York University art history professor Carol Zemel’s overall project with respect to Vincent Van Gogh is an ambitious one, as she suggests that (among other sub-theses) Van Gogh was a somewhat pragmatic, business-oriented artist in complete, even distancing, control of his artistic product until the final few months of his life, a view that usurps his mythology. In the chapter of her 1997 book, Van Gogh’s Progress: Utopia and Modernity in Late-Nineteenth-Century Art titled “Modern Citizens: Configurations of Gender in Van Gogh’s Portraiture,” Zemel further identifies Van Gogh’s strategies and seems to suggest that external factors – the changing role of women in society, the conflict between burgeoning modern life and Van Gogh’s concept of agrarian utopia, and the shift of identifiable classed and gendered roles in general – contributed more greatly to Van Gogh’s ultimate breakdown than underlying biological mental illness.
Though Zemel’s position is challenging, she generally supports her contentions with a vast amount of primary source historical documentation, including here numerous drawings and paintings by Van Gogh and from his personal collection as well as correspondence written to Emile Bernard, Theo Van Gogh, and Van Gogh’s sister Wil Zemel makes some interesting choices in her presentation as well, occasionally lapsing into the passive voice, and for someone very clearly invested in T.J. Clark’s and Griselda Pollock’s concerns with regard to class and gender inequity issues in late 19th Century painting, makes some odd post-colonial statements such as: “The Zouaves were a French-Algerian infantry division formed in 1831 designed to pacify indigenous African populations .”In fact following Pollock so closely in this chapter undermines the more original arguments Zemel has made elsewhere. The discussion of La Berceuse as a representation of motherhood sans the identification of children related to the sheltered lives of bourgeois women and particularly the iconography of the “reading woman” whiling her hours away not studying the classics but daydreaming about romance lead to a certain interpretation in Van Gogh’s concurrent work, yet (and this is a problem with Pollock) does not represent a monolithic take on actual historical Arlesienne femininity or modernity.
Part of the “problem” of modernity, as articulated by Baudelaire and others, was that once clearly identifiable roles in society ceased to be so, and Van Gogh was obviously aware of this paradox, though not in a particularly destabilizing manner . While Pollock sees the portrayal of Agostina Segatori in transition from an urban personality to a rural archetype, Judy Sund probably more correctly attributes the change in style in the framework of a shifting personal relationship .
Zemel does seem to be getting at something more direct and more personal in her discussion of the two moody portraits of Armand Roulin and the representation of Joseph Ginoux – there was a particular aspect to the subjects’ respective interior states Van Gogh seemed to fix upon in what beholders would “get” in a charged “modern” way . One of Zemel’s other virtues – a difference from Pollock’s perspective – is that Zemel doesn’t cast the emergence of the modern as either some sort of capitalist masterplot (not that it isn’t, but such a development would not serve her goal vis a vis Van Gogh), nor does she cast modernity into complete opposition with the utopia of the book title – the two states are shown more as incompatible parallel developments in Van Gogh’s progress.
Carol Zemel, “Modern Citizens: Configurations of Gender in Van Gogh’s Portraiture,” Van Gogh’s Progress: Utopia and Modernity in Late-Nineteenth-Century Art (University of California Press, 1997).