Paul Sérusier.

The paintings by today’s artist are highly colourful and whose early works showcased the people and landscapes of Brittany.  His works have a strong resemblance to paintings by Paul Gaugin and as you read further on you will see the reason for this similarity.  My artist today is the French Post-Impressionist painter Paul Sérusier.

Paul Sérusier, or to give him his full name, Louis-Paul-Henri Sérusier, was born on November 9th, 1864, in Paris.  He was born into a prosperous middle-class family.  His father, of Flemish descent, was a successful businessman in the perfume industry, and was able to afford to give his son a good education. In 1875, aged ten, Paul entered the Lycée Fontane, later known as Lycée Condorcet, one of the four oldest high schools in Paris and also one of the most prestigious.  It was here that Sérusier studied classical philosophy, Greek and Latin, and the sciences. Also attending this school were fellow students and future artists Maurice Denis, Édouard Vuillard, and Ker-Xavier Roussel.  Sérusier graduated from the Lycée in 1883 with two baccalaureates, one in philosophy and one in the sciences.  Paul’s father wanted his son to have a career in business and arranged for him to join the company of his friend as a salesman but after a short period Paul realised that life in business was not for him as he had set his heart on becoming an artist and in 1885 he enrolled at the Académie Julian where once again he was with his friend Maurice Denis and a life-long friendship between the two began.

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The Weaver by Paul Sérusier (1888)

Before we look at Sérusier’s post 1888 paintings I wanted to show you one of his Realist paintings which he completed in early 1888 before he made the trip to Pont Aven.  It is so different in comparison of what was to come.  It was entitled The Breton Weaver.

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Pont-Aven: towards the Bois d’Amour

Pont-Aven, a commune in the Finistère department of Brittany in northwestern France became one of the most popular and influential art colonies, visited by hundreds or even thousands of artists, well into the twentieth century. In 1888, Sérusier arrived at Pont-Aven and his attention was soon attracted by a group of artists who crowded around Emile Bernand and Paul Gauguin. Sérusier was finally introduced to them and even received a lesson from Gauguin. Gauguin encouraged the young artist to free himself from the limitations of imitative painting, and instead use pure colours.  He was also advised to overstress his impressions, and by doing this, give to the painting his own, decorative rational and symbolic structure.

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Bois d’Amour in Pont-Aven by Paul Sérusier.  Later known as The Talisman.

That summer, Paul Sérusier listened to and took part in conversations with Bernard and his friend Paul Gauguin discussing their ideas concerning moving on from Impressionism and its fixation with studies of light and nature and rather simplify, interpret, and arrange nature.  At the beginning of October 1888, with artistic advice from Gauguin, Sérusier painted Bois d’Amour in Pont-Aven.  It is a pioneering work in its use of flat surfaces in random colours.  So, what made Sérusier choose this location?  The French writer Denise Lelouche described the location writing:

“…The Bois d’Amour, where all the painters from the Pont-Aven community liked to come, seduced by the stillness of the place, the beauty of these venerable trees, the richness of the reflexions constantly disturbed by the flow of the river colliding with the granitic rocks, and the clouds sweeping and shading the light according to the wind…”

The Bois d’Amour, or “Wood of Love” is located on the heights of Pont-Aven and used to be a hotspot of inspiration for the artists staying in Pont-Aven.  The story behind this painting starts in October 1888 when twenty-four-year-old Paul Sérusier, travelled to the artist’s colony at Pont-Aven in Brittany, with a letter of introduction to Paul Gauguin. With his letter to Gauguin from Émile Bernard, his idea was to make studies of nature in the picturesque countryside around Pont-Aven.  Sérusier later described his experience to Maurice Denis, recounting how he and Gauguin had walked to the Bois d’Amour, a picturesque landscape of forest and rocks along the river Aven, not far from the village. Gaugin encouraged Sérusier to forgo modelling, perspective, and all such attempts at three-dimensional effects and to use a simplified colour palette It was here that Gaugin asked Sérusier how he saw these trees? Sérusier replied that they were yellow. Gaugin then continued that Sérusier should put some yellow. This shadow, it’s rather blue, paint it with pure ultramarine. Those red leaves? Put vermillion.  On the back of the Bois d’Amour canvas, Sérusier wrote

“…Made in October 1888 under the direction of Gauguin by P. Sérusier at Pont-Aven…”

