This winter (2019) in an exhibition sponsored by Credit Suisse, the National Gallery is providing visitors with the opportunity to view the portraits of Paul Gauguin. Never exhibited together before, the portraits illustrate the artist’s life from his early years in France to his last in French Polynesia. Fifty paintings have been sourced from collections all over the world that demonstrate Gauguin’s experimental use of colour and Synthetist style that, whilst unappreciated during his lifetime, have made him an important figure in art history.
The exhibition begins with a selection of Gauguin’s self-portraits. Described as self-obsessed, Gauguin painted himself many times throughout his career, believing that the world could only be understood from his point of view. He thought art could only exist in relation to memory, dreams, heritage and emotions, therefore, many of his paintings reflect the way he saw the world.
Often, Gauguin used himself as a model for paintings that were not necessarily intended to be self-portraits. By adopting other personas, Gauguin placed himself in histories and mythologies, showing the world how he interpreted the stories.
On more than one occasion, Gauguin painted himself as Christ. He is not the only artist to have done this; Dürer (1471-1528), for instance, had used himself as a model for Christ centuries before. Gauguin’s features are highly recognisable in his paintings of Christ and his facial expressions demonstrate Christ’s anguish and distress. He found a parallel between himself and Christ, feeling that he too was misunderstood.
In Christ in the Garden of Olives, the red-haired Gauguin depicts himself as Christ on the eve of his betrayal. When he painted this, Gauguin was struggling to sell his work and felt isolated and persecuted by the art world. By using himself as the model for this Biblical event, Gauguin communicated his own sense of suffering.
There is less emotion in Self Portrait (Near Golgotha), which was painted in front of Gauguin’s impression of the hill on which Christ was crucified. To the left of Christ – or Gauguin – is the head of a Polynesian idol. To understand this reference, the viewer needs to know a little about Gauguin’s life, particularly his later years.
Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin was born in Paris on 7th June 1848 to Clovis Gauguin and Aline Chazal. Both parents were rather radical; his father was a journalist and his mother was the daughter of the political and feminist activist, Flora Tristan (1803-44).
Gauguin’s mother was of Spanish-Peruvian descent and the family decided to move to Peru in 1849 shortly after the Revolution in France. Clovis hoped the move would help his journalistic career, however, he died of a heart attack en route. Aline arrived in Peru a widow with 18-month-old Paul and his 21⁄2 year-old sister, Marie. They were welcomed by Aline’s great-uncle whose son-in-law was soon to become the president of Peru. Due to the prestige of his mother’s family, Gauguin grew up attended by nursemaids and servants.
Unfortunately, Gauguin’s family fell from political power during Peruvian civil conflicts in 1854 and returned to France. Gauguin and his sister were left in the care of his paternal grandfather in Orléans while his mother worked as a dressmaker in Paris. Despite this unconventional life, Gauguin received a prestigious Catholic education at Petit Séminaire de La Chapelle-Saint-Mesmin, a boarding school in the north of France. This was followed by a couple of years at the Loriol Institute, a naval school preparatory in Paris, and a final year at the Lycée Jeanne D’Arc in Orléans.
On finishing school, Gauguin enlisted as a pilot’s assistant in the merchant marine and later served in the French Navy for two years. Unbeknownst to him, his mother died on 7th July 1867 whilst he was at sea and he did not learn of the death until his sister found him in India. Although he had enjoyed sailing around the world, Gauguin returned to Paris where family friend Gustave Arosa acted as his legal guardian.
With Arosa’s help, Gauguin got a job as a stockbroker at the Paris Bourse when he was twenty-three years old. Over the next decade, Gauguin became a successful businessman earning 30,000 francs a year. During this time, he met a Danish woman, Mette-Sophie Gad (1850–1920) who he married in 1873. Around the same time, he began painting in his free time and became friends with the French-Danish painter Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) who encouraged Gauguin’s love of art.
Pissarro introduced Gauguin to other artists, including Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) and the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922). He was encouraged to take part in three Impressionist exhibitions, however, the reviews he received were rather dismissive in comparison to the highly regarded opinions today.
