Cover image for At Eternity's Gate Analysis

At Eternity’s Gate Painting: The Hidden Meaning

It is difficult to master the skill of conveying one’s feelings without losing the impact of the felt emotions. One such master artist is Vincent Willem van Gogh, popularly referred to as ‘Van Gogh’. Vincent’s art is from the post-impressionism era. Post-impressionism is a continuation of the era of impressionism that slightly breaks the confines of impressionism. Post impressionistic art is characterized by the usage of bold, saturated colors, thick contours, unnatural lighting, and emphasis on simpler geometric shapes rather than a more realistic depiction of its subject. In this way, post-impressionistic art is more abstract and has a deeper symbolic meaning. These features are also present in his painting ‘At Eternity’s Gate’.

About the Artist

In the last decade of his life, Van Gogh became chronically depressed. For this reason, he turned to religion and art for comfort. As with most post-impressionist artists of the time, his art wasn’t well received at the beginning of his career. Unable to sell his art, he often had to seek help from his family. 

Van Gogh Portrait
Van Gogh Portrait by John Peter Russell. Public Domain

Unfortunately, his work was given due recognition only decades after his death, especially in the 20th century. Presently, Van Gogh’s paintings are one of the most expensive works of art. The Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam houses the largest collection of his artwork.  

Where is it now?

At Eternity’s Gate, also called ‘Sorrowing Old Man’ is an oil painting based on one of Van Gogh’s lithographs. A lithograph refers to a rough design or sketch that a painter studies before making the final piece. Today, the painting is in the Netherlands, at the Kröller-Müller Museum. The lithograph was based on a pencil sketch called ‘Worn Out’. This was part of a collection of his study on a war veteran who modeled for him.

He kept revisiting the same pose with different models both male and female. Van Gogh drew similar pictures in different art media ranging from sketches, etchings, and lithographs. He finally made an oil on canvas painting titled “At Eternity’s Gate”. 

The Subject At Eternity’s Gate

What inspired van Gogh to depict the model in a distraught position is probably the man’s unique appearance. The artist was impressed by the striking emotional effect that the bald head and the bombazine suit created. He believed these elements added intensity to the subject’s general posture.

The subject of the painting is an elderly man, engulfed in despair and hopelessness. The man’s anguish is palpable through his head resting on his fists, covering his face.  The sorrowing man sits on a chair uneasily, in a corner of his abode close to a small fire. The man’s concealed face allows the viewer to empathize more closely with his feelings and identify themselves in a similar situation as the old man. 

The man in the painting at Eternity's Gate painting by Van Gogh
The subject of At Eternity’s Gate by Vincent van Gogh. Public Domain

Perhaps the reason why this image influenced Van Gogh so deeply is that he finds some resemblance to himself in the despair of the old pensioner in the painting. The aim is not to romanticize the idea of a dejected old man. Rather he wanted to express the possibility that something beyond one’s thoughts of the end exists. This could be God or the presence of ‘eternity’. Van Gogh expressed in a letter to his brother that he was moved by how simply this lithograph of the old man, probably unaware of the presence of God or an eternity expresses just that by sitting quietly in the corner of a room.

He opines that what makes it so precious is the fact that:

“the poorest woodcutter, heath farmer or miner can have moments of emotion and mood that give him a sense of an eternal home that he is close to.”

This means that the picture is relatable to all, no matter their standard of living, at their darkest moments, they will sense the presence of their long-lost home.

The Meaning of his Despair

Van Gogh was of the opinion that when we are at our lowest, our senses become more intuitive than one who hasn’t tasted complete despair. In the face of utter hopelessness, our eyes can see the wonders of the world and beyond, eternity, and God. His allusion to God in the letters and the sorrowing man both point toward his longing for a home, a safe space.

Having faced rejection in love coupled with an unpleasant childhood this painting still manages to show us a glimpse of the painter’s eternal hope, shining through the darkest moments of his life. The fire in the painting may also be indicative of his hope or rather his belief in God. At eternity’s gate is not just a reflection of the painter’s inner turmoil, but also his comfort in the thought of an eternal home.

The clenched fists are a sign of control, showing how the man has been keeping his sentiments and internal conflicts hidden. The man further covers his face, reluctant to let his emotions out, or appearing weak even in solitude. The man’s old age is a reference to the final years of life where a person faces the end of their journey, nudging the audiences to imagine their future self in the same seat. 

The artist went back to his lithographs years after completing them when he himself was ‘worn out’ by his illnesses. At the first glimpse, it is difficult to understand how this painting could soothe a soul in distress, but the meaning of the picture goes much deeper than its surface. 

At eternity's gate painting
At Eternity’s Gate Painting by Van Gogh

Painting Style and Colours

The thick contours of the painting are a statement in itself. These contours are what distinguish post-impressionism from impressionism which is characterized by soft and subtle contours. 

It appears as though Van Gogh deliberately painted the old man and his chair in more saturated brighter colors against a dull wooden background to draw more attention to it rather than the finer details. 

The dense colors used in the painting tend to become very personal to an objective viewer and may be analyzed subjectively in many unique ways. The color that draws the most attention is the striking blue overalls of the old man. The blue suggests not only melancholy and desolation but also calmness. Similarly, the numerous vertical and horizontal lines in the painting point toward chaos and tranquility respectively.

This constant contrast amongst the different elements of the painting adds to the emotional tone of distress that the figure of the old man exudes. The contrast gives an unnerving and chaotic tinge to the painting, which is more striking than the elements of calmness. 

The second most influential color of the painting is the bright red in the bottom-left corner, seen in the small fire. The color red is often used to magnify the intensity of emotions and even to depict passion or strength. In the painting, the fire indicates the suffering of the elderly man and the red defines the intensity of his agony. The sharp contrast between the blue and red draw attention to his pain and despair at the same time, both demanding undivided attention. This creates a conflict in the viewer’s senses which is an allusion to the inner conflict of the sorrowing man. 

Conclusion

Through his painting ‘At Eternity’s Gate’, van Gogh gives away a lot about himself and his life. He reveals his keen sense of observation, his theological beliefs, and his inability to seek peace in the face of discomfort. Worn out by his illnesses, even though van Gogh could see the gates of eternity clearly, he did not have enough time to pass through its welcoming doors. The genius of his mind penned another script for him to follow.

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