The Strange Case of Robert Louis Stevenson

Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are among the top stories of the 19th century. After selling hundreds of thousands of copies since their first publication, the name Robert Louis Stevenson is recognised by a significant number of people. Despite being a popular author, Stevenson’s novels are better known than his own life, which proves just as interesting for those who take the time to read about him.

Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on 13th November 1850 to Thomas Stevenson (1818-87) and Margaret Isabella Balfour (1829-97). On reaching 18, Stevenson changed the spelling of Lewis to Louis, then in 1873 dropped Balfour from his name. Thomas Stevenson worked as a lighthouse engineer, and his father, Robert Stevenson (1772-1850), after whom Robert Louis Stevenson was named, built several lighthouses around Scotland. The Stevenson family had a long history of lighthouse work, but the young Robert Stevenson chose not to follow that profession.

As an only childhood, Stevenson grew up under the protection of his nurse, Alison Cunningham “Cummy”. Stevenson inherited weak lungs from his mother’s side, and Cummy nursed him through several childhood illnesses, telling him stories from the Bible. Stevenson dedicated one of his future stories to Cummy, calling her “My second mother, my first wife. The angel of my infant life.”

Stevenson found it difficult to fit in at the local school, and because of his many illnesses, he did not learn to read until he was seven years old. Nonetheless, he loved to hear stories and frequently dictated his own to his nurse or parents. As soon as he could write, Stevenson compulsively composed stories throughout his childhood, an activity his father encouraged. At 16, Stevenson’s father helped him publish his first work, The Pentland Rising: A Page of History, 1666, which gave an account of the Covenanters’ rebellion. This was a tale recounted by his nurse many times during his bouts of ill health.

In 1867, Stevenson began studying engineering at Edinburgh University. Despite his love of writing, Stevenson’s father expected him to join the family business, but Stevenson showed no enthusiasm and avoided attending lectures. Instead, Stevenson joined The Speculative Society with other students at the university. The society predominantly focused on debates and public speaking, and Stevenson made friends with several people who encouraged his passion for storytelling.

To encourage his son to take his studies seriously, Thomas Stevenson took him on trips to various lighthouses during the summer months. This backfired when Stevenson enjoyed the experience because it gave him more writing opportunities, rather than evoking an interest in the engineering work. Although disappointed, Stevenson’s father agreed he could pursue a life of letters but insisted his son earn a degree in Law to provide some security.

As well as turning his back on engineering, Stevenson rejected religion, declaring himself an atheist. This decision appalled his parents, causing his father to proclaim, “You have rendered my whole life a failure.” Stevenson shocked them further by choosing to wear Bohemian clothing and grow his hair long.

In 1873, Stevenson visited his cousin in France, where he met Sidney Colvin (1845-1927), an art critic who became Stevenson’s literary adviser. Colvin set Stevenson on the path to fame by posting his article Roads in The Portfolio, a British art magazine. After returning to Great Britain, Stevenson spent time getting to know writers in London, including poet William Ernest Henley (1849-1903), who had an amputated left leg. Henley inspired Stevenson’s most famous character, Long John Silver (Treasure Island).

Toward the end of 1873, Stevenson returned to France to recuperate from an illness in Menton on the French Riviera. While in France, he spent time in artists colonies and visited many galleries and theatres. Back in Scotland, Stevenson qualified for the Scottish bar in 1875 but never practised law. Instead, he continued writing and travelling.

In 1876, Stevenson took a canoe voyage through Belgium and France with Walter Simpson, who he met at The Speculative Society in Edinburgh. The trip finished in Grez, North France, where he made the acquaintance of the American magazine writer, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne (1840-1914). She had recently moved to France with her children, Isobel and Lloyd, after separating from her husband. When Stevenson returned home, he could not stop thinking about Fanny, so went back to France the following year.

Fanny returned to America in 1878. That year, Stevenson conducted a lengthy walking trip, which he wrote about in Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879). Over twelve days, Stevenson walked 120 miles in the barren Cévennes mountains in south-central France. Several hikers have retraced Stevenson’s route, beginning in Le Monastier-sur-Gazeille and finishing at Saint-Jean-du-Gard. The journey, which Stevenson completed alone, cost him his health, although this did not prevent him from travelling on the steamship Devonia, to join Fanny in California.

Stevenson’s health deteriorated during the crossing of the Atlantic. Approaching death, local ranchers in Monterey, California, nursed him back to health until he felt fit enough to make his way to San Francisco, where Fanny lived. Unfortunately, Stevenson did not have much money and lived “all alone on forty-five cents a day, and sometimes less, with quantities of hard work and many heavy thoughts.” When he eventually reached the city, Stevenson was once again at death’s door. This time, the newly-divorced Fanny nursed him back to health.