Gauguin and Mette had five children: Émile (1874–1955); Aline (1877–97); Clovis (1879–1900); Jean René (1881–1961); and Paul Rollon (1883–1961), who were frequent subjects of Gauguin’s paintings. Initially, the Gauguin family were fairly well off, however, in 1882 the Paris stock market crashed causing Gauguin’s earnings to diminish almost entirely. As a result, he decided to become a full-time painter.
The family moved to Rouen on the River Seine where they could live more cheaply. Gauguin hoped he would be able to earn a living from his paintings, however, the venture proved unsuccessful. As he was unable to provide for them, Mette and the children moved to Copenhagen, presumably to stay with her family. Gauguin and his art collection joined them in 1884, however, the Danish city proved to be as equally difficult to establish himself as an artist. He was soon urged to return to Paris along with his six-year-old son Clovis.
Gauguin found it hard to get back into the Parisian art world and was virtually living in poverty. He took on menial jobs to earn a bit of money but it was not enough to live on and his son Clovis fell ill. This prompted Gauguin’s sister to pay for Clovis to attend boarding school.
Without Clovis to look after, Gauguin was able to focus on his art. Although he did not produce many paintings during this time, he tried to sell artworks he had produced in Rouen and Copenhagen. He exhibited in the final Impressionist exhibition in May 1886, which had a similar outcome to the previous three, however, he did sell one painting to the French painter Félix Bracquemond (1833-1914).
Attracted by the affordable living conditions, Gauguin spent the summer of 1886 in the artist’s colony of Pont-Aven in Brittany. Many art students visited the area, including Charles Laval (1861-94) who became an admirer and follower of Gauguin. In a still-life resembling the work of Cézanne, Gauguin included a side profile of Laval at the edge of the picture looking at the fruit displayed on the table.
The following year, Laval accompanied Gaugain to Panama and Martinique in the Caribbean. Despite suffering from dysentery and marsh fever, he produced a dozen paintings. On his return to France, these were displayed in a gallery where they were admired by Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) and the art dealer Theo van Gogh (1857-91). Theo purchased three of Gauguin’s paintings for 900 francs and arranged for them to be hung in his art gallery.
Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh became close friends and in 1888 Gauguin was invited to spend nine weeks at his Yellow House in Arles. They spent the time painting together, often producing the same scenes. On more than one occasion, they set their easels up side by side to paint portraits, for example, Augustine Roulin (1851-1930), the postman’s wife. Whilst Van Gogh rapidly completely his painting with large brushstrokes, Gauguin took his time using washes of flat, bold colours that almost resemble Japanese woodblock prints. Another portrait they both produced was of Marie Ginous (1848-1911), the owner of the Café de la Gare near Van Gogh’s home. Once again, Van Gogh immediately attacked his canvas with paint, whereas, Gauguin spent at least an hour making a detailed charcoal sketch before moving on to paint.
Whilst in Arles, Gauguin experimented with Van Gogh’s technique of completing a painting in one sitting. This was very different from his usual approach, which involved working over many sessions, however, the result is a pleasing, more energetic, freer portrait. The rapid brushstrokes of Old Man with a Stick emphasise the roughened skin of the sitter, particularly his red-raw hands from years of manual work.
Unfortunately, Gauguin’s close relationship with Van Gogh was not to last. The Dutch painter’s mental health was rapidly deteriorating and Gauguin decided he ought to leave. Distraught, Van Gogh, who worship Gauguin, confronted him with a razor blade, however, Gauguin still left and never saw Van Gogh again. Reportedly, later that evening, Van Gogh cut off his ear and gave it to a woman in a brothel saying, “keep this object carefully, in remembrance of me.”
Through Van Gogh’s brother Theo, Gauguin met the Dutch artist Meijer de Haan (1852-95). Together, Gauguin and De Haan visited Brittany where Gauguin produced many portraits of the artist. The National Gallery displays a couple of drawings Gauguin produced, presumably studies for larger paintings, and a wooden carving.