Breton Women, the Meeting in the Sacred Grove, c.1892 - Paul Serusier

Breton Women, the Meeting in the Sacred Groveby Paul Sérusier (c.1892)

Sérusier returned to Paris with the painting and showed it to his fellow students at the Académie Julian. Many derided the work for its garish blocks of colour but several, particularly Maurice Denis, Pierre Bonnard, and Paul Ranson, Henri-Gabriel Ibels and Renée Piot, were highly enthusiastic about this new way of depicting a landscape.   Sérusier proposed to them the creation of the artistic fellowship of the Nabis, a term which in Hebrew means “prophet”.  He was to play an important role, both as an artist and as a theoretician.  The painting was placed in the studio of the oldest of the painters, Paul-Élie Ranson, age twenty-four, at 25, boulevard du Montparnasse. It was Ranson who gave the painting the name The Talisman.  When it was first exhibited in 1903, Maurice Denis wrote:

“…Thus we were presented, for the first time, in a form that was paradoxical and unforgettable, the fertile concept of a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order…”

The reputation of Paul Sérusier and his painting, The Talisman, was kept alive by the efforts of Maurice Denis, who was the chief theorist and historian of the Nabis, He became the guardian of the painting in about 1903 and wrote continually about the importance of the artist and the work. After the death of Denis in 1943, the painting became part of the collection of the French government, and eventually of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Ironically, The Talisman was not a completed work as Sérusier intended it to be a simple sketch which would later be used for a future work.

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Landscape at Le Pouldu by Paul Sérusier (1890)

This group of young Académie students known as Les Nabis held Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne in high esteem and set their minds to renew the art of painting, but each varied greatly in their individual styles. Their common belief was that a work of art was not a depiction of nature, but a synthesis of metaphors and symbols created by the artist.  The Nabis felt that as artists they were creators of a subjective art that was deeply rooted in the soul of the artist.  Les Nabis held their final exhibition in 1900 and then went their separate ways.

Undergrowth at Huelgoat, 1905 - Paul Serusier

Undergrowth at Huelgoat by Paul Sérusier (1905)

Sérusier returned to Paris in the Autumn of 1889.  The following year he gave up his studies at the Académie Julian saying he no longer believed in the academy teachings.  In the summers of 1889 and 1890, Sérusier returned to Brittany to work with Gauguin in the coastal Breton village of Le Pouldu. There, he was deeply moved by the simple and pious life of the Breton people.   After Gauguin  left for Tahiti in April 1891, Sérusier remained for the summer in Brittany as he found plenty of atmosphere there and did not feel any need to go elsewhere.  The works he painted during this period are brightly coloured; in Gauguin’s style, but were said to be less forceful and more ‘anecdotal’.

Shepherd in the Valley of Chateauneuf - Paul Serusier

Shepherd in the Valley of Chateauneuf by Paul Sérusier (1917)

In 1891 Sérusier established his atelier in the towns of Huelgoat and two years later in Châteauneuf-du-Faou, where he continued to paint Breton women, usually immersed in their everyday chores, allowing himself to be guided by the example of his master and by his interest in Japanese prints. His trips to Paris were reduced to short breaks during the winters, in order to exhibit with his fellow Nabi artists.

Sérusier enjoyed his time in Paris as in the French capital he had the company of his Polish mistress, Gabriela Zapolska, but when she suddenly left him in 1895, he decided to isolate himself in the Britanny commune of Châteauneuf-du-Faou.  Sérusier became depressed with his life during 1897 and in 1898 went through a period of intellectual doubt only resolved in 1902.

 

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Washerwomen by Paul Sérusier (1886/1897)

Although the date given for the completion of Sérusier’s Washerwomen painting is around 1897, it is thought that work started on this depiction around 1886 when he was attending the Académie Julian.

Portrait of Paul Ranson in Nabi Costume by Paul Sérusier (1890)

One of Sérusier’s fellow member of Les Nabis was the French painter Paul Ranson and in 1890 Sérusier completed a portrait of his friend. In the depiction Ranson, who was famed for his religious works, is portrayed in the role of a bishop seen clutching an ornate crosier in his left hand whilst studying the text of an illuminated book.