In May 1880, Stevenson married Fanny. Whilst he had regained some of his health, he declared he felt like “a mere complication of cough and bones, much fitter for an emblem of mortality than a bridegroom.” For their honeymoon, the couple spent the summer at an abandoned mining camp on Mount Saint Helena. Today, the area is known as Robert Louis Stevenson State Park. Stevenson’s parents were not overly pleased about the marriage, but after several trips to Britain, Fanny helped patch up the relationship between mother, father and son.

In 1884, Stevenson and his wife settled in Bournemouth, Dorset, where they purchased a cottage called Skerryvore. Still poorly, Stevenson spent a lot of time confined to his bed but enjoyed regular visits from the neighbouring author, Henry James (1843-1916). Despite his physical health, Stevenson felt able to write and produced many of his well-known works during his three years of bed rest.

Before settling in Dorset, Stevenson wrote, serialised and published one of his popular stories, Treasure Island. It is a story about pirates and a treasure hunt on a tropical isle. The story begins at the Admiral Benbow Inn in Bristol. Stevenson also mentioned other Bristol buildings, including Spyglass Tavern, which may be the present-day Hole in the Wall pub, and the Llandoger Trow, an historic public house dating from 1664. Stevenson aimed Treasure Island at children and started publishing chapters in the Young Folks magazine. Once all the chapters were written, it was printed as a book in 1883 by Cassell & Co. To date, it remains one of the most dramatised and adapted novels in history.

Also published in the Young Folks magazine from May to July 1886 was Kidnapped, a novel set during the aftermath of the Jacobite rising of 1745. The full title of the story is Kidnapped: Being Memoirs of the Adventures of David Balfour in the Year 1751: How he was Kidnapped and Cast away; his Sufferings in a Desert Isle; His Journey in the Wild Highlands; his acquaintance with Alan Breck Stewart and other notorious Highland Jacobites; with all that he suffered at the hands of his Uncle, Ebenezer Balfour of Shaws, falsely so-called: Written by Himself and now set forth by Robert Louis Stevenson, yet that is a bit of a mouthful. Critics suspect Stevenson loosely based the story on James Annesley (1715-60), who was kidnapped by his uncle Richard and shipped from Dublin to America.

Another work written during Stevenson’s period of bed rest was the Gothic novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Aimed this time at adults, it is a short story about a lawyer investigating the strange occurrences surrounding his friend Dr Henry Jekyll and a sinister man called Edward Hyde. The book led to the turn of phrase, “Jekyll and Hyde”, to refer to someone with a dual nature: good and evil.

Critics continue to speculate the meaning behind Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Some interpret it as the examples of humanity versus animal or civilisation versus barbarism. Others suggest it demonstrates the difference between God and the Devil, or even the debate between Scottish nationalism and the union with England and Wales. The story also deals with the evils of addiction or substance abuse, which can corrupt a man. Stevenson left much of this up to the readers’ interpretation but said he had always been intrigued by how human personalities reflect both good and evil. He named one of the titular characters after his friend, Reverend Walter Jekyll (1849-1929), the younger brother of the renowned gardener, Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932).

Following his father’s death in 1887, Stevenson took his doctor’s advice and moved to a different climate. Taking his mother and family with him, Stevenson headed for the United States, where he spent the winter in the Adirondacks, New York. The Stevensons resided in a “cure cottage” intended for sufferers of tuberculosis. Now serving as a museum called Stevenson Cottage, Stevenson wrote some of his best essays while residing there on the Saranac Lake.

After not showing much sign of improvement, Stevenson decided to try a warmer climate. He set sail from New York in 1888, stopping first in Hawaii, where he befriended King Kalākaua (1836-91). Kalākaua, sometimes referred to as “The Merrie Monarch”, ran a choir called Kalākaua’s Singing Boys, who enjoyed performing for Stevenson and his family. Kalākaua also played the ukulele and was inducted into the Ukulele Hall of Fame in 1997.

Stevenson returned to Hawaii several times while sailing around the Pacific on his hired yacht, Casco. When not in Hawaii, he visited the Gilbert Islands, Tahiti, New Zealand and the Samoan Islands. Stevenson recorded his experiences in letters, which were published after his death. He also spent time completing a novel, The Master of Ballantrae: A Winter’s Tale, and a short story, The Bottle Imp. The latter is set in the Pacific, but the novel contains themes of piracy and the Jacobite rising of 1745.

During his voyages, Stevenson met several notable people, including Tembinok’ (1878-91), the High Chief of Abemama in the Gilbert Islands. The tyrannical chief allowed Stevenson and his family to stay on the island on the condition that they did not give or sell money, liquor or tobacco to his subjects. In his letters, Stevenson described Tembinok’ as “greedy of things new and foreign. House after house, chest after chest, in the palace precinct, is already crammed with clocks, musical boxes, blue spectacles, umbrellas, knitted waistcoats, bolts of stuff, tools, rifles, fowling-pieces, medicines, European foods, sewing-machines, and, what is more extraordinary, stoves.”

