A painter is either a revolutionist or a plagiarist

Paul Gauguin, before he went to the equator, saw the impending change. He was weary of a Paris where everything had been painted, described, modelled, so he sailed for Tahiti, landing at Papeete. Even there he found the taint of European ideas, and after the funeral of King Pomaré and an interlude of flirtation with an absinthe-drinking native princess, niece of the departed royalty (he made a masterly portrait of her), he fled to the interior and told his experiences in Noa Noa, The Land of Lovely Scents. This little book, illustrated with appropriate sketches by the author-painter, is a highly important contribution to the scanty literature dealing with Gauguin. Beyond telling us details about the Pont-Aven School and the art and madness of gifted Vincent Van Gogh, both are reticent about Gauguin's pilgrimage to the South Seas. We knew why he went there, now we know what he did while he was there. The conclusion of the book is illuminating. "I returned to Paris two years older than when I left, but feeling twenty years younger."

The cause of this rejuvenation was a complete change in his habits. With an extraordinary frankness, not at all in the perfumed manner of that eternal philanderer, Pierre Loti, this one-time sailor before the mast, this explosive, dissipated, hard-living Paul Gauguin became as a child, simulating as well as could an artificial civilised Parisian with sick nerves the childlike attitude toward nature that he observed in his companions, the gentle Tahitians. He married a Maori, a trial marriage, oblivious of the fact that he had left behind him in France a wife and children, and, clothed in the native girdle, he roamed the island naked, unashamed, free, happy. With the burden of European customs from his shoulders, his almost moribund interest in his art revived. Gauguin there experienced visions, was haunted by exotic spirits. One picture is the black goddess of evil, whom he has painted as she lies on a couch with a white background, a colour inversion of Manet's Olympe. With the cosmology of the islanders the Frenchman was familiar.

He has, in addition to portraying the natives, made an agreeable exposition of their ways and days, and their naïve blending of Christian and Maori beliefs. His description of the festival called Areosis is startling. Magical practices, with their attendant cruelties and voluptuousness, still prevail in Tahiti, though only at certain intervals. Very superstitious, the natives see demons and fairies in every bush.

The flowerlike beauty of the brown women comes in for much praise, though to be truthful, the ladies on his canvases seem far from beautiful to prejudiced Occidental eyes. This Noa Noa is a refreshing contribution to the psychology of a painter who, in broad daylight dreamed fantastic visions, a painter to whom the world was but a painted vision, as the music of Richard Wagner is painted music overheard in another world.

"A painter is either a revolutionist or a plagiarist," said Paul Gauguin. But the tricksy god of irony has decreed that, if he lasts long enough, every anarch will end as a conservative, upon which consoling epigram let us pause.

Gauguin's life

When we turn to Gauguin's life, we find that perhaps in him too there was a disproportion between the modest scale of his gifts and his pretensions which were not always on the same scale. When his own will did not share in the decision, fate brought about grotesque disproportions. Born in Paris in 1848, the son of an insignificant journalist, he had before him, in contrast to the narrow circle which bounded his own life, the exotic and luxurious flora of his mother's family, among whom there figured a Spanish colonel and a Viceroy of Peru who lived to be 113 years old. It seems almost like the narrative of a film that the father should die on the way to the wonderful country from which he hoped so much, and the mother and children arrive alone in Lima, where they remained for four years. Then came the return to Orleans and the narrow life of the first years. At seventeen Paul entered the mercantile marine and was still a sailor when the Franco-Prussian war broke out. After that he became a clerk in a bank. In 1873 he married a Danish girl of good family who bore him five children. The stage seemed set for a peaceful middle-class existence, when suddenly he was seized with the desire to paint. As his work at the Bourse kept him busy during the week, he became what was known as a "Sunday painter". He got to know Pissarro and afterwards the other Impressionists, whose pictures he purchased out of his savings. His landscapes at this time were soft and pretty, pointed with a timid application of Impressionistic technique. With painting as his "violon d'Ingres" he was now able to lead a modest but happy existence. But he wanted to soar higher still, he gave up his work at the bank and devoted himself entirely to painting. As was only natural, he failed to sell any of his pictures and was consequently without any source of income. In the vain hope that living would be cheaper there, he went to Rouen, and thence to Copenhagen, to his wife's family, who were incapable of understanding either him or his actions. He separated from the mother of his children and returned with his son to Paris, where first the child and then he himself fell ill. Years of misery followed, during which he earned a little money by pasting up posters at railway-stations.

During the following years Gauguin went several times to Brittany, to Pont-Aven and Le Pouldu, where he met Bernard and Serusier; with them he severed his artistic connection with Impressionism, thus becoming the head of a school. There he painted several well-known pictures, such as the "Calvaires" and the "Yellow Christ". In between he visited Panama, in connection with the work on the canal, and Martinique, where the beauty of simple and powerful colours in undivided planes completed his spiritual withdrawal from Impressionism. In 1888 he held his first exhibition, which brought him very little. In the following year the proprietor of a café showed some of Gauguin's works at the international exhibition.

How is it that this man, who went about the Quartier Montparnasse in an astrakhan cap, like a "magnificent and gigantic Magyar", carrying a walking-stick which he had carved himself, makes so little appeal to our sympathy despite the obvious earnestness of his attachment to art? How is it that we feel so little emotion at the thought that he sacrificed his wife and children, his tranquillity and his well-being, to devote himself to painting? That we feel less pity for his poverty than for that of Pissarro, Monet and Sisley? That while our hearts ache when we think of the material and spiritual misery of Van Gogh and his madness, yet the sorrows and conflicts of the likewise unbalanced Gauguin leave us unmoved? It is perhaps because, rightly or wrongly, we see in him the predecessor of a generation of Montparnasse painters who, eccentric in their attire and sterile in their ideas, maintain that they do not paint, but "it" paints through them. Because his pose, his strivings and his claims are out of all proportion to the modest facts of his material and spiritual existence.

At this time Gauguin gained two friends and admirers: Charles Morice, who wrote a good book about him, and Daniel de Monfreid, who became the faithful administrator of Gauguin's affairs while he was in Tahiti. An auction of thirty pictures which brought in nearly ten thousand francs enabled him to undertake the long journey. Disappointed with Papeete, the capital, where life is but a miserable caricature of life in Europe, he moved to another place, lived with the natives, painted several of his most famous pictures, executed sculptures and wrote "Noa Noa", in which, in reality, he describes life on the island as it might have been, not as it really is, for it consists mainly of disease and poverty.

From an uncle in Orleans Gauguin inherited some property and was able to exhibit at Durand-Ruel's forty pictures, of which eleven were sold. He appeared in a long blue coat with mother-of-pearl buttons, and a waistcoat fastened at the side; he wore a collar of many colours, a grey felt hat, with a sky-blue band, and white gloves, and carried in one hand a stick adorned with barbaric carvings and a pearl. He lived with a Javanese girl in the midst of exotic objects, in a studio in a house near Montparnasse which no longer exists. When I was young, I myself inhabited this gloomy house in the dark and narrow Rue Vercingétorix--which, by an ironical coincidence, is near the Rue de la Gaîité and in the "Plaisance" quarter--and lived there long enough to realize how grotesque must have been the contrast between this bourgeois milieu of modest families and the theatrical and Bohemian appearance of Gauguin.

In 1894 he went to Copenhagen, where he definitely broke with his wife. The Javanese girl accompanied him to Brittany, where he fell ill; she returned alone to Paris, stole the contents of the studio and vanished. Although an auction of his pictures in the following year brought him only a meagre result, Gauguin, relying on the promises of his friends, decided to make a second journey to Tahiti. There he painted his most characteristic pictures--fantastic compositions and landscapes with pink roads. He painted in spite of illness and lack of money, which were responsible for his making an attempt on his life. His letters to Monfreid show that he was in the depths of despair. His friends in Paris, as so often happens in life, left him in the lurch, and his only consolation was his connection with Vollard, which had just begun. He had trouble with the authorities and in 1901 moved to the Marquesas Islands, where he went on working. He sent pictures to Paris and his life seemed to be becoming more tranquil. Then in 1903 he had a quarrel with a gendarme and was sentenced by the court of primary jurisdiction to three months' imprisonment and a fine of one thousand francs. The case was never brought before the court of appeal, for he died before it could be heard.

The almost ridiculous amount of misfortune, sickness and poverty which afflicted him during his lifetime moves us to the same sorrow which we feel for every suffering, striving man; but we cannot feel that his life was tragic enough to arouse our deeper emotions. We are hindered by the fact that he created too many indifferent works as well as the beautiful works which retain their place in our memory, that he was too calculating in his despairing letters, that his bombastic exterior contained too little human and artistic substance, that this "head of a school" contributed nothing either to the treasure-house of the great general values in painting or to that of the particular values to be found in French tradition, and that his gifts were not adequate to justify an independent and solitary existence outside these artistic circles.

