Paul Gauguin’s First Masterpiece: The Vision After the Sermon
A dream-like image made from a “primitive” artistic impulse
This painting is often thought of as Paul Gauguin’s first masterpiece. As an image that combined the mystical with the everyday, it marked a crucial turning point on his creative path as an artist.
Titled Vision After the Sermon, it was made in 1888 whilst Gauguin was living in the village of Pont-Aven in Brittany, northwest France.
The idea of the painting was this: a group of Breton women, wearing their distinctive ceremonial headdresses, have just heard a sermon read by a priest. The story was of Jacob wrestling with a mysterious angel. Now, after the sermon has finished, the devout women are seeing the sermon before them in the form of a vision.
As Gauguin wrote to his friend Vincent van Gogh during the making of the painting, “the landscape and the fight only exist in the imagination of the people praying after the sermon.”
Notice how Gauguin has cut the composition in two by painting a tree trunk diagonally across the canvas. This helps to separate the painting into distinct parts: on the left is reality, and on the right is the apparition.
By translating the imagination of the people within the work, Gauguin drastically broke with the 19th century conventions of naturalism in art.
And the use of strong colours, most obviously the carpet of red across the upper half of the painting, not only heightened the visual daring of the image but also set it apart from the traditions of modern painting at the time.
To get a better idea of the development of Gauguin’s painting style with this image, it’s worth comparing Vision After the Sermon with a slightly earlier painting by Gauguin, made two years earlier in 1886.