The ‘vision’ of Paul Gauguin’s painting is not literal, but spiritual. In a letter to Vincent van Gogh (September 1888), Gauguin points to the disproportionate smallness of the cow and the wrestlers in relation to the spectators. Such disproportionality signals, he explains, that the scene is taking place in the women's imaginations. And the women do not need physical organs to see a struggle in the imagination. In their encounter with the place named Peniel/Penuel (from the Hebrew panim, face and el, God)—so-called because there Jacob saw God face to face—the eyes of all would-be spectators are closed or obscured from us.
There is one notable exception. One woman, in what is almost the centre of the canvas, leans forward and gazes raptly at the battling figures, as if absorbed in the imaginary spectacle of human–divine contest. If this struggle is imaginary, what exactly does she see? Is she some kind of Doubting Thomas, attempting to assess divinity with her own senses? What kind of struggle to see is the gazing woman engaged in? The gazing woman’s size and centrality emphasize the significance of her presence. She shifts our sense of what we are engaged in as we view this scene, making us more aware of the possibilities and the limits of our seeing. As we stare open-eyed at this scene of divine encounter, she is like us, or we are like her. The gazing woman perhaps stands in for us in the painting, figuring for us our own struggle to see.
‘What does [Jacob’s] combat matter’, a phenomenologist asks, ‘if it cannot take place this very night?’ (Chrétien 2003: 8).Through the figure of the gazing woman, Gauguin’s painting invites the viewer into Jacob’s struggle with a partner identified as both a man (Genesis 32:24, 25) and the divine (v.28, implied in v.30), an ambiguity resolved in later texts that call the figure an angel (Hosea 12:4). The victory the text commends to us is to prevail, not by defeating God or God’s messengers, but by meeting the divine face to face, with our own eyes—to refuse, like Jacob holding the angel, like the woman holding her gaze, to let go until we have received our blessing.
Chrétien, Jean-Louis. 2003. Hand to Hand: Listening to the Work of Art, trans. by Stephen E. Lewis (New York: Oxford University Press)
Gauguin, Paul. 1888. ‘Letter 688, to Vincent van Gogh, c.26 September 1888’, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, inv. nos. b847 a-d V/1962, available at http://www.vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let688/letter.html [accessed 25 January 2020]
Herban III, Mathew. 1977. ‘The Origin of Paul Gauguin’s Vision after the Sermon: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1888)’, The Art Bulletin 59.3: 415–20
22 The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then he said, “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Tell me, I pray, your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the name of the place Peniʹel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuʹel, limping because of his thigh. 32Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the sinew of the hip which is upon the hollow of the thigh, because he touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh on the sinew of the hip.