Paul Gauguin Art

Impressionist in late 1880s

In the late 1880s the impressionists, for all their free use of color, followed the factual or realist tradition in painting the everyday world around them. Opposed to them were van Gogh's friends, Gauguin and Emile Bernard, who insisted upon the right of the artist to express his feelings both in style and in subject. Theo van Gogh, though he was Gauguin's loyal and tolerant dealer, tended to side with the impressionists. We can follow the conflict in Vincent's letters to Theo van Gogh118 and Emile Bernard. From Arles in April 1888 van Gogh writes to Bernard: "The imagination is certainly a faculty which we must develop and it alone can bring us to creation of a more exalting and consoling nature . . . A starspangled sky, for instance, that's a thing I would like to try to do . . . But how can I manage unless I make up my mind to work . . . from imagination?" A month later he writes again: "I wonder when I'll get my starry sky done, a picture that haunts me always." Within six months in a letter to Theo, Vincent repeats his argument: "To express hope by a star, the eagerness of the soul by a sunset radiance. Certainly there is nothing in that of . . . realism, but is it not something that exists?"

But later in September, the realist (or impressionist) point of view reasserts itself and he writes Theo: "The problem of painting night scenes . . . on the spot and actually by night interests me enormously." Before the end of the month he had done a canvas of a "starry sky painted actually at night under a gas jet." This first version of a starry night he describes to Theo with an almost Whistlerian esthetic detachment: "The town is blue and violet, the gas is yellow . . . On the blue-green field of the sky the Great Bear sparkles, its discreet pallor contrasting with the brutal gold of the gaslight." But in the same letter, after speaking of the difficulty of painting a street scene in the spirit of the realistic novelists, Zola and Flaubert, he confesses: "That does not prevent me having a terrible need of -- shall I say the word -- of religion. Then I go out at night to paint the stars . . ." The influence of Gauguin and Bernard was at work. The two had spent the summer together in Brittany developing their "Synthetist" principles which were already tinged with the anti-realism of the Symbolist poets, particularly Mallarmé. Late in the fall of '88, while Gauguin is visiting him in Arles, Vincent writes Theo: "Gauguin gives me courage to imagine things." And, finally, summoning this new courage, he painted some six months later his second and great Starry Night.

On June 19, 1889, he writes from Saint-Rémy to Theo announcing the new picture: "I have a landscape with olive trees and also a new study of a starry sky. Though I have not seen either Gauguin's or Bernard's last canvases I am pretty well convinced that these two studies are parallel in feeling . . . When you have looked at these two studies for some time it will give you some idea, better than words could, of the things Gauguin and Bernard and I used to talk about."

But Theo after he had received the new picture was still unconvinced. He replied, October 1889: "I find that you are at your best when you do realistic things. I understand what preoccupies you in these new canvases like the village in the moonlight and the mountains, but I think these stylized researches weaken the feeling of reality. In the last lot of pictures from Gauguin I find the same preoccupation . . ."

Theo had liked the earlier night canvas with its placid feeling and impressionist technique; he had even sent it to a public exhibition. But the new Starry Night and the other pictures from Saint-Rémy had passed beyond his impressionist taste.

For it was in the Saint-Rémy pictures with their flamboyant cypresses, twisted olive trees and heaving mountains that van Gogh was finally able to free his art from the objective realistic vision of the impressionists. The surging lines not only bind the composition into active rhythmic unity -- they express magnificently the vehemence and passion of van Gogh's spirit.

The Starry Night goes further: it is fundamentally an imaginative invention. The cypress and the distant hills, it is true, occur in other Saint-Rémy pictures. But the village with its northern church -- is it English or Dutch? -- seems remote from Provence. And the sky, the dazzling moon, the Milky Way turned to meteors, the stars like bursting bombshells -- this is the unique and overwhelming vision of a mystic, a man in ecstatic communion with heavenly powers.

Impressionism Rejected

As in the fairy tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears the objects in this still life by Gauguin come by threes -- three puppies, three blue goblets, three apples -- and the innocent sentiment of the subject is matched by the simplicity of the style. Curiously, Gauguin may have owed something of both sentiment and style to Kate Greenaway, the English illustrator of children's books which he admired for their flat-patterned, nursery primitivism.

Gauguin himself was however far from innocent, either as a man or as an artist. For a dozen years he had been painting as a junior colleague of the impressionists and then, like Cézanne and Renoir, had grown dissatisfied. He tried briefly to follow Cézanne's profound effort "to make of impressionism something solid and enduring" -- and won Cézanne's contempt. He flirted very briefly with Seurat's elaborate Neo-Impressionist discipline. In Brittany, perhaps with the help of Emile Bernard, he found his own style, based upon the definite outlines, flattened perspective and often "unnatural" color which he discovered variously in Egyptian and medieval painting, Japanese prints, Breton peasant art and last (and perhaps least) Miss Greenaway's picture books.

That was about 1888, the year he painted the Three Puppies and the year he declared that "painting is an abstraction," a remark which anticipated by two years the often quoted injunction of his follower, Maurice Denis: "Remember that a painting -- before being a war horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote or other -- is essentially a plane surface covered by colors arranged in a certain order."

With his escape to Tahiti, Gauguin considered his break with convention complete. The essential change in his art, however, was in subject matter rather than style.

The woodcut offered Gauguin a medium which, by its very directness, was particularly suited to the primitive attitude he wished to assume. In Women at the River light areas such as the rocks and banks of either shore were gouged out with a knife. The flowing river and the dark seated figure, areas where the surface of the block was less touched, offer a rhythmic contrast to the boldness of his carving and the roughness of the wood. Gauguin's exploitation of the very texture of the wood itself established a tradition characteristic of the woodcut today.

The Japanese Style

"We must gratefully remember Japan, a land whose wonderful art . . . first pointed out to us the right path. But," Otto Eckmann's preface to a series of Jugendstil designs then adds, only England knew how to assimilate and transform this wealth of new ideas and to adapt them to its innate national character, thus deriving real profit from the Japanese style . . ."

How this came about has been told many times: how the engraver Bracquemond discovered some Japanese colored woodcuts in 1856 which had been used as wrapping paper; how he communicated his enthusiasm to Baudelaire, Manet, the Goncourt brothers, and Degas; how Whistler who, until 1859, had studied in Paris, then brought to London his love for Japanese art and, around 1863, painted the Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine, a major work among his japonneries. In 1862, Manet had painted Zola against a background of Japanese decorations and colored woodcuts which later appeared also in paintings by Degas, Gauguin, and Van Gogh. In 1862, shops dealing in Japanese and Chinese objects were first opened: La Porte Chinoise in Paris, and Farmer and Rogers' Oriental Warehouse in London. Farmer and Rogers had taken over the stocks that Japan had sent to London for the International Exhibition of 1862--the first Western exhibition where the Japanese Empire was represented.

On the advice of his friend William Morris, the manager of Farmer and Rogers, Arthur Lasenby Liberty, then founded his own firm in 1975. The new firm was successful, mainly on account of its Oriental and Oriental-inspired fabrics with their light colors and flat, stylized patterns. Its success was so great that in Germany, a national lamentations were to be heard concerning the man importation of English materials for decoration." And in Italy, where Art Nouveau was never really able to gain a footing and remained an imported style, the term "Stile Liberty" was invented. S. Bing, whose shop in Paris, L' Art Nouveau, gave its name to the whole style, had likewise begun as an importer of Japanese arts and crafts. He also was the owner of one of the most important private collections of japonnerie, and, after 1888, published the series of his Japanischer Formenschatz in German, French, and English. To those who feel an interest in the future of our applied arts" or who "are doing creative work" in this field, Bing promised, in the preface, that "among these forms, they will find examples worthy in every respect of being followed."

The Japanese element became so inherent to the mature style of Art Nouveau that only in rare cases can one distinguish or separate it from the entire movement. In 1888, Louis Gonse wrote on Japanese art: "A drop of their blood has mixed with our blood and no power on earth can eliminate it." Even where Art Nouveau refers directly back to Japanese art, it is at the same time founded on works of an intermediate phase in which, during the process of long years, a synthesis of the Japanese and the European elements had been achieved and remained decisive in every respect.

Gauguin, Paul (1848-1903)

French Post-Impressionist painter and graphic artist whose work was of tremendous importance in the formulation of various early twentiethcentury schools: the Fauves in his own country and the Blue Rider painters of Germany. In his own time he belongs to the more intuitive side of Post-Impressionism (see), that is to the Symbolists and Nabis among others. Gauguin's father was a journalist, his mother a propagandist on the liberal side. The family left France for Peru when Louis Napoleon seized the throne in 1851, the father dying en route. Gauguin entered the merchant marine in 1865, making several trips to Rio. In 1871 he entered the stockbrokerage business and began to do very well. Two years later he married a Danish girl and also began his artistic career, painting as an amateur and starting to collect Impressionist works. In 1876 one of his pictures was accepted at the Salon.

