Did Vincent van Gogh hide an homage to Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” in one of his most famous paintings?
Independent researcher Jared Baxter thinks he did. According to the Huffington Post, Baxter’s been lecturing, most recently at the 2015 Dutch Association Aesthetics, on his theory that van Gogh embedded Leonardo’s scene of Christ breaking bread with his disciplines inside “Café Terrace at Night” (1888).
It wouldn’t be too surprising, given van Gogh’s spiritual inclinations. Before the artist first took up a paintbrush in his late twenties, he dreamed of becoming a minister. His family was deeply religious: his father had been a preacher with the Dutch Reformed church, while his uncle was a theologian. Though his own efforts to “preach the gospel” failed miserably, he continued fervently in the faith. In a letter to his brother Theo about “Café Terrace at Night,” van Gogh expressed his “tremendous need for, shall I say the word — for religion.”
Baxter points to the differences between the final painting and preliminary sketches for proof of Leonardo’s influence. The initial drawing simply shows a semi-crowded cafe in Arles at night. For the final version, van Gogh reworked the number of diners so there would be only 12 people — the same number of Jesus’s disciples. He also grouped them carefully a waiter who stands directly between a light fixture; burning brightly, it looks like a halo. And though not present in Leonardo’s painting, a dark figure van Gogh added in the final painting exits through a doorway, just as Judas did in the Biblical scene.
The researcher also suggests that van Gogh deliberately inserted several crosses in the painting, inspired by one in his friend Emile Bernard’s drawing, “A Woman Washing Herself.” Van Gogh once praised its Christian symbolism in a letter to his brother, calling it “Rembrandtesque” after the master artist’s frequently religious allusions. In van Gogh’s painting, the most obvious cross is formed by the window frame directly behind the waitor (it’s much more stylized compared to the window frames across the street).
Is Baxter reaching a bit? Maybe. But his theory honestly seems plausible, especially given the fact that van Gogh was a deep admirer of religious symbolism in the paintings of friends and influences. Some contemporary art scholars, including William Kloss, agree with him and have even given his research letters of recommendation. But Baxter admits it’s not fool-proof.
“You know when you’re interpreting art, you’ve got to leave open the possibility that you’re not correct … there can never be 100 percent certain,” he told the Huffington Post. “I think there’s enough information and enough evidence to at least make a pretty good case.”
Baxter isn’t the first van Gogh admirer to notice religious symbolism in his work, and “Café Terrace at Night” isn’t the only such painting, either. Some believe that “Interior of the Restaurant Carrel in Arles” (1888) also contains an allusion to “The Last Supper,” while other paintings, like “Starry Night” and “The Sower” have been noted for similar coded messages. UCLA professor Debora Silverman has even described van Gogh’s special brand of art as “sacred realism.”
If Baxter and the others are right, van Gogh was following an established tradition of Dutch painters who filled their works with secondary meanings. Leaving aside the entire tradition of vanitas paintings, which used ordinary objects to convey spiritual truths, there’s the example of Jan van Eyck, who infused “The Arnolfini Portrait” (1434) with symbols of married life. Similarly, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “Netherlandish Proverbs” uses village life to illustrate famous aphorisms. And Rembrandt, as Baxter notes, was also a champion of the practice.
And of course, outside the Dutch tradition, there’s Leonardo himself. Conjecture about the codes and messages hidden in “The Last Supper” have spawned countless scholarly papers, conspiracy theories, mass fiction, and even a blockbuster movie. Some may find such speculation useless, as we’ll likely never be able to fully solve these art historical mysteries. But it sure is fun.
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