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

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