He became friendly with Pissarro in 1879 and under his influence joined the Fifth Impressionist Exhibition and the Sixth in 1881. By 1883 Gauguin who had already abandoned his family decided on painting as a career and left the stockbroker's office. The following year, visiting his wife's family in Denmark, he was unable to find exhibiting facilities or to get along with the Danes; he returned to Paris with his son Clovis in 1885, worked as a billsticker and suffered extreme privation. His first stay in Brittany (at Pont-Aven) was from June to November 1886, presumably in search of primitive and unspoiled people.

In 1887 he took a trip to Panama, and the following year stayed again at Pont-Aven and began his so-called Synthetism (see) or Cloisonnism, consisting of the arbitrary rearrangement of what the artist sees into a synthetic or artificial rather than natural representation (i.e., a controlled rather than naturalistic projection). Technically this is accomplished by transforming the local color of an object into a powerful color image, in which the most characteristic color is exaggerated into a broad flat area bounded by heavy black outlines or cloisons, as in enamel work. 1888 was also the year of his first one-man show (arranged with the help of Théo van Gogh) and of a visit to Vincent at Arles which ended unhappily for both. At the World's Fair in 1889 Gauguin experienced Javanese art; he also moved away from Pont-Aven, which was becoming tourist-infested, to Le Pouldu in Brittany. Here his art took on its final and definitive form, which did not change even after his emigration to the South Seas. One of the great works of this period is the Yellow Christ with its simplification of form, its intensification of the local or immedate color of the objects shown, and the reducton of landscape to a series of related tonalities and interrelated curves moving gracefully across the surface of the canvas. By 1891 Gauguin's poverty and lack of success in Paris made him decide to leave the country and go to Tahiti where he first stayed from 1891 to 1893, painting such significant works as Ia Orana Maria and Ta Matete. But with no money coming in and ill, he returned to Paris; there a show organized at the suggestion of Degas was a financial failure although important in its effect on such painters as Bonnard, Vuillard and others of the Nabi group.

Feeling that life in France had little to offer, Gauguin returned to Tahiti in 1895 where, after a fruitful period of work but also of great suffering resulting from disease and lack of understanding on the part of the local French, he died in 1903. The example of his life in seeking out primitive, unsophisticated and unspoiled peoples, as much as his feeling for the emotional and symbolic power of color, are ultimately the chief contributions of this unusual personality and artist. Within a few years after his death, Gauguin's art was a great influence on the modern scene and his personal solution of the problems of modern civilization was a kind of escape that many tried to achieve.

Two main sources of Fauvism Gauguin and Van Gogh

When Rouault as a young man showed Degas his paintings and apologized for the influences only too obviously reflected in them, Degas replied: "Everyone must have a mother and father." Without going back to the Middle Ages, it is possible to see inklings of Fauvism in certain aspects of the work of Delacroix, in Daumier's generous use of paint, and in the later landscapes of Courbet, in which the lyrical feeling imposes an increasingly vigorous colour and handling. But the two main sources of Fauvism are Gauguin and Van Gogh.

It should be made clear that Fauvism is merely a term of convenience. It was never an organic movement like Impressionism, Cubism or Surrealism. The Fauves were a mixed group with no recognized leader, no exponent of theory, and their ideas were often at variance. Matisse and Vlaminck, for example, differed on practically everything. The few principles that were evolved came later. Fauvism was essentially the untrammelled expression of the artist's personality.
It is easier to describe the Fauves in terms of what they disliked rather than what they liked. The dozen or so young painters grouped under the Fauve banner were reacting against the atmospheric naturalism of the Impressionists, the slightly decadent charm of the Nabis, and of course against any form of academic art. Their paintings were the reflection of their artistic personalities and consequently in no way bound to any form of objective represeritation.
"Nature is only a hypothesis," as Dufy remarked to a collector, puzzled by one of his landscapes. Maurice Denis, one of the first Nabis to take an interest in the Fauves, defined Fauvism in these terms: "It is painting divorced from contingencies, painting for its own sake, the pure act of painting. All qualities of description or personal reflection have been excluded from the work of art. These painters are searching for the absolute."

Long after the Fauve bombshell had burst, Othon Friesz, explained what his friends were trying to achieve: "To render the sunlight effect through a technique of colour orchestrations and transpositions of their own to which their emotion toward nature inspired them and which intense and enthusiastic research proved to be correct." Matisse, speaking to the publisher Tériade in 1929, added a few details: "These were the ideas we had then: construction by means of coloured surfaces. A desire for a greater intensity of colour, the actual quality of the paint being of minor interest. Reaction against the representation of light by a diffusion of local colours. Light was not suppressed, rather it was expressed by a conjunction of intensely coloured surfaces. In my picture La Musique, I chose the bluest of blues for the sky. The surface was coloured to saturation point, that is, to the point at which it communicated the idea of absolute blue. It was the same for the green of the trees and the vibrant vermilion of the human bodies. With these three colours I established a harmony of light as well as purity of tone. One more point: colour was proportioned to form. Form was modified by the interplay of neighbouring coloured areas. The impact comes from the coloured surface, which the spectator grasps in its entirety."

The Fauves wanted to convey emotional shocks with the aid of forms reduced to their essentials and with pure colour. But colour was the first item on their programme of reform. Disregarding realism, they used colour simply with an eye to the picture surface, with only the effect in mind. The stronger the colour, the greater its effect, which led them logically to the ultimate step of using colour straight from the tube. Some sought to increase the vibration of their colours by adopting the divisionist technique of the Neo-Impressionists, but this rudimentary pointillism did not imply acceptance of NeoImpressionist theories of atmospheric realism. As Matisse and Derain learned more about Gauguin, this trend was abandoned.

The need to express themselves in colour led the Fauves to reject most of the principles of traditional painting to which both Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists had adhered: linear and atmospheric perspective, chiaroscuro, modelling, and attention to detail. Economy of means was stressed in order to increase the expressive force of the painting. Hard-hitting was the order of the day.

Despite their lack of cohesion, the Fauves shared certain characteristics. The most violent and resolute members of the group (and the ones who gave it its character and sense of purpose) were from the north, which might explain their love of red and other bright colours. Matisse came from CateauCambrésis and Vlaminck, although born in Paris, was of Flemish origin. The southerners were all minor figures. Most of them were sturdy and well-built, with fair complexions, red beards and blue eyes. They had little interest in poetry, the theatre or literature, and had few contacts in intellectual circles. Their emotive temperaments were better attuned to music. Braque played both the accordeon and the guitar. Vlaminck earned his living as a music teacher until he was thirty, and both Matisse and Dufy played the violin. Derain played the organ and the harpsichord.

Several of the Fauves, as we have seen, were either anarchists or anarchist sympathisers. With the exception of Matisse, they tended to adopt eccentric form of dress as a means of stressing their opposition to bourgeois standards. Vlaminck sported a painted wooden tie and a red scarf to go with his bowler hat. Van Dongen and Braque wore blue overalls, and Manguin baggy Zouave trousers. They were more often to be seen in the bistros of the Halles or Montmartre than in the literary Cafés of Saint-Germain. It is doubtful whether they ever met, as did the Nabis, around a tea-table.

Despite their differences, they all passed through similar or parallel stages of evolution: discovery of Impressionism, understanding of its weaknesses, and finally admiration for Gauguin and Van Gogh. Their reaction, however authentic, was not the first of its kind. Gauguin had led the revolt against the Impressionists, although he owed his formation as an artist to them. He was one of the first to perceive the inadequacy of their art. "They study what the eye sees," he said, "but they do not penetrate to the mysterious centre of thought itself." Here he states the question of the spiritual importance of a work of art. Gauguin considered that painting should be symbolic, poetical and plastic, and his mature works were diametrically opposed to those of the Impressionists. He restored the autonomy of the picture, or, as Jean Cassou says, "He led painting back to its primitive and essential function, which is to draw plastic signs on a two-dimensional surface." This idea was of enormous consequence in the development of modern art in general and of Fauvism in particular.

To satisfy his mysticism and his sense of poetry, Gauguin turned to primitive art, not so much from deliberate choice as from an instinctive, almost unconscious, desire to return to the origins of his personality. His early childhood in his great-uncle's mansion in Peru, his journeys as a navigator and then an ordinary seaman in the navy, had given him a Baudelairean vision of a world composed of strange forms and colours. To the end of his life and throughout his various peregrinations, he clung to certain pre-Columbian vases collected by his mother; they figure in many of his paintings. "Primitivism is a source of strength for me," he said -- a statement which conditioned Nabis, Fauves and Cubists to an interest in exotic and primitive art. He went to Brittany not solely in order to live cheaply, but to find a more primitive existence. Gauguin, whose technique had been formed through contacts with Monet and Pissarro between 1883 and 1887, began to define his ideas and to communicate (i. e. impose) them on the younger painters in his entourage during his second stay at the Pension Gloanec in Pont-Aven in the summer of 1888. Although many years of adventure were already behind him, he had still to find his own artistic personality, paint his most significant works, and live out the painful conclusion of his extraordinary destiny. He had just returned from Martinique, matured by the failure of the expedition, and was beginning to see how he could give concrete shape to his ideas. The canvases he had brought back showed that he had already abandoned the bright dabs of the Impressionists in favour of rather timid flat coloured areas. He was groping for a simpler, more summary form of art, and his conception suddenly crystallized when he met Emile Bernard, who was also staying at the Pension Gloanec. Gauguin was then forty years old and Bernard just twenty, an ethereal youth with a tendency to mysticism, a vivid imagination and a remarkable gift for exposition. The two had met before, in 1886, in the dining-room of the Pension, but Gauguin had taken little notice of the young art student, a fugitive from the Atelier Cormon.
In his memoirs, Emile Bernard tells of this first, disappointing, meeting. "I had a room in the town where I slept, read and worked, and I went to the Pension only at mealtimes. Gauguin sat opposite me, with a painter friend, Charles Laval, beside him. One day he took me to his studio and showed me canvases that reminded me very strongly of Pissarro and Puvis de Chavannes. I was not very enthusiastic, and he consequently lost interest in me."

