.

Related Reads.

Suzanne Valadon: A Troubled Life & A Scandalous Career
The first question that arises in almost everyone's mind is why there were no great...
Read more
Jusepe de Ribera: The Little Spaniard & His Vastness of...
The seventeenth century beheld some of the greatest masters of painting, as I have explained...
Read more
Frieda and Diego Rivera: The Future of Their Marriage
Frida and Diego are the coins of Mexican national treasure, and their marriage was like...
Read more
The Artist's Garden at Giverny: Monet's Love of Flowers
The moment I entered the fragrant and perpetual garden of those enameled red and wilted...
Read more
Lilla Cabot Perry: An American Impressionist & Monet's Friend
In the 19th century, the women artists of the USA saw themselves in a completely...
Read more
Evelyn De Morgan: A Pre-Raphaelite With Renaissance Hand
As Pre-Raphaelitism broke into British Art at the exhibitions of 1849 and 1850, it became...
Read more
Exit mobile version