V. Are there hints in Gauguin's artworks?


Yes, there are quite a lot of hints. And this comes as no surprise since Gauguin was a leading figure in the symbolist movement. Apart from the caricatures of superintendent d'Ornano (see above), Gauguin's fears and his involvement in the ear-cutting affair are also expressed in some strange artworks he created in Paris during the first weeks after his escape from Arles:

Firstly, a mixed technique painting "ICTUS", showing an androgynous figure presenting its left ear by a gesture of its hand [ill. 2]11. The inviting gesture pointing to the left ear, in connection with the painting of a fish and the word "ICTUS" behind the head of the young person are clear references to the ear-cutting incident with van Gogh, the fish symbolising muteness, and "ICTUS" in the language of fencing means a pass, lunge, or thrust (see below).

Illustration 2
Illustration 2

Secondly, the odd ceramic pot in form of a self-portrait with the thumb in his mouth,
[ill. 3]12 shows a Gauguin upset and frightened and forced to keep silent:

Illustration 3

Thirdly, the ceramic cup in form of a self-portrait, with his eyes closed, severed ears and a red glaze dripping down over his face [ill. 4]13 refers directly to the recent events around van Gogh's ear. In a psychological switch, Gauguin confounds the offender and the victim and puts himself in Van Gogh's place.

Illustration 4

These, and certainly other artworks by Gauguin after 1889, including his four paintings of sunflowers with an "eye", painted in Tahiti in 1901, [ill. 5]14 will have to be reinterpreted in the light of his entanglement in the ear-cutting affair.

In a letter from Papetee/Tahiti dated October 1898, exactly ten years after his arrival in Arles, Paul Gauguin asked Daniel de Monfreid to send him
"a few bulbs and seeds of flowers", in particular dahlias and sunflowers.a)
Monfried evidently obliged, since in April 1899 Gauguin confirmed that most of the seeds had sprouted and that he would do some studies of the flowers when they bloomed.b) Four versions of sunflower still lifes by Paul Gauguin are known to us today, all of them dated 1901. Gauguin painted them in memory of Vincent van Gogh, the master of the sunflower, who once said: "You know that Jeannin has the peony, Quost has the hollyhock, but I have the sunflower, in a way."c)
A noteworthy aspect of all four still lifes is their confessional evidence of direct links to Van Gogh. These links go far beyond the superficial symbolism of the sunflower motif. Let us therefore look more closely at one of these four paintings, Sunflowers on an Armchair, today housed in the Hermitage.d)
Gauguin shows us a number of sunflowers arranged in a careless and perfunctory manner in a basket placed on the seat of an armchair. The heads of many of the flowers are already drooping. A bluish white cloth, similar to a linen sheet, is draped over the back of the chair. This latter bears a striking resemblance to Gauguin's armchair in Arles. Behind the chair, mysterious and ghostly, rises a morbid, dark brown, menacingly upright sunflower with a staring, dead eye at the centre of its seed head. In the right half of the canvas, beyond a section of wall, is the portrait of a Tahitian woman.
The picture is dominated by the staring eye at its upper centre. This eye vividly demonstrates that Gauguin is not only conscious of the Vanitas dimension underlying a still life of this kind, but is also a master of Symbolist imagery.
In 1891 Gauguin had been celebrated enthusiastically as a Symbolist artist by leading representatives of literary Symbolism in Paris. First contact was made by Odilon Redon, who even painted a portrait of Gauguin. It was Redon who introduced the "all-seeing eye" as an enigmatic element into many of his compositions, and in particular his cycles of etchings.
In the work Sunflowers on an Armchair in memory of Vincent van Gogh, Gauguin takes up the literary motif of the eye as a symbol of conscience.e)
Victor Hugo was demonstrably one of Gauguin's favourite authors.f) In his poetry volume La Légende des Siècles of 1859, Victor Hugo published a poem that is still standard reading in French schools today: La Conscience ("The Conscience"). It tells the story of the biblical Cain and his attempts to escape the eye of God after he has murdered his brother Abel. Cain's efforts are in vain: as a projection of his guilty conscience, the eye follows him everywhere. Even as the grave closes over him, "the eye was in the tomb and looked at Cain".g)
Through his painting Sunflowers on an Armchair, Paul Gauguin alludes to the events in Arles and his own inglorious role, which has left him likewise with an enduringly guilty conscience.