Two years later everything was different. Bernard had already painted several pictures in a new technique on which he had been meditating for some time. Simplified shapes were outlined in black, and these outlines defined the coloured areas which were broadly and flatly painted. Some of these works had been hung in the dining-room of the Pension and Gauguin was immediately impressed. Here was something that connected with his own experiments. He therefore greeted Bernard with more warmth and went to his room to see the pictures he had brought back from Saint-Briac. "He thought they had great character," writes Bernard, "and he liked the bright colours and the simplicity of technique. Then he took me to his studio in Mme Gloanec's attic. I found that his style had become more personal and distinct. He still divided his tones, and this destroyed the general colour effect and gave the pictures a slightly muddy appearance. I told him this, as politely as I could, but also assured him of my regard for his talent. Some time later there was a saint's day in Pont-Aven and... I painted some Breton women in black dresses seated in a meadow which I deliberately made a greenish yellow. Gauguin was very impressed by this picture which demonstrated my ideas on colour and summed up the results of my experiments with colour effects. 'The more you divide the tone, the more you weaken it,' I told him,' and that makes it look grey and dull.' He wanted to work this out for himself, so he borrowed some of the colours I had used, such as Prussian blue, which the Impressionists had banished from their palettes and which he did not have with him. He then painted The Vision after the Sermon, which earned him the title of 'the creator of symbolism.' "

Gauguin, Van Gogh, Pissarro: Divisionists

Oddly enough three artists whose careers do not suggest that colour sensations were their exclusive, or even their chief interest, displayed much interest in Divisionism. First we have Gauguin who painted a Landscape at Pont-Aven in the technique of the Point, or dot; then a Still Life in the same manner, which he laughingly called the "dot-and-carry-one" style.

When, in 1887, Van Gogh visited Seurat, he was much impressed by his big canvases. Indeed he showed considerable enthusiasm for the pointilliste technique, though this was probably not for its technical qualities, but because it might help him to step up the brilliancy of certain tones needed for the expression of those emotional experiences which bulked so large in his troubled life.

Likewise Pissarro saw in the divisionist "system" only a set of new formulas and tested them, chiefly, it would seem, with an eye to their technical possibilities. With this in mind he painted a certain number of canvases. But not only did the severely scientific programme of the pointillistes conflict with that free expression of his sensibilities which meant so much to this "poet of the earth," but its formalism cramped the easy movement of his hand and that "colour inspiration" whose spontaneity he was determined to safeguard.

"With red and green I have tried to depict those terrible things, men's passions . . ."

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A dreamer of exotic dreams Paul Gauguin

The ancestry of Paul Gauguin, who was born on June 7, 1848, in Paris, was, to say the least of it, peculiar; indeed on comic opera lines. There figured in it the stock characters of such entertainments: a King of Peru, a lady of letters, a jealous lover who shoots her and is sentenced to penal servitude, a wine-merchant from Bordeaux--and the inevitable Spanish Colonel.

Gauguin had an early taste of the Latin-American scene, being taken there at the age of three (he was, however, brought back to France some years later). When he was nine he ran away from home, with a tramp's wallet and staff for his sole equipment. In his sixteenth year he took to the sea, as an apprentice in the merchant service, and saw many remote corners of the world. On his return to France he married a Danish lady, by whom he had five children. He became a successful stockbroker, and did well on the Bourse, but threw up a good post, and lost all his money; then he was, successively, a commercial traveller, a navvy employed on the Panama Canal (for he had a herculean frame), secretary to a company, a bill-sticker, and finally--after some other avatars--a painter.

He had now found a vocation, unforeseen but fated to be permanent. Still it would not have been like Gauguin not to complicate his new existence. On the usual pretext --that of a craving for evasion, "to escape, far, far away, where Nature is at her most exotic," as Mallarmé, the poet, put it--he took sail for the South Sea Islands, on which his choice had fallen, presumably because it would be hard to find a place remoter from France. And after a series of misadventures due to his cantankerous disposition, after creating masterpieces for which almost none of his contemporaries had any use, he died miserably poor and broken in health, neglected and alone.
Such was the picturesque life-story of this singular man. A versatile romancer, a dreamer of exotic dreams, a Bohemian born, with a loathing for every sort of control and an itch for travel, Gauguin had something in him of the knight-errant in quest of an earthly paradise. He held strong ideas of his own and was always ready to indulge in the most scatterbrain exploits; in short, he was an enfant terrible who indulged his natural "contrariness" even on the aesthetic plane, but, above all, and though we cannot imagine how this came about, a painter of genius.
In painting Gauguin found something he had hardly dared to hope for, a means of synthesizing (to use a word he greatly favoured at one period) the multitude of cross-purposes that had hitherto embarrassed him, and welding them together into an harmonious whole. His work, whether the scene be Brittany or the South Seas, is pervaded by colour rhythms whose tone and form alike are imbued with melancholy, deep but never desperate. His happily inspired, wholly unique palette is remarkable for its rich, pervasive harmonies; though the tones are brilliant, they are muted, recalling--a legitimate analogy since Gauguin himself often associated painting with music--the effect of muted trumpets in jazz bands.

Gauguin became aware of his vocation when in 1871 he made the acquaintance of Schuffenecker, a business colleague, who devoted himself to painting in his leisure hours. It is noteworthy that Gauguin was not a born artist; he became an artist deliberately. At first he painted as an amateur, and perhaps he would never have gone farther, had he not met Pissarro in 1876. Until now Gauguin had, like all beginners, aimed at realism. He even exhibited in the 1876 Salon, securing admission easily enough. Then came the great slump of 1883. He abandoned his financial career, in which he had done very well for himself, and told his friends, "Now at last I shall paint every day."

He now tried his hand at Impressionism, but soon found that the detailed analysis its juxtaposed touches of colour necessitated cramped his style. He blamed Impressionism for centering its research-work on the eye instead of on the secret places of the heart. Indeed he vigorously combated most of the theories of his impressionist friends; for he required broad surfaces to work on, without lingering over details, much as he needed complete personal freedom and opportunities of travel in far lands. It was perhaps this craving for the remote that made him so keenly interested in Japanese colourprints. Then a new idea waylaid him--he was always having new ideas. Living was cheaper in Brittany, and he now was short of money; so he migrated (in 1886) to Pont-Aven. Here he met Schuffenecker again, and made Emile Bernard's acquaintance.

They spent much time discussing art, and that burning topic of the day, the Symbolist Manifesto, which had just been published and declared that the whole duty of the artist was "to clothe the idea in a perceptible form." Here was a theory after Gauguin's heart; it justified his replacing the prevailing semi-anecdotal art by the ideology that meant so much to him. Needless to say, he affected to disdain Symbolism, but he stood by its principles none the less. Thus in his South Seas compositions we see him trying "to clothe in a perceptible form" the ideas behind his Tahitian Eve and The Enigma Lurking in the Depths of her Eyes. Luckily Gauguin's "perceptible forms" were of greater value than his "ideas." However misty, even muddled, were the latter, his methods of expressing them were admirably lucid and precise.

Likewise he championed Synthesis, as a counterblast to impressionist analytics; though this did not prevent him from ridiculing it when he saw fellow-artists making a fetish of its theories. His taste for Japanese art, for stained-glass windows, and even for the gaudy picture-sheets so popular in the last century--all which seemed to fit in with his ideas of Synthesism--led him on to what was known as Cloisonnism, which means binding surfaces with heavy contour-lines. It was during this phase that he painted that amazing Vision after the Sermon. By now his true personality was asserting itself. "There are noble lines," he said, "and deceptive lines; the straight line gives us infinity, the curve limits creation." Japanese art had taught him much; he now wished to eliminate, to strip his canvas of all but essentials. Form was to be suggested by pure colour; this was now the "Synthesis" he aimed at, and he preconized it with all the zeal of the neophyte, though, as we have already said, his sense of humour came to the fore when he saw it mechanically exploited by disciples who failed to grasp it emotionally. This was Gauguin's most rewarding discovery, the key to his telling simplifications and the fine integrity of his close-knit forms. "Art is an abstraction." He no longer gazes on nature with a view to interpreting it by means of an equivalent; as he tells us, he "thinks" his picture first. (We are reminded of Raphael In ipsius mente).

