In the autumn of 1889 French post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin created two paintings with similar subject matter that would go on to be regarded as key works of Symbolism in painting. The oil paintings were created prior to Gauguin’s first trip to the South Pacific in 1891, during a period in which he produced a truly colossal output of work. Christian themes had appeared in many of his earlier works, but in 1889 Gauguin’s inclusion of religious imagery and motifs really went into overdrive. Le Christ Dans le Jardin Des Oliviers (Christ In The Garden Of Olives) and Adam Et Éve, Ou Le Paradis Perdu (Adam And Eve, Or Paradise Lost) both appeared in 1889 prior to the painting of Le Christ Jaune (The Yellow Christ) and Le Christ Vert (The Green Christ) that autumn. The reason that The Yellow Christ and The Green Christ are so significant however, is not due to their subject matter but due to their design, composition and execution.

The paintings were created when Gauguin visited Pont-Aven, a commune in Brittany in north-western France. Gauguin had visited the village on a number of occasions prior to 1889, and his most recent stay in 1888 had only been interrupted by Gauguin’s ill-fated two-month visit to Vincent Van Gogh at the Yellow House in Arles. The Yellow Christ was the first of the two paintings that he completed, with the figure of Jesus being inspired by a wooden sculpture by an anonymous artist, The Crucifix Of Trémalo, which is displayed at the church in Pont-Aven. The work is Symbolist in nature and depicts Christ being crucified in 19th Century French farmland with three Breton women gathered beneath him, kneeling in prayer.

The painting is often cited as one of the quintessential examples of Cloissonism in art. If you’re not familiar with the term, it was coined in 1888 by art critic Édouard Dujardin to describe the style of painting that utilised bold colours and outlines and flat forms, and it took its name from the ancient cloisonné technique of metal decoration. Gauguin relied heavily on the use of bold lines to define the figure of Christ and the landscape, using partial shading only for the women beneath him. The yellow of Christ is reflected in the autumnal colours in the surrounding landscape and the vividness of the palette that Gauguin uses is distinct from many other works he produced at the time.

The Green Christ was created a few weeks later and it also contains many hallmarks of the Cloissonist style with areas of single colour separated only by bold outlines. The colour palette is more muted, and the painting depicts a Breton woman at the foot of a calvary – calvaries are sculptures of Christ’s crucifixion that are common in town squares across Brittany. As the work’s title suggests, the calvary is green and Gauguin’s disregard for classical perspective and colour gradation is an early example of the discontinuities in art that would come to be characteristic of Modernism.

Cloissonism would develop into Synthesism, which in turn Gauguin would morph into Primitivism. The two paintings may further be considered as seminal works when you take into account that Gauguin’s final painting prior to his first trip to Tahiti in 1891, Portrait De L’Artiste Au Christ Jaune (Portrait Of The Artist With Yellow Christ), shown above, includes a mirrored version of The Yellow Christ in the background on the left hand side. On the right hand side is a Primitivist pot and between the two is Gauguin, himself at a crossroads between Cloissonism and early Synthesism, and the Primitivism that he would embrace in the South Pacific.