I want to begin by inviting you to look at this painting. What do you see? Who do you see? Maybe some of you reading are familiar with this painting and already know a lot about it. Whether or not that is the case, I invite you to notice new details, I invite you to make new judgments, I invite you to have your own point of view on this portrait of this person.
Art historians seem to agree that the woman in this painting is drinking her second beer because there are two saucers beneath her mug. She is also smoking a cigarette, and between that and the beer and this being 1887 in Paris, they also agree that she is a “modern woman.” Personally, I see a woman who put a lot of effort into her hair and her outfit only to sit at this table feeling tired and utterly disenchanted with life.
This woman is Agostina Segatori, as portrayed by Vincent Van Gogh. So perhaps it is more accurate to say that this is Vincent’s Agostina. Because no matter how closely we look, no matter how much my view of this painting differs from yours or the next person’s, we can only look at Agostina here through Vincent’s eyes.
Here she is again, Vincent’s Agostina:
Before he painted Starry Night and famously cut off his own ear, Van Gogh spent two years in Paris, from 1886-1888. During that time, he painted over 200 works, including these three portraits of Segatori. Looking at all three, I start to feel like maybe I can put an honest image together in my mind, taking the details altogether to invent a three-dimensional woman in my own mind’s eye. But again, the woman I see can only be Vincent’s. The image in his mind, his eyes, his hand, his art.
Luckily, Van Gogh was far from the first to portray her. An Italian model living in Paris, Agostina Segatori had posed for Édouard Manet, Édouard Joseph Dantan, Jean-Baptiste Corot, Jean-Léon Gérôme, and Eugène Delacroix before Vincent Van Gogh had even started painting. Here, for example, is Corot’s Segatori, painted eleven years before Van Gogh’s portraits:
This portrait, like several of Agostina Segatori, is called The Italian. Maybe, if we look at every painting ever done of her, we’ll be able to see her for ourselves. And maybe, if we know a lot about her, we’ll be able to see her for who she was.
She was Italian. She lived in Paris. She was a model. When artists stopped painting her, she started her own business: a café. Her café became a cultural hub for the artists, writers, and thinkers of Paris in the 1880s. She and her café went bankrupt. She never recovered. She died.
Is that enough? Can we see her now? I’m still having trouble. And the reason is obvious, isn’t it? Every portrait of Agostina is a man’s work. A man’s eyes, a man’s hand, a man’s art. The male gaze is all we have for Agostina.
Until to the yellow house at La Jolla Playhouse offers us a new set of eyes. Here I got to see playwright Kimber Lee’s Agostina, actor Deidrie Henry’s Agostina, and what a sight for sore eyes she was. Kimber and Deidrie offer a different kind of portrait. A woman’s point of view. A collaboration. A performance of a person who isn’t completely frozen in time.
This is how it feels to watch to the yellow house. Like looking at a painting. Several paintings. A museum of Vincent Van Gogh’s Paris years. In it, I see a sweeping landscape of Vincent’s Paris. No, Kimber’s Vincent’s Paris. I see several portraits of Kimber’s Vincent. Portraits of his brother, his idols, his contemporaries – men from whom he sought knowledge, friendship, and opportunity; men from whom he got nothing but frustration, competition, disappointment.
And as I go through the museum of this play, I get glimpses of portraits that leap out me, make me stop and stare and wonder, that person in the museum standing in front of a painting looking as if they might stand there forever. I stand for a while before Kimber’s Sophie, Kimber’s Marie, two women in this play (both portrayed beautifully by Brooke Ishibashi) that give Vincent more than all the men combined. Sophie’s support and Marie’s reality check push Vincent forward as an artist and as a person. The men only tear him down and hold him back.
Here is Kimber’s Sophie. Look. What do you see? I see a woman who is trying something new and trusting her own body.
I’m learning to bake
It’s tiring but rewarding I think I’ll be good at it
I’m sure you will
I have very
I know you do
which is good for a baker
I’m sure it is
Here is Kimber’s Marie. Look. What do you see? I see a woman who is not easily charmed, who gets on with it, who knows more about the world than most well-traveled people.
MARIE enters with a freshly beheaded, dripping wet chicken.
She plucks feathers into the dustbin.
He is a little shaken at how recently he conversed with the soon to
be coq au vin.
What’s the matter
Never been acquainted with your food
Where I come from
The coq au vin is already
Coqqed and vinned before I see it
How nice for you
And where are you from that you were so assiduously protected from the facts of life
I am standing now in front of Kimber’s Agostina. Deidrie’s Agostina. Here she is. Who do you see?
I think at the very least you owe me a
I owe you
He abruptly tears off the suit jacket, throws it on the floor.
Okay I see what's
I get it now
And you know it wouldn't be the first time I was taken in by a whore
She whirls on him in a fury and strikes him hard across the face, he reels back in surprise.
She hits him again, harder, he falls back against the wall.
Does it make you happy to be right
That I am
I am a
That I am a ruined woman
What is there for me in this life if I cannot if I cannot if I cannot
If I am not the object of the art
If I am no longer a suitable object for art
If I cannot make anything myself
If I cannot even make this godforsaken cafe run
What is the
What do you think happens to a woman who cannot make a place for herself in this world
There is no place for me in this world but I went ahead and made one anyway
And I do not owe you or any other man a single fucking explanation
Do you understand me
She struggles to get her breathing under control.
He makes a tentative move toward her, she stops him with a look.
At this moment in the play, sitting in the theater, I could feel the women in the audience bursting at the seams with the desire to cheer, to scream, to fall at the feet of Deidrie Henry, an absolute powerhouse in her performance of this speech. I could stand in front of this portrait of Agostina forever. And still, it’s not enough.
Kimber Lee zeroed in on the two most pivotal years of Vincent Van Gogh’s life. Not the most salacious, or explosive, or famous works producing, or vibrant, or even the most depressive. But the most pivotal. An in-between moment that propelled him to his famous Yellow House, an in-between moment where he encountered Agostina Segatori. Agostina Segatori was the most pivotal person in Vincent Van Gogh’s life.
This is both the power of a woman taking control of this narrative and the limitation of nevertheless telling a man’s story. I want the portrait to be Agostina’s alone. I want a play for her. Several plays. A museum of plays for Agostina Segatori, that maybe, when taken as a whole, might really let us see her.
So, I want to end with an invitation. I invite you to take a close look at Agostina Segatori’s life, about which we frankly know quite little. What do you see? Who do you see? How many ways can Agostina’s story be told? How many ways can we paint her? If you choose a moment in her life to paint like a landscape, what might it look like? Here’s the beginning of mine:
Agostina Segatori, ideally played by Deidrie Henry, sits on a simple chair centerstage in profile. She looks off into the distance, not seeing or caring about her surroundings. Édouard Manet, Édouard Joseph Dantan, Jean-Baptiste Corot, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Eugène Delacroix, and Vincent van Gogh all sit on stools facing away from the audience, easels set up in front of them, in a semi-circle, each of them angled towards Agostina. On their easels are partially completed paintings that mirror each artist’s most famous portrait of Agostina Segatori. We watch the men observe Agostina. We watch the men paint Agostina. We maybe watch the men, occasionally, steal glances at each other’s work.
Agostina Segatori looks around at them. They all stop painting. She stands. The lights shift. The paintings explode. Bits of canvas, streaks of paint, and smoke fill the air.
When the smoke clears, the men are gone. Agostina stands tall in the wreckage.
She sings in Italian.