On Stevenson’s final trip from Australia to Samoa, he met “Tin Jack” Buckland (1864-97), a trader in the South Pacific. He told the family all about his adventures and almost set fire to the ship after some fireworks in his luggage accidentally went off. Stevenson used Tin Jack as the basis of a character in his novel The Wrecker (1892), which he wrote with his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne (1868-1947).

In December 1889, the Stevensons arrived in Samoa, where they purchased 314¼ acres of land in the village of Vailima. They built the first two-storey building on the island and invited their extended family to live with them. Stevenson immediately immersed himself in the country’s culture, renaming himself Tusitala, which meant “Teller of Tales”. He collected stories from the locals in exchange for his own, which were translated into Samoan.

The more Stevenson learned about the Samoans, the more he understood the risk of colonisation by foreigners and higher powers, such as Britain, Germany and the United States. Putting his storytelling to one side, Stevenson used his knowledge of the law to write letters to The Times about European and American misconduct. He expressed his concern for the Polynesians, who feared the loss of their culture to foreign influences. For most of his life, Stevenson avoided politics, but after experiencing the situation in Samoa, he openly allied himself with chief Mata’afa Iosefo (1832-1912), whose rival Susuga Malietoa Laupepa (1841-1898) was supported by the Germans.

During his time in Samoa, Stevenson wrote over 700,000 words, completing several short stories and novels, including The Beach of Falesá (1892); Catriona (1893), the sequel to Kidnapped; and The Ebb-Tide (1894). Many of his works from this period reflect life in the South Pacific, although critics find many parallels with his earlier works. In 1894, he began working on Weir of Hermiston, about which Stevenson exclaimed, “It’s so good that it frightens me.” Whilst the story is set in Scotland during the Napoleonic Wars, Stevenson incorporated examples of Samoan culture. Although he felt it was his best work, Stevenson never had the chance to finish it.

On 3rd December 1894, Stevenson turned to his wife and exclaimed, “What’s that? Does my face look strange?” and promptly collapsed. Within a few hours, he passed away from a cerebral haemorrhage at the age of 44. The Samoans insisted on guarding his body through the night and carrying him on their shoulders to Mount Vaea for his burial the following day.

As per Stevenson’s request, his tombstone was inscribed with his own words:

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

The epigraph was translated into Samoan and sung as a song of grief.

Stevenson was a celebrity of his time and admired by many authors, including Rudyard Kipling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, J.M. Barrie and Ernest Hemingway. G. K. Chesterton, the creator of the fictional priest-detective Father Brown, declared that Stevenson “seemed to pick the right word up on the point of his pen, like a man playing spillikins.” Spillikins is another name for the game Pick-up Sticks. Unfortunately, as time passed, a lot of Stevenson’s work was forgotten, with only Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde remaining popular. He was excluded from the first seven editions of The Norton Anthology of English Literature until his name was resurrected in 2006.

Since its publication, Treasure Island has been labelled a children’s book, yet American film critic Roger Ebert wrote in 1996, “I was talking to a friend the other day who said he’d never met a child who liked reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Neither have I … But I did read the books later, when I was no longer a kid, and I enjoyed them enormously …The fact is, Stevenson is a splendid writer of stories for adults, and he should be put on the same shelf with Joseph Conrad and Jack London instead of in between Winnie the Pooh and Peter Pan.” After reevaluating Stevenson’s work in the late 20th century as adult literature, critics declared his writing superb, ranking him the 26th-most-translated author in the world, coming just below Charles Dickens in 25th place.

Robert Louis Stevenson is commemorated across the world for his contribution to literature and his insight into Samoan politics. The Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh devotes an entire room to the author, which is filled with some of his possessions. Other memorabilia is located at Stevenson House in California and the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum, located in his former home in Samoa.

In 2013, the Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin unveiled a statue of Stevenson as a child with his dog outside Colinton Parish Church. There is also a bronze relief memorial to Stevenson in St Giles’ cathedral. Another statue is located in Portsmouth Square in San Francisco, and six US schools bear his name. To mark the 100th anniversary of Stevenson’s death in 1994, the Royal Bank of Scotland issued a series of commemorative £1 notes.

Robert Louis Stevenson is no longer forgotten, at least in name, and his books are widely read across the globe. Yet, as is the case with many well-known names, Stevenson’s life proves just as interesting as his stories. He touched many lives in his relatively short life and achieved more than the average person despite his many illnesses. For that, he should receive as many accolades as his written work.


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Gauguin Portraits

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Self Portrait, 1885

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.

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Paul Gauguin, 1981

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 212 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.

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Still Life with Profile of Laval, 1886

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.

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Arii matamoe (The Royal End), 1892

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.

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Still Life with Apples, a Pear, and a Ceramic Portrait Jug, 1889

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.

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Self Portrait, 1903

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.

The Credit Suisse Exhibition Gauguin Portraits can be seen at the National Gallery in London until 26th January 2020. Tickets are priced at £22-24, although various concessions apply.

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