Van Gogh’s The Zouave (1888)

The Zouaves were a regiment originating in French Algeria who, until they became sitting ducks for machine guns in World War I, wore a distinctive red and yellow uniform with a blue sash. 

Van Gogh's The Zouave (left) is one of two painted portraits of the Algerian soldier. This one is more compelling in part because of the prominence of his blue, seemingly circular sash and the serpentine shapes of his jacket's embroidery. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Van Gogh, The Zouave (1888) Oil on canvas. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

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In the second portrait (left) the blue sash is both less prominent and no longer circular, its upper curve now obviously draped horizontally around his torso. In fact, in no image of the French Zouaves online, and there are many, does their blue sash look as large and as circular as the one in the other portrait.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Van Gogh, The Seated Zouave (1888) Oil on canvas. Private Collection

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Van Gogh has placed the head of his alter ego on a vast torso whose shoulders overwhelm the head, thereby forcing the blue sash and the embroidery on the jacket into the foreground. 

The viewer might easily imagine that the upper edge of the sash was curved, not just because its contour seems too acutely circular for a flat abdomen but because the blue brushstrokes within it also curve thereby strengthening the suggestion that the blue sash is part of a circle.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Van Gogh, The Zouave (1888) Oil on canvas. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

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What no-one has noticed, though, is that in doing so Van Gogh has made the blue sash symbolize one of his own blue eyes with the reddish-yellow lines of the embroidery as optic nerves extending from the eyeball into the deep blue darkness of his mind. Even the yellow balls at the end of the lines resemble the lateral geniculate nucleus of the thalamus as described in the medical diagram below. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Detail of Van Gogh's The Zouave (1888) Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Bottom: Diagram of human eyeballs and their optic nerves

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Seen thus, the Zouave represents Van Gogh dreaming. He sits in his mind in front of a green door, the color of fertility. Many artists over the centuries have chosen to represent themselves as soldiers even if, like Rembrandt and Van Gogh, they were never in uniform. They do so because military activity is a convenient and expressive way to symbolize the artist's own mental struggle to create the artwork.

I should also note that doctors have discovered anatomical shapes all over the ceiling and altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo put them there for a purpose as I describe in a short entry and essay. Van Gogh, it seems, must have known this too.

Captions for image(s) above:

Van Gogh, The Zouave (1888) Oil on canvas. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

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Notes:

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 28 Aug 2012. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.