Of his Christ in the Garden of Olives he once said: "It is imbued with an abstract sadness, and sadness is my forte." Another of his remarks was: "What wonderful thoughts one can evoke by form and colour!" For his obsession with "thought" never left him. It was his cult of the Idea that led him to give such titles to his canvases as: "When are you getting married?" "Why are you angry?" "The Spirit of the Dead keeps Vigil" and his famous "Whence come we? What are we? Whither go we?" He had always had a weakness for the "legends" of those cheap picture-sheets--of the "tuppence-coloured" variety--which we have already mentioned; for the captions of illustrated newspapers, the inscriptions that punctuate the Stations of the Cross, ribbon stained-glass windows, and entwine Japanese prints. Fortunately this propensity for "ideas" did not interfere with his discoveries in the field of pure painting, whose great value lies precisely in the fact that they derive from the Unconscious--to which, as it so happened, Odilon Redon was now proclaiming his indebtedness. Much has been made of his cult of the exotic, but this was due above all to his constant desire to be on the move, seeking--he knew not what.

The dreams he dreamt in Brittany became realities in the South Seas, indeed his Tahitian technique conformed to that fine remark he made in earlier days: "Whenever my clogs strike this iron soil of Brittany, I hear that dull, muffled yet mighty resonance which I seek for in my painting."

Packed with suggestion, his art constantly aspired towards a pictorial equivalent of emotional experience. The influence he was to have on the "Nabis" group, on Sérusier (who was to act as spokesman of Gauguin's aesthetic theories), on Bonnard, Vuillard, Vallotton and Maurice Denis, was due to his feeling for the decorative--which they proceeded to stylize--and for the part that colour could be made to play, keyed up to its highest intensity. "How do you see this tree?" he once asked a friend. "It's green, you say? Well then put down green--the richest green on your palette." On the other hand Gauguin had much affection for Ingres and Delacroix, and indeed declared that there was nothing that drawing could not do. But "line is colour," he explained, and added: "Beware of complementary colours; you'll never get a harmony out of them, only a clash of tones." Two decades later Fauvism and Cubism took over his technique of using planes of flat colour set within dark outlines and his expressive contours--but only after purging his aesthetic theories of all ideological considerations.

Gauguin's boldness served as an example. "I wished," he wrote to his friend de Monfreid, "to vindicate the artist's right to dare everything." For that "right" he personally paid dear. His strange, adventurous career came to a melancholy end in the Marquesas Islands, where he died on April 1903 his limbs covered with eczema, under somewhat mysterious conditions. Suspicions were aroused by an empty medicine-bottle found beside him. He had made many enemies, some of them influential, by his denunciations of civilization and its hypocrisies, which had caused him so much suffering.

Riders on the Beach

Throughout his life Gauguin had admired Degas, and in Avant et Apès, written in January and February of 1903 (only a few months after this picture was executed), Degas is the contemporary painter most frequently mentioned.

In that same manuscript Gauguin also wrote: "Study the silhouette of every object; distinctness of outline is the attribute of the hand that is not enfeebled by any hesitation of will." It was indeed for such incisiveness of vision (as well as of wit and will so like his own) that he admired Degas.

This picture, painted on that shore of Atuana which he could see from his last native home, seems created out of a reminiscence of Degas' paintings and exemplifies the power that Gauguin, sick though he was, kept until the end. For though its setting is so different from Degas' elegant scenes of the Longchamps track, its space, its isolation of the figures, its clarity of outline that makes of each horse a closed form, and the sense of rhythmic interval, all are akin to the older master's vision. And the handling suggests both the past and the future: the brush strokes of the sky, even its color, reach back to the Impressionists, but the pink of the foreground, which is Gauguin's own, points forward toward the Fauves. And not only the Fauves, for these pastel shades, the sparseness of the horses, and the symbolic shorthand of the two on the upper right, are close in feeling to pictures of Picasso, done only a little later.

"I have wished to establish the right to dare anything . . . ," wrote Gauguin just before he died, "the public owes me nothing, since my achievement in painting is only relatively good, but the painters -- who today profit by this liberty -- they owe something to me."

L'Appel The Call

Seduced by the spectacle of nature he had come so far to see, but driven also by the vision of a painting somehow beyond nature and susceptible to the literary ideas of his time, Gauguin was constantly torn between painting what lay before him, and rendering his mind's image. Ideally, the two should merge into one vision, a poetic form that would marry external nature to inner meaning. In practice, each painting tended more in one direction or the other.

This canvas was painted in the Marquesas when Gauguin was living in that "vast atelier, with one small corner to sleep in . . . a hammock protected from the sun for a siesta, refreshed by a sea breeze that comes through the cocoanut palms from the shore a thousand feet off." A passage from this same letter to his friend Daniel de Monfreid will serve as its text: "You know what I think of all those false literary ideas -- Symbolist or any other -- in painting . . . Her in my isolation I have more than enough [nature] in which to steep myself once more. Here poetry wells up by itself, and one has only to permit oneself to fall into revery as one paints in order to suggest it." And in this picture the energetic painter is in a receptive mood. He has allowed a poetry of place, a feeling of this particular spot to penetrate him, so that nature and figures all are one. The frieze arrangement he so often employs is evident again here. The massive seated figure to the left, which he has employed in other compositions, and the bands of colored ground with their irregular patterns are drawn into abstract shapes. Though he wrote "The great error is the Greeks," the figure on the right whose gesture gives the picture its title derives from the Parthenon frieze. The color harmony, especially the narrow gamut of reds and pinks, lavenders and violets, purples and blues, is Gauguin's own. Yet despite the powerful elements of personal style, this is no imagined landscape. He knew it and loved it well. "I am contented, here in my solitude."

Contes Barbares

Gauguin had a "terrible itching for the unknown -- which makes me commit follies," and which drove him on, both in his life and in his painting. He also had a strange kind of faithfulness (or nostalgia), to his earlier self, and to the origins of his art. However far he left Paris behind, however much he loved the tropics, he was still an exile from France, and a conscious exile from the European tradition.

The elements of this picture bear witness to the diversity of its sources, and how the painter has joined his own past and present -- part of that present an imaginary one. The face of the storyteller in blue, crouched, and cramped by the frame, with deformed features and clawed feet, repeats a portrait of his dwarfed Dutch painter friend Meyer de Haan with whom he had worked in Brittany in 1889. The central figure is in an idol-like position, often used by Gauguin to suggest a legendary theme. And the girl on the right, more delicate-featured, with flowers in her hair, and seated in a field of flowers, reminded the critic Charles Morice (one can see why) of Botticelli. The composition, with its sharp diagonal of the ground rising to the right, and the people rising to the left, recalls the flattened symbolic arrangements of his Brittany pictures of the eighties, influenced by Japanese prints. From these varied, and still evident sources the painter has created a painting which holds together because of a pictorial unity -- yet is strange because of the strangeness of its many origins.

Tahitian Women with Mango Blossoms

Gauguin went far to find his garden of eden. He arrived with its lovely and mysterious image, drawn in part from his own desires, already partially fixed in his mind's eye; otherwise he could hardly, in cold blood and with an objective vision, have mustered up the courage to seek it out. Therefore he rarely looked at his surroundings as they were, rarely painted them without some added elements of his ideal vision, no matter how often, in retrospect, he understood that this had been deceived.

This canvas does achieve that sort of simplicity. It is a study of the nude, with no admixture of the programmatic. Perhaps for this reason it is softer than many of Gauguin's pictures. The bodies are modeled, the colors light in tone. Gauguin wrote with admiration of the erect stature, the broad shoulders, the strength with grace of the Polynesian women. Here he has rendered that impression.

And he has done something more. Contrary to the figures of other paintings -- Spirit of the Dead Watching, or The Day of the God, or Nevermore, these women are not veiled in a mythological tradition, they simply confront us. Gauguin might have been writing of them (though they were painted later) in his reply to August Strindberg, when he professed not to understand Gauguin's exotic world:

"Before the Eve of my choice, that I have painted in the forms and harmonies of another world, your favorite memories have perhaps recalled an unhappy past. The Eve of your civilized conception makes you, makes almost all of us misogynist; [but] that ancient Eve, who frightens you in my studio, may one day smile at you less bitterly . . .

"The Eve that I have painted (she alone) can logically remain nude before our eyes."

Faa Iheihe

Before his attempted suicide, Gauguin painted his large frieze of life, Where Do We Come From?. . . ; after recovering from his dose of poison, in the spring of 1898, he did this picture. The difference between the two is striking: one is an essentially sad painting, dark in color, mournful in its sentiment; this is a happy picture, bright in tone, cheerful in its feeling. The earlier subject stresses growth and decline, both mysterious, both unexplained; in this canvas there is only the one moment of eternal youth. This is a frieze too, but a frieze with a softer texture, a more even rhythm; here there is no space beyond (with all that this implies) as in the Where Do We Come From?, but instead the whole is flat. Horizon and ground, vertical and horizontal flow together to make an abstract, golden backdrop against which the figures move or are arrested in their gestures. They are not completely flat (as in the Ta. Matete), but aware, as it were, of their frontal relation, half turn their heads and shoulders and feet, so that foreshortening is avoided, as it is in that Parthenon frieze of which Gauguin had a reproduction on his wall.