As well as painting, Gauguin produced sculptures from a variety of materials. In this instance, Gauguin produced a wooden sculpture of De Haan in the style of the religious sculptures they saw in Brittany. Originally decorated with brightly painted ambiguous symbols, De Haan’s face rises out of a block of oak wood. On his head is a winged creature that some believe to be a rooster, which would be a play on the English translation of De Haan’s name.
In 1891, Gauguin saw his family for the last time in Copenhagen. Gauguin and Mette’s marriage had fallen apart when he chose painting over his family and the rift was irreparable. His wife asked him to leave and Gauguin decided to leave European civilisation altogether.
After a successful auction of his paintings, Gauguin used the money to pay for his voyage to the Pacific island of Tahiti where he hoped to find a culture unspoilt by the West. He was fed up with the “artificial and conventional” European culture, however, when he reached Tahiti he was dismayed to discover that the island had been taken over by missionaries and French colonialists. He settled in Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia, but was upset at the lack of the primitive idyll he had visualised.
Missionaries distrusted the traditional Tahitian way of life and forced the women to wear modest clothing based on the styles worn in Europe. Outraged by this, Gauguin soon moved to Papeari in the south of the Island where he hoped to discover a more authentic lifestyle. Examples of the clothing the Tahitian women were forced to wear can be seen in many of Gauguin’s paintings produced on the Island. In Melancholic, a young Tahitian woman wears a bright pink missionary dress, however, her melancholic demeanour implies she is less than happy about the gradual disappearance of her culture in the wake of colonial contact.
While in Papeari, Gauguin was involved in many sexual relations with young Tahitian girls. He supposedly married two of them, although the term “marry” is rather loose, after all, he still had a European wife. His first Tahitian “wife” Tehamana (1878-1918) was only 13 or 14 years old when they met and, although it was customary for women to marry young, Gauguin may have exploited his privilege as a Westerner to claim her.
Tehamana features in many of Gauguin’s portraits, for example, Woman with a Mango, which was later purchased by Edgar Degas (1834-1917) in 1895. In the majority of these paintings, Tehamana is an anonymous model, however, on one occasion, Gauguin names her in the title. The Ancestors of Tehamana shows Tehamana in a typical missionary dress, however, she is surrounded by spiritual references from her past, or at least Gauguin’s interpretation of traditional Tahitian beliefs. Symbols include glyphs similar to those found on ancient tablets, a female figure and spirits of the dead.
In an attempt to console himself from his disappointment at the lack of authentic culture, Gauguin often added fictional elements to his paintings. Gauguin wanted to paint local customs but found they were remarkably similar to those back home. After witnessing the funeral of Pōmare V (1839-91), a Tahitian king, Gauguin painted an imagined version of events, which included the disembodied head of the deceased being displayed and mourned over.
Gauguin sent many of his Tahitian paintings to France where his patron, George-Daniel de Monfreid (1856-1929) arranged for them to be displayed in a couple of exhibitions. Unfortunately, not many sold and Gauguin was getting dangerously low on funds. He was also suffering from a suspected heart problem, which in hindsight may have been early signs of cardiovascular syphilis, so Gauguin decided to return to France, leaving his “wife” and newborn child behind.
Gauguin arrived in Marseille on 30th August 1893. Although he was back in France, his work was still focused on Tahitian life. He began writing an account of his time on the island in a book called Noa Noa, however, critics claim it to be highly fictionalised and, on occasion, plagiarised.
Tahiti’s influence can be seen in Gauguin’s self-portrait from 1893. Although he wears typical Breton clothing, a sculpture of a Polynesian goddess can be seen in the background. Interestingly, Gauguin did not produce any pictures of himself while in Tahiti, yet immediately returned to the topic on his return to France.
After a moderately successful exhibition in November 1894, he moved to 6 rue Vercingétorix in the Montparnasse district of Paris where he hosted regular gatherings with artists, musicians and writers. He was known for his exotic dress sense which exuded the atmosphere of the South Seas. Unfortunately, sales of his paintings were either slow or non-existent, so he decided to try his luck in Brittany.
