Gauguin’s Vision of the Sermon is one of the most famous images in the history of art. Puzzling and mysterious, this daring and experimental composition became a manifesto for a new approach to painting. With its surprising colour, its bold outlines and deliberately flattened shapes, Gauguin set a new benchmark for the artist’s freedom to distort and exaggerate for expressive purposes, declaring his interest in an art based on the world of ideas and the imagination rather than observed reality.
Gauguin was a late starter as an artist. Prior to painting Vision of the Sermon, his nomadic life had already included a childhood in Peru, a spell as a merchant sailor and a phase as a respectable stockbroker in Paris. He was a collector and amateur painter when, after the stock market crash of 1882, he decided to take up painting full-time, eventually more or less abandoning his wife and family and embarking on the peripatetic lifestyle that would ultimately take him across the world to the South Seas and the island of Tahiti.
Vision of the Sermon was painted at Pont-Aven in Brittany in the summer of 1888. Gauguin was looking to move beyond the Impressionism of his early work, and his stays in Brittany in 1886 and 1888 were important stages in the formation of a new, simpler style. He was working closely with his young friend Émile Bernard and was in touch by letter with Vincent van Gogh in Arles. The ideas and ambitions that they shared encouraged Gauguin to experiment and in late September he wrote to Van Gogh to tell him that he had just painted ‘a religious picture, badly executed but it interested me to do it and I like it’. In this painting Gauguin attempted to combine the real and the imagined. The Breton women in traditional costume in the foreground have just heard a sermon, presumably delivered by the tonsured priest that we glimpse at the lower right. In the upper half of the composition Gauguin evokes the vision that the women now share after listening to the sermon which described the biblical episode of Jacob wrestling with an angel (Genesis 32: 24–32). To emphasise the contrast between the real women and the spiritual experience they imagine, Gauguin divided the composition with the diagonal trunk of an apple tree and set their dream of the wrestling figures against a striking, flat red background. Gauguin was pleased with the result and in the same letter to Van Gogh he wrote: ‘I think I have achieved a great rustic and superstitious simplicity in the figures. The whole is very severe.’
Gauguin’s deliberate distortions of form and colour were a rejection not just of conventional painting but also of more modern naturalistic styles such as Impressionism. Vision of the Sermon was shown at various exhibitions from 1889 onwards and it helped to establish his reputation as an innovator, becoming an important example for younger artists seeking new directions in art. Even today it remains a challenging picture, and Gauguin himself was not surprised when, shortly after its completion, he twice tried to donate it to local churches but his offers were firmly rejected.
This text was originally published in 100 Masterpieces: National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2015.