Because Gauguin, for all that he was a revolutionary in both rhetorical pose and inner feeling, was very aware of tradition. There is here both the Parthenon and Borobudur (the central figure with the palm of her hand raised between her breasts), but the spirit is that of Puvis de Chavannes. This is Puvis' mild and tenuous golden age -- in which Poussin's positive force and activity are replaced by a suspended animation -- transplanted into an exotic world. Only now the spiritual, disembodied mildness has become physical languor. Through the painting itself, its warm harmonies, its continuous, closely locked design, its rough texture, this paradise has once more been brought back to earth, and made immediate and sensuous. In the words of its title, Faa Iheihe, it is "decorated with ornaments," both floral and human. It is also, as Gauguin said, "a parable" of the human spirit.

The White Horse

Here is a composition that rises with a continuous flow of curves from bottom to top, an arrangement without a horizon, in which space is suggested rather than rendered. Horizontal and vertical planes (the pool and plants of the foreground, and the road and twining branches of the background) flow into each other, all painted in a perspective that views the scene at once from in front and from above. This, and the twisting, curving pattern of the horses backs, the leaf forms, and the climbing vine trunks hark back to the Japanese print. The flat pattern and raised perspective of the Japanese woodcut had been major sources of Gauguin's style in Brittany, but in Tahiti their influence had diminished. Here Gauguin seems to recall that style, but he has softened and varied it. Horses and riders are more modeled than the rest, (although they go up as they go back, as in oriental art), and there is an almost Impressionist variation of light and texture within the areas of pool and field. Most naturalist of all, the "white" horse (whose movement seems like the symbolic gesture of a pawing Pegasus out of Redon's imaginative art), is painted grayish-green because the light upon it has been filtered through the leaves above. Isolated and riderless, self-contained in an otherwise active composition, its mystery and strangeness spreads, and suffuses the whole painting.


Here too there is a reminiscence of the composition of Manet's Olympia, which Gauguin admired, and the clear, continuous outline around the figure suggests the earlier artist's anti-Impressionist use of conventional contour. But the mood of the painting is far from Manet's cool vision. It shows how much Gauguin's romantic imagination often quite consciously affected the interpretation of his surroundings, which were frequently squalid, and, for a realist, without charm. Gauguin was no realist:

"I wanted to make a simple nude suggest a certain barbaric splendor of times gone by. The whole painting is bathed in colors that are deliberately somber and sad. Neither silk nor velvet, neither batiste nor gold creates this splendor, but simply paint enhanced through the artist's skill. No tricks [but] imagination alone has by its fancy enriched this dwelling.

"For a title, Nevermore; not 'The Raven' of Edgar Poe, but a bird of the devil who watches."
Even here Gauguin has employed a frieze technique. He has echoed the curves of the nude in the outline of the bedstead and in the stylized floral patterns on the wall, beneath the title, and around the raven. But these freely drawn shapes are held tightly in the rigid verticals of the architecture. Between its rhythmic intervals we are allowed brief glimpses of a space beyond, which only increases the element of mystery within. Here, if anywhere, Mallarmés enigmatic phrase applies: "It is extraordinary to be able to put such mystery into such brilliance."

Where do we come from

In December, 1897, Gauguin decided to kill himself. He was sick and miserable, without enough money for medical treatment, he was in debt and abandoned by those who owed him money. His tropical paradise had failed. He wished, before dying, to paint one great, last testamentary picture, and summoning all his strength in a single burst of energy he painted this canvas -- his largest. The attempt at suicide failed, apparently through an overdose of the arsenic he took, and so in later letters, we have his own comments upon the picture and its genesis:

"It is a canvas about five feet by twelve. The two upper corners are chrome yellow, with an inscription on the left, and my name on the right, like a fresco on a golden wall with its corners damaged.

"To the right, below, a sleeping baby and three seated women. Two figures dressed in purple confide their thoughts to each other. An enormous crouching figure which intentionally violates the perspective, raises its arm in the air and looks in astonishment at these two people who dare to think of their destiny. A figure in the center is picking fruit. Two cats near a child. A white goat. An idol, both arms mysteriously and rhythmically raised, seems to indicate the Beyond. A crouching girl seems to listen to the idol. Lastly, an old woman approaching death appears reconciled and resigned to her thoughts. She completes the story. At her feet a strange white bird, holding a lizard in its claw [sic], represents a futility of words.

"The setting is the bank of a stream in the woods. In the background the ocean, and beyond the mountains of a neighboring island. In spite of changes of tone, the landscape is blue and Veronese green from one end to the other. The naked figures stand out against it in bold orange.

"If anyone said to the students competing for the Rome Prize at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the picture you must paint is to represent Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? what would they do? I have finished a philosophical work on this theme, comparable to the Gospels. I think it is good."


In July, 1896, ten months after his second arrival in Tahiti, Gauguin wrote to Daniel de Monfreid: "I am not unreasonable, I live on 100 francs a month, I and my vahiné, a young girl thirteen and a half years old. You see that it is not much; it provides me with tobacco and soap and a dress for the little one. If you could see my setup! A thatched house with a studio window, two trunks of cocoanut trees carved in the form of native gods, flowering bushes, a shed for my cart, and a horse. Yes, I have spent money on a house so as no longer to have to pay rent, and to be sure to have a roof over my head . . ." And in November he wrote that he was about to become a father.

Here then was the setting for this Nativity scene, whose religious allusion is barely suggested by the pale yellow and green halos of the mother and child and the animals behind. It is very different from that other biblical picture of five years earlier, la Orana Maria: that is a traditional subject with native actors, as if to widen a Western parochialism; here a native scene, sacred less because of any specific iconographic connotation than for what it is in itself, an event at once personal and universal. The light around the whole figure contrasts with the mysterious gloom beyond (and the carved trees and native gods of Gauguin's letter); its warm glow, rather than the circles around the heads, is the true halo of the painting, suggestion replacing description. The relaxed hands of the mother, the heads of the infant and the women beyond show a tenderness Gauguin often hid.


Family groups were a repetead theme in Gauguin's art, especially those of mothers and children. Despite his apparent coldness, and his stubborn determination to put his art above everything else, Gauguin could not forget his own isolation, nor forgive his wife that it was she, not he, who was granted the comfort of their children's companionship. In friendly moods he imagined them all reunited, ending their lives together -- "with white locks [we will] enter a period of peace and spiritual happiness, surrounded by our children, flesh of our flesh" -- a dream that was never to be. Perhaps it was the painful contrast that drew him to the domestic contentment of the Tahitians.

But this picture is no genre anecdote of the primitive, full of realistic detail and incident. On the contrary, it has been stripped of all but its essential symbols of love and care: the nursing mother, guarded, as it were, by watchful and protective sisters; the fruit, of abundance; and the flower, of beauty. We do not know where they are, except that it is in some tropical garden of Arcady (and Poussin would indeed have recognized the group). Earth and sky (distinguishable only in color), move upward behind the group in soft, rounded shapes that echo the flowing contours of the figures. The warm colors of the foreground in close harmony, suggest the warmth and contentment of the human scene, and close it in, yet open out into the note of gaiety of the brilliant hues of the sky beyond.

The Poor Fisherman

The Biblical reference of The Poor Fisherman is one of several among Gauguin's paintings of specific themes. There is the Ia Orana Maria and the Nativity,The Yellow Christ and Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, and the woodcut of the Crucifixion. There is the "Golgotha" self-portrait, and his sacrificial reference to "Les Misérables" in the self-portrait dedicated to Van Gogh. More generally, there is his constant reference to his "Tahitian Eve," and in his letters an imaginative transformation of a South Sea island into a fusion of Cythera and Eden, at once voluptuous and virtuous. Besides the reference to Puvis de Chavannes' painting of the same subject, Gauguin's fisherman has several associations: the dignity of the simple life; the unhappiness of the "Maoris," mistreated by a colonial government; the isolation, the poverty, the moral grandeur of the painter himself.

Set against a luxuriant nature, the figure is tense and thin, hardly typical of the Tahitian life of health and ease Gauguin was so fond of imagining. This contrast is enhanced by the opposition of the patterned foreground, with its irregular lines and upward-pointing corner, and the broad, calm structure of the background beyond the canoe, built of large areas and strong horizontals: a contrast that symbolizes the spirit's struggle.

