Gauguin admired Van Gogh’s enthusiasm but disliked his impetuous emotion. Gauguin was a shrewd, self-controlled man who liked to keep his distance. He disliked unpredictable outbursts and mental instability. Despite having made little money from his paintings, Gauguin had enormous self-belief and was certain that he would achieve material success.
Gauguin, who carefully planned his pictures, was horrified at how Van Gogh worked himself into a frenzy, throwing paint onto his canvass in thick globules, smearing and mixing it until he had achieved the effect he wanted. Gauguin disliked messy workmanship as much as he despised mental weakness. Although he recognised Van Gogh's talent, he thought of him as an introverted romantic preoccupied by his own indulgent soul-searching.
In “Van Gogh painting Sunflowers (1888)”, Gauguin barely defines his subject’s features. Instead he shows Van Gogh slumped in his chair, feverishly painting, his arm at an awkward angle to the canvass. The strangeness of the pose indicates Van Gogh's instability and his apparently undisciplined approach to his work.
Gauguin paints Van Gogh's sunflowers in the same dull tones as he uses to represent the artist, setting off the sharp angles created by the painter’s body and easel with several flat horizontal lines of harshly contrasting colours. Van Gogh's awkwardness is accentuated by this ugly meaningless background.
Gauguin expresses his disdain for Van Gogh in this picture. He later described his time in Arles as a bad experience. A short time after Gauguin finished this picture, Van Gogh threatened him with a razor before cutting off part of his own ear.
Image source: The Yorck Project