While in Brittany, Gauguin demonstrated the typical scenes he saw in colonised Tahiti. Armed with a bright yellow missionary dress he had brought with him, Gauguin commissioned a young Breton woman to pose as a model. Standing on the wayside praying, Gauguin’s representation of the woman combines traditional Breton lifestyle with missionary characteristics.
In 1895, after raising a tiny amount of money, Gauguin returned to Tahiti. For a time, he achieved a steady stream of sales and lived a comfortable life with other artists near Papeete. He took on another “wife” called Pau’ura, however, their daughter passed away shortly after birth. By this time he was also suffering from ill health and spent a short time in hospital during the summer of 1896.
The following year, Gauguin was able to send some of his artwork to France where they were exhibited in Paris as well as Brussels in Belgium. During this time, his book Noa Noa was being published in instalments. Yet, this brief period of positivity was not to last. In April 1897, Gauguin received the terrible news that his daughter Aline had died from pneumonia at the age of nineteen. Devastated, the news led him to attempt suicide.
Once again suffering financially, Gauguin was compelled to take a desk job at the Office of Public Works in Papeete. Meanwhile, the art dealer Ambroise Vollard (1886-1939) attempted to sell Gauguin’s paintings in France.
Gauguin began to play a role in Tahitian politics and contributed to the colonial government journal Les Guêpes (The Wasps). This encouraged him to establish his own monthly satirical journal Le Sourire: Journal sérieux (The Smile: A Serious Newspaper), later retitled Journal méchant (A Wicked Newspaper). In 1900, he also became the editor of Les Guêpes from which he received a salary.
Life on Tahiti was becoming increasingly westernised and Gauguin was frequently in hospital. Regardless of his health, Gauguin was determined to find somewhere more “authentic” and in September 1901 moved to the Marquesan island of Hiva Oa in Polynesia. There was no doctor on the island and Gauguin had to rely on the Protestant pastor Paul Vernier, who had a little medical training.
Gauguin and Vernier became friends, however, many of the missionaries on the island were not impressed with his studio called the “House of Pleasure” in which he conducted relationships with local women as well as painting. Gauguin was particularly averse to the bishop Monseigneur Joseph Martin whose likeness he carved from miro wood. Titled Père Paillard (Father Lecher), Gauguin included devil horns to show how he really felt about the bishop.
When he was well enough, Gauguin painted portraits of the locals in their native costume or lack of, such as in Barbarian Tales. Another caricature of the bishop can be seen behind the two semi-naked ladies in the foreground.
By 1903, Gauguin’s health was rapidly deteriorating. He painted his final self-portrait, which was much simpler and less exotic than his usual style, and gave it as a gift to the Vietnamese exile Nguyen Van Cam (Ky Dong) who, along with Vernier, helped to look after him in his ill-health.
On 8th May 1903, Gauguin was weak and in great pain. He sent for Pastor Vernier, complaining that he kept experiencing fainting fits. Vernier ensured he was stable, however, later that day he was found dead by a neighbour. An empty bottle of laudanum on the bedside suggested he may have been the victim of an overdose, however, the general consensus is that he had suffered a heart attack.
Like his old friend Van Gogh, Gauguin did not receive any accolades until after his death. Today, people flock to exhibitions to see his work and his paintings belong to collections all over the world. Whilst the National Gallery’s exhibition only focuses on portraits, it manages to tell the story of Gauguin’s life from birth through to his final days. A 15-minute video provides specific details and an analysis of his work.
Paul Gauguin would be amazed to see the number of people purchasing tickets to see his work. He would never have thought that his work would sell for $210 million, as one piece did in 2014. He was also the inspiration for W. Somerset Maugham’s (1875-1965) novel The Moon and Sixpence.
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This has made me realise that I only knew a very little about Gaughuin. Thank you for filling in so many of the gaps in my knowledge.
This really makes you want to go go go to the Gauguin exhibition. Thank you Hazel for another brilliantly written piece. You are clearly a master of your art. It’s great you share your considerable talent with us.
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