Nave Nave Mahana

There is a recurrent aspect of Gauguin's art -- and this calm canvas is an example of it -- which is inevitably called decorative. Sometimes his designs, rhythmic and slow, suggest the narrow, billowed-out relief space of a sculptured frieze. For this canvas, richer in color harmony, more fused in tone, tapestry is perhaps the closer parallel. The composition is filled by the tall figures, which almost touch its borders, by the trees, which go beyond them, and the horizontal bands of ground and sky, so that every spot is as rich and articulated as any other. The color areas, whether of bodies or pareos, whether of tree trunks or leaves, or earth or light-filled golden air, are large and well defined. But they have been softened to give them a rich and sensuous texture, as if by some enveloping atmosphere, or some heavy woven material that affects all surfaces alike and removes them into the unreality of an ideal, distant, and silent land.

The strong repeated verticals of the figures are lightened just enough by their bodies' grace so that they have the long rhythms of the ground and hills, and the seated figures, whose smaller scale gives size to the whole, repeat the shorter, rounder curves of the plant in the foreground and the branches and leaves above.

The idylls of Puvis de Chavannes have been evoked as comparisons to this picture ("Puvis overwhelms me with his talent," wrote Gauguin, and he put a copy of Puvis' Hope into one of his last paintings). And to be sure, there is the nostalgia for a simpler existence in both artists. But Puvis views his Classic landscapes through a telescope from some distant Olympus, while Gauguin brings his tropical version close and warm before us. Here there is no mystery, no exoticism, no irony. This is simply Anacreon in native dress: the Classic tradition carried halfway round the world.

Why are you angry

The structure and compositional rhythm of Gauguin's paintings tend in two directions. On the one hand he employs the fluid curve, reinforcing the lines of bending figures with background areas having similar continuous contours; on the other he uses a frieze-like form built around rhythmic horizontals and verticals. In this picture there are the repeated verticals of the houses, the trees, and the figures, giving rise to lines so related that they carry the eye across the canvas, lending it breadth and amplitude. And there are also the horizontals that start at the lower right and carry back into the distance. The feet, the glance, the whole pose of the foreground figure, the green patches in the red earth, the yellow surface of the house wall, and the smaller house in the distance, all establish planes at intervals that measure a deep space. Unlike so many of Gauguin's paintings where space is denied, or only suggested, this picture, with its contrast of solid and void, its conscious presentation of a spatial continuum that both binds and separates the elements within it, is of a classic conception that both Cézanne and Seurat would have understood.

The Day of the God

Like the Moon and the Earth this picture derives its theme from Gauguin's study and imaginative interpretation of Polynesian mythology. The main figure is Taaroa, central figure of the Maori pantheon, the creator of the world about whom the artist writes in his Ancien Culte Mahorie. In his honor gifts are being brought by two maidens on the left, while on the right two girls perform a ritual dance.

Gauguin's sources and his inventiveness are both clearly evident. The repetitive profiles of the white-clad girls stem from Egypt; the dancers from his observation of the life around him, stylized to make a pendant group; and the god from his hieratic distillation of the myths he had read about. The three naked figures in the foreground seem to suggest creation, their languid poses (and especially the embryo curl of the figure on the right) related to the overpowering energy of the god behind them.

The curves of their figures, and of the god's feather headdress are echoed in the foreground. The water is filled with curious amoeba-like shapes, which, perhaps rocks, perhaps shadows (but from where?), are above all simply decorative forms designed to give the composition its mood and rhythm, and picked up again in the arbitrary cloud shapes of the background. We recognize here the synthetist simplifications of the Brittany pictures of 1888 and 1889. Now however, Gauguin has stylized them to the point of almost complete abstraction. Historically, they point forward, not back, and our first thought is no longer of leaded windows, source of Bernard's cloisonnisme but of post-Cubist, organic abstraction.

Portrait of the Artist with a Palette

This self-portrait was painted when Gauguin lived in the Rue Vercingétorix, in a district behind the Montparnasse railroad station around which the Bretons come to Paris congregated. Back from the South Seas, the artist affected an exotic pose, and to the consternation of many, hung up in his studio examples of native art he had brought back with him. In this picture, apparently done from a photograph, since it shows his brush in the right hand -- compare the mirror portrait -- he is dressed in the costume described by his friend Armand Seguin (one of the artists of the "school of Pont-Aven"):

"In this astrakhan cap and enormous dark blue cloak held together by delicate metal clasps, he appeared to Parisians like a gorgeous and gigantic Magyar." For all its outlandish costume (compare some of Rembrandt's self-portraits) the picture has about it an air of dignity and repose, and a simplicity, that contrasts with the intensity and bravado, or alternately the irony and suffering found in most of the self-portraits.

The canvas is inscribed to Charles Morice, to whom Gauguin presented it. During his Tahiti stay he had accused Morice of having kept back moneys owed him, but they were reconciled in October, 1893. Morice then wrote the preface for the November, 1893 exhibition which Degas persuaded Durand-Ruel to present. In 1894 Gauguin and Morice began their joint work, Noa Noa.

The Moon and the Earth

Predisposed as he was toward the "mysterious," and living with the Tahitians, Gauguin naturally tended to legendary and mythological subjects. His allegorical figurations, such as the Moon and the Earth in this painting, can be traced back to no single source. They are compounded of memories of European painting, the stories of his Tahitian friends (especially Tehura, his young native wife), and his reading of native history and myth. Above all, they grow from a fundamental sense of symbolism -- of an "enigma" that exists beneath the surface of the world's appearance. Here in Tahiti, as previously in Brittany, he tried to render this through the eyes of simple people, to capture something of their sense of wonder, and their acceptance of the incomprehensible workings of the universe.

The specific subject comes from a legendary dispute between Hina, the moon, and Fatou, the earth that Gauguin (following Moerenhout) describes in his Ancien Culte Mahorie. Hina said to Fatou, "Make man live or rise again after death." Fatou answered, "No, I shall not revive him. The earth shall die, the vegetation shall die, it shall die like the men who feed upon it. . . .""Do as you like, but I shall cause the moon to be reborn." The myth does little to explain Gauguin's rendering.

The canvas is curious in its mixture of the immense modeled figures and the flat patterns of motifs from nature, abstract and repetitive in form. It is almost as though Gauguin were saying that the myth, product of the imagination, is more real than any observation of nature. Contrary to traditional allegory, the scale of the symbolic figures is out of all proportion to their surroundings, so that far from being humanized, these gods loom before us powerful and terrible.

This picture was reproduced on the cover of the catalogue of Gauguin's exhibition at Durand-Ruel in November, 1893, when it was bought by Degas.

Portrait of a Woman

Like his friends of the avant-garde, both older and younger, Gauguin admired Cézanne. At different times Pissarro had been mentor to them both, and through him they had met in the summer of 1881. It is not surprising that the two men, both proud, suspicious natures, did not get along personally. But even earlier, Gauguin had bought several of Cézanne's canvases, and when hard times forced him to sell his collection, he refused to part with the still life shown in the background of the painting. "I cling to it as dearly as to my life," he wrote to Schuffenecker, who had offered to buy it in order to help him out, "and short of absolute necessity would rather part with my last shirt." Their art moved in different directions, but both began as Impressionists, and Gauguin was well placed to respect the insistence of the Aixois upon being himself.

In this canvas the kinship with Cézanne is strongly felt. It is evident in the diagonal placing of the sitter, with the extended arms (one longer than the other) enclosing the space between them; in the expressionless face; and in the relation of the figure to the still life behind it. There is (for Gauguin) an unaccustomed bulk and weight to the body, given by a modeling in colored patches that is seen most clearly in the hand and the head. The rhythm is the angular rhythm of Cézanne, the contours broken into by darker areas in his characteristic fashion, unlike the undulating, smoothly outlined forms Gauguin more usually employs. Even the richer, warmer color harmonies are exceptional. All this bespeaks the influence of the southern master's vision. Cézanne did not like Gauguin's art; he decried his lack of modeling and gradation, said he was not a painter, but a fabricator of "Chinese images," i.e., of flat and weightless silhouettes. But if here Gauguin has, for once made direct use of that petite sensation of which Cézanne was so jealous, the master of Aix might well forgive him, for in his own fashion he has truly penetrated and transcribed the solidity and seriousness which were the older artist's aim.

The Yellow Christ

Constructed of flat planes, intense colors, and bold circumscribing outlines, the Yellow Christ is in many ways the apogee of Gauguin's early "synthetist" style. The plane of the canvas -- the surface which must be respected -- is held by the foreground figure, the strong upright of the crucifix, and the terminating horizontal bar. Against the repeated bands of field and sky and cross, the swinging curves of the women and the trees (closed forms that contrast with the movement of the straight lines) play a graceful counterpoint, the whole drawn together by a bright and simple pattern. The colors are gay, but the starkness of the Breton landscape is conveyed; the women are gentle but their peasant force is still evident.