Illustration 5, link to source




Another indication is the repeated appearance of the word "ictus" in Gauguin's notes and in the picture mentioned above (ill. 2).
"Ictus" has different meanings: The Greek anacrostic ICTUS is the abbreviation for "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Saviour". And the Greek word "ichtys" (ictus) means "fish". The early Christians in ancient Rome used the shape of a fish as a shibboleth and as a secret symbol for their community and a warning to keep silent like a fish. "Ictus" has also a medical meaning, describing the sudden outbreak or "hit" of a disease, e.g. a stroke or an epileptic fit. Finally, the Latin word "ictus" means "blow", "hit", "thrust", and was used in fencing circles to announce a strike. Gauguin added the shape of a fish with the inscription "ICTUS" at the end of van Gogh's letter to him of 21 January 1889, after the words "avant de tomber malade" (before falling ill).15 This was obviously a pointer to something behind this "illness". On page 220 in his sketchbook from Arles, Gauguin wrote a list of keywords refering to his talks with Vincent Van Gogh, and among them "Saul. Paul. Ictus", which refers to his religious contentions with his colleague.

But most notably, on page 221, we find the word "ictus" surrounded not by a fish, but by an oval fringe resembling very much the contour of a human ear [ill. 6].

Illustration 6, Gauguin, sketchbook, p. 221

This is obviously related to the ear-cutting affair, suggesting the cut ("ictus") that severed Van Gogh's ear. Moreover, above this sketch are some scribbles: an entwined "8" and two zig-zags, each ending on the right side with a down streak. We do not think that these scribbles above that particular ear with "ictus" written in it are random and without any meaning, since nowhere in the sketchbood you can find similar scribbles. We see here the depiction of specific fencing movements where Gauguin tries to trace back the movements of his sabre when he cut off Vincent's ear ("Ictus"!).
Since we are no fencing experts we showed these scribbles to a French fencing master; he clearly interpreted them as fencing movements.


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11. Paul Gauguin, "Ictus" (1889); Watercolour and oil on paper; Collection Daniel Malingue: see Merlhès 1989, p.195; Druick/ Zegers 2001, p.279; Kaufmann/Wildegans 2008, p. 326-327.

12. Paul Gauguin,, Glazed ceramic mug in form of a self-portrait, spring 1889 [B 53, G 66], Musée d'Orsay; see also Gösta Svenaeus: "Gauguin and van Gogh", in "Vincent" – Bulletin of the Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Vol 4 (1976), p. 22.; and: Druick/ Zegers 2001, p. 281.

13. Paul Gauguin, Glazed ceramic cup with handle in form of a self-portrait, ca. 1 Feb.1889 [B 48, G 65]; see Svenaeus ib., p.25, Druick/ Zegers 2001, p. 267, Kaufmann/Wildegans 2008, p. 333-334.

14. Gauguin, Sunflowers on an Armchair, 1901 [W 603], see also [W 604], [W 605], and [W 606]

15. VvG to Paul Gauguin, 21 January 1889; Letters no. 739, see there also annotation [3] in vol.4, p.394

a) The Letters of Paul Gauguin to Georges Daniel de Monfreid, trans. by Ruth Pielkovo, New York 1922, no. 35, October 1898, p. 107

b) Ibid., no. 41, April 1899, p. 117f.

c) Vincent to Theo van Gogh, Arles, 22 January 1889, letter 741, in: Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten, Nienke Bakker (eds.) (2009), Vincent van Gogh – The Letters. Version: December 2010. Amsterdam & The Hague: Van Gogh Museum & Huygens ING. Cited here from http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let741/letter.html

d) Paul Gauguin, Sunflowers on an Armchair, 1901, oil on canvas, 73 x 92 cm, The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Cat. 144

e) In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the All-seeing Eye is the eye of God, which beholds good and evil. The open eye appeals to the conscience

f) In his 1888 Self-Portrait with Portrait of Émile Bernard (Les Misérables), for example, which he presented to Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin portrays himself in the role of Jean Valjean, the protagonist of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables.

g) "L'oeil était dans la tombe et regardait Caïn." From Victor Hugo, La Conscience, in La Légende des Siècles, Paris 1859