Even today this is a striking canvas. How much more so it must have appeared at the time it was painted, when the subtle delicacies of the Impressionists' divided brush stroke were still considered revolutionary! The uniform color surfaces, the lines that ring the figures are deliberately crude and simplified, at the opposite pole from Impressionism. Yet Gauguin has observed with care: the costumes are accurate, the light is the cold light of Brittany, the field contains harmonies of green, rust, and yellow. And we know besides that the figure on the cross is closely derived from a Crucifixion in the church of Tremalo not far from Pont-Aven. But the artist has gone beyond naturalistic observation to emotional expression. "The Impressionists," he wrote later in his Intimate Journals, "study color exclusively, but without freedom, always shackled by the need of probability. For them the ideal landscape, created from many entities does not exist. . . . They heed only the eye, and neglect the mysterious centers of thought, so falling into merely scientific reasoning." It is this ideal expression that is Gauguin's goal. Sophisticated painter, traveler, and man from the capital though he may be, and no peasant (indeed because he is all these) he wants his canvas to convey, because it contains, the "great rustic and superstitious simplicity" he found among the Breton people. And so he has simplified the construction of his picture, flattened its space, coarsened its outlines, and heightened its colors, to make it no longer merely an objective record set down by an external observer, but the direct, visual symbol of a naive and trusting religious faith. "A child's tears," Gauguin wrote from Brittany at this time, "are also something and yet they haven't much worldly wisdom."

Still Life with Ham

This small and simple painting is one of the most direct of Gauguin's canvases. It is obviously carefully arranged: the placing of the table, with one edge free, the other slightly hidden beyond the frame of the picture, and of the bands of the wallpaper, attest to a thoroughly worked-out composition. Yet the' table, with its platter, scattered onions, and glass of wine, have apparently been come upon casually and seized and set down at a glance.

Most striking is the combination of volume and pattern, the table top, and the objects on it viewed from above, and so seen in depth. But the wall behind is altogether vertical. It brings the eye up short and the strong vertical stripes, close to the eye, contradict the space suggested by the still life in the foreground. But if actual space is denied, immense abstract space is at once implied; for the red beads of the wallpaper, continuing into space above and below, seem to detach themselves from the yellow surface to which (in reality) they belong, and the solid wall is transformed by its own color and by its contrast, into a luminous, intangible space. Thus, without Cubism's devices, Gauguin has made a picture, which like those of that later style, penetrates solidity, and hovers between the real and the unreal.

Still Life with Puppies

"This year," wrote Gauguin about the time this picture was painted, "I have sacrificed everything -- execution and color -- for style, wishing to impose upon myself something else than what I [already] know how to do." This painting is in truth filled with the most brilliant color, but it is color determined by a conception so original, and in many ways so much ahead of its time that one understands how Gauguin could feel that he was forcing himself toward a style he had not previously imagined, subordinating all else in the effort. Perspective has been eliminated, because horizontal and vertical merge, or rather are ignored in the power of the design, and because the size of objects bears no relation to reality. Color also is arbitrary, applied either in large uniform areas (as in the glasses), or in broad, coarse strokes (as in the fruit). Shading and shadow, flattened and broadened, are seen within the context of pattern and design, rather than of mass and modeling. Above all, outline has been thickened and emphasized as an external framework which holds each object together, holds them all so tightly as to make the intervals between immense, as though this were a field, and not a table.

Gauguin's sentences from Arles toward the end of the year are applicable to this picture: "I have no use [for shadows] . . . Look at the Japanese who draw so admirably, and you will see that there is life in the open air and in the sun without shadows. . . . I will have as little as possible to do with what gives the illusion of a thing, and since shadows are the trompe l'oeïl of the sun, I am inclined to suppress them. . . . Put in shadows if you find them useful, or leave them out, it is all the same."

At this period Gauguin was talking much of "abstraction," a term which seems well ahead of his time, and he was stressing the freedom from nature, the "arbitrary choice" always allowed the artist. In the basic concept of this canvas, besides its humor, its brilliant spacing and spotting of small objects in a large area that seems to anticipate Matisse, it is not exaggerated to mention the "respect of the picture plane" -- that phrase dear to Cubist and post-Cubist theorists. Here Gauguin has anticipated this concept too.


This picture makes it abundantly clear why at this period Gauguin still considered himself an Impressionist. It is painted in divided brush strokes, and barely makes use of outline for certain striking forms such as the pigs in the foreground and the houses behind. Space is depicted, but the receding and overlapping planes fuse into one another without that clearcut sense of interval so characteristic of Cézanne. Indeed the whole left-hand side of the picture might at first glance be by an Impressionist, especially the foreground field. Only the colors -- the juxtaposed purples and pinks and mauves -- so typical of Gauguin, seem to suggest the style of the future. And yet a second look reveals the continuous curved areas of the later Gauguin; their outlines are still ragged and, so to speak, unkempt; but they are there in the passage above the cow on the left, for example, or the fields to the right of the swineherd, indicating that Gauguin's sense of organization will demand a tighter principle of composition than the suffused light-and-color of Monet and Renoir.

Then too this is a genre picture, painted with sympathy (and perhaps envy?) for the monotonous simplicity of a peasant life apparently without problems. " I love Brittany," wrote Gauguin to his friend Schuffenecker. "I find wildness and primitiveness there. When my wooden shoes ring on this granite, I hear the muffled, dull, powerful tone I seek in my painting."

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel

In the summer of 1888, young Emile Bernard, his head full of theories that would overturn Impressionism, arrived in Pont-Aven where Gauguin had been working. Out of their meeting was born "synthetism," of which this canvas, painted at that time, was the first complete result.
It is a bold picture, a religious painting conceived and executed with the faith of a convert to a new artistic credo, but the two faiths were not unrelated in Gauguin's mind: "A word of advice," he wrote to Schuffenecker, "don't copy nature too much. Art is an abstraction; derive this abstraction from nature while dreaming before it, and think more of the creation which will result [than of the model]. This is the only way of mounting toward God -- doing as our Divine Master does, create." Thus Gauguin has imagined a peasant vision induced in minds of great and simple faith by a Sunday sermon. In the foreground the peasant women, their backs turned to us, excluding us, as it were, from what they alone can see; in the background the symbolic struggle, two tiny figures on an expanse of unreal red that might be a field or might be the sky. Everything is painted in flat colors separated by clearly drawn contours in a way that is at the opposite pole from Impressionism. There is no color modeling, no blurred edges, no softening of form or hue by an intervening, unifying atmosphere. The unmodulated areas of white, black, blue, and fired startle the eye by their contrast; the middle ground has been deliberately omitted to separate the peasants and their vision. For the first time Gauguin gives his composition a pulsating unity by employing throughout the curving, rhythmic contour that is to recur in so many future paintings.

The picture's sources are many: the bent diagonal of the tree trunk and the downward perspective, as well as the outlines suggest the Japanese woodcut generally, while the wrestlers are from a particular print by Hokusaï; the outlines and the flat, bold colors are akin to medieval stained glass and the woodblock of the images d' Epinal, both devoted to religious subjects; Impressionism is still evident in the way the frame cuts off the figures. All these sources have been put at the service of a new conception.

I believe," wrote Gauguin to Van Gogh, I have attained in these figures a great rustic and superstitious simplicity. It is all very severe."

Seascape in Brittany

In June 1886, Gauguin exhibited in the last group exhibition of the Impressionists. At the end of the month, after arranging for his son Clovis to stay at a boarding school in the south Paris suburb of Antony, he left on his first trip to Pont-Aven in Brittany, where he stayed until the middle of November. This picture was painted on the coast near the mouth of the Aven River.

Monet did not take part in this last of the Impressionist exhibitions, among other reasons because he did not like either Gauguin or his art. But it is clear how much Gauguin's painting owes to the older master in subject, in surface, in approach. During 1886 Monet worked both at Etretat on the Norman coast, rendering the effects of the sun on the white chalk cliffs, and at Belle-Isle, off Brittany, where the rocks are darker. Gauguin's painting has more contrast within it than Monet's atmospheric studies, it is somber instead of bright; by including a figure and animals he increases the scale of the scene and gives it a touch of genre. Characteristically, his conception has lost something of the Impressionist esthetic detachment and gained something wild and elemental. The technique, however, is the technique of the divided brush stroke, and there is no doubt that this is a picture painted directly from the motif. Over all there is the play of light on the surface of objects. Only the silhouette of the peasant woman suggests the flattened outlines of a future style.

Parahi Te Maras

"My artistic center is in my head," wrote Gauguin to his wife, from Tahiti, in the year this picture was painted. And years later he was still insisting: I am not a painter who works from nature. With me, everything happens in my wild imagination." No picture bears him out more than this strange composition, put together out of Maori legends (or his interpretation of them), his notion of primitive religion and the cult of the dead, decorative motifs from the East, and a synthesis of the luxuriant nature that surrounded him. How does this silhouetted fence, with its mixture of primitive skulls and refined decorative forms from Asia, appear in a wilderness dominated by a distant idol? These motifs have never been seen together. But here they belong together, because together they create the sacred enclosure, an Olympus bathed in light and somewhere above the world of men. The baleful fence tells us we are shut out from it, and mortal, but the bright flowers remind us that this is still a world of life and lovely color. The painter has mixed flat surface and rounded forms, pure tones and chiaroscuro, outline and modeling. He has created a picture superficially inconsistent in both observation and technique, held together by the power of the imagined concept, expressing its philosophy through its abstraction.