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Breton Wrestling by Paul Sérusier (1891)

One of the popular sports during the days Sérusier was living in Brittany was Breton Wrestling, where it is known as gouren. Gouren is a style of folk wrestling which has been established in Brittany for several centuries. 

A pencil portrait of Desiderius Lenz in 1860 by Gabriel Wüger 

In 1898, mainly thanks to his friend, the Dutch Post-Impressionist and Christian Symbolist painter, Jan Verkade, who was close to the Nabi group he found a kind of solace. Sérusier visited Verkade at the monastery of Beuron in Southwest Germany, where Verkade had been living since his conversion to Catholicism and entering the Benedictine Order. Whilst living at the monastery, Sérusier was taught by the artist and Benedictine monk Desiderius Lenz, who together with Gabriel Wüger founded the Beuron Art School.

Still Life with Churn, 1925 - Paul Serusier
Still Life with Churn by Paul Sérusier (1925)

From then on, Sérusier developed a complex theory on the use of colour consisting in the separation of warm and cold colours, in order to avoid chromatic dissonance. At the same time, Gauguin’s influence began to give way to a more hieratic and allegorical painting, inspired by medieval tapestries. He spent a great deal of time studying Egyptian art, the Italian primitivists, and the tapestries of the Middle Ages so that he could create decorative works of a mysterious and calculated timelessness

tableau-mme-sérusier

In 1908, Sérusier began to teach painting at the Académie Ranson in Paris and one of his first students was the artist daughter of an army officer, Marguerite Gabriel-Claude.  She was born in Lons-le-Saunier on March 12, 1879.  She attended the maison d’éducation of the Légion d’honneur and later was a student at the Beaux-Arts in Paris. She then enrolled at the Académie Ranson where she met and became friends with Sérusier.

View full screen - View 1 of Lot 41. PAUL SÉRUSIER | MARGUERITE SÉRUSIER READING NEAR THE RIVER.
MARGUERITE SÉRUSIER READING NEAR THE RIVER by Paul Sérusier

Friendship soon turned to love and on February 22nd, 1912, Abbé Ackermann, who had been Paul Sérusier’s former philosophy teacher at the Lycée Condorcet, blessed the marriage of the two artists at the Paris Church of Saint-Sulpice. The couple went to live in Sérusier new house at 27 Duchenn Glaz. That same year Sérusier completed a painting of his wife entitled Madame Sérusier à l’ombrelle.

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Marguerite Sérusier , Landscape with Valleys, c.1910, painted screen, Paris, Musée d’Orsay.

Marguerite Sérusier loved the art of tapestry, and it was she who encouraged her husband to persevere in wall art. Thus, around 1913, the plasters of the vestibule, the corridor and the staircase of their residence were decorated with astonishing achievements on religious, pagan or esoteric themes. It was also Marguerite who encouraged her husband to resume his project of decorating the walls of the baptistery of the parish church of Saint-Julien in Châteauneuf-du-Faou, which was carried out from 1914 to 1917.

His experience as a teacher led him years later to publish his 1921 guidebook ABC de la peinture.

Whilst visiting his wife in hospital in Morlaix, Paul Sérusier died of a heart attack on October 6th, 1927, a month before his sixty-third birthday. His wife Marguerite died in September 1950 and is buried in Morlaix with her husband.

Manao tupapau -The Spirit of the Dead Watching by Gaugin

Manao tupapau -The Spirit of the Dead Keep Watch by Gaugin (1892)

Paul Gaugin – Part 3 (Conclusion)

 Today I am concluding my look at the life of Paul Gaugin.  My earlier blogs on February 23rd and February 25th looked at the early and middle part  of Gaugin’s life and should probably be read before you begin today’s offering.

We had reached 1887 and left Gaugin desperately wanting to leave France and head for Panama where he believed he would be able to lead a worry-free lifestyle.  He and his artist friend Charles Laval set sail in April of that year and before reaching Colon in Panama the ship weighed anchor off the island of Martinique.  They eventually arrived at Colon and Gaugin was disappointed not only with the area but also that his plea to his brother-in-law for financial assistance was turned down.  Gaugin and Laval now had insufficient money to return to their newly chosen destination, Martinique.  It was then imperative that they found the funds from another source to pay for their proposed sea passage and so they worked on the construction of the Panama Canal.  The French had made the first attempt to construct a sea-level canal in 1880 under the leadership of Ferdinand de Lesseps who had been involved in the construction of the Suez Canal some twenty five years earlier.  Gaugin and Laval finally accrued enough money for their trip to Martinique in June.   The Gods however didn’t look favourably on the two intrepid artists for whilst on the island of Martinique both Gaugin and Laval were extremely ill suffering from bouts of malaria and dysentery.  The pair returned to Paris in November 1887.  Despite his illness during his sojourn on Martinique, Gaugin believed his short time on the island was a defining moment in his life.  He wrote enthusiastically about it in a letter to his wife, Mette, in February 1888:

“…you must remember that I have a dual nature, the Indian and the sensitive civilised man.  The latter has disappeared [since my departure], which permits the former to take the lead…. the sensitive man has disappeared, which permits the Indian to forge resolutely ahead…”

Although he did not complete many paintings whilst at Martinique due to illness, what he brought back to Paris was remarkable and well received.  Gaugin lodged once again with the Schuffenecker family in Paris and struck up a friendship with Theo van Gogh, who worked as an art dealer for his family business at the Goupil Gallery.  Theo took on Gaugin on the strength of these Martinique works of art.  Theo’s brother Vincent van Gogh invited Gaugin to join him in Arles so that together they could set up and artistic colony and art institution which Vincent termed “A Studio in the South”.  Gaugin was disinclined to join Van Gogh on this project but Theo paid him to go to Arles to keep an eye on his brother.  In October 1888 Gaugin travelled south to Arles and stayed with Vincent van Gogh in the Yellow House.  The two artists were incompatible and within two months, and after many violent arguments, Gaugin left Vincent and returned to the Schuffenecker household in Paris.  Of his disagreements with van Gogh, Gaugin wrote in a letter that December to a fellow artist, Émile Bernard:

“….Vincent and I don’t agree on much, and especially not on painting….. He is romantic, whereas I, I am more inclined to a primitive state…”

 Van Gogh and Gaugin had a different philosophy to their art.  Van Gogh liked to have the subject he was painting in front of him whilst Gaugin preferred to paint from visions in his mind.  Once again we see Gaugin talking about his alter ego, that of him being the primitive man.

By 1889 the curse of wanderlust struck Gaugin again and this was heightened by his visit to the Exposition Universelle, the World Fair held in Paris that year.  Within the exhibition there were many stands highlighting the beauty and opportunities of the overseas French colonies.  Gaugin believed he could set off for one of these far-flung territories along with some of his artistic friends and set up a Studio of the Tropics.  Initially Gaugin favoured going to the French colony of Tonkin, which is now part of Vietnam or maybe go to Madagascar but finally he decided on Tahiti. Another reason for Gaugin to leave France could well have been that his preferred art dealer, Theo van Gogh,  who had managed to sell many of his works, suffered a mental breakdown and  died suddenly in January 1891 and with him went Gaugin’s main source of income.

In March 1891 Gaugin finally had agreement with the French government to sponsor his trip to Tahiti and in return for a reduced cost of the sea passage, he would record the customs, landscape and people in his paintings of the French colony.  Before he set sail he went to Copenhagen to see his wife and children and unbeknown to him at the time, it would be the last time he sees them.  Gaugin set off from Marseille on April 1st and arrived in the Tahitian port of Papeete on June 9th.   The Tahiti that Gaugin finds was not the Tahiti he had envisaged.  This was not the land of plenty which the Exposition Universal had described.  Tahiti was a down-at-heel French colony and Gaugin believed the native Tahitians had been ruined by missionary zeal.  What he had expected to see just did not exist.

His first works after he settled in Papeete were portraits of Tahitian women demurely dressed in their “Sunday-best” clothes but the demand from France was paintings of the pure full-blooded naked primitive native women.  They neither wanted to see depictions of the missionary-converted women, nor did they want to see the mixed race women, the product of their parents’ relationship with passing sailors.  Gaugin decided that if he was to find the true spirit of Tahiti he must move out of the colonial capital of Papeete and so along with his young mistress he went to Mataiea and away from the colonial influence of the capital.  He now felt much happier and in a letter to George-Daniel de Montfeid, the French artist, art collector and biographer of Gaugin, he wrote:

“…I am now living the life of a savage, walking around naked except for the essentials that women don’t like to see (or so they say)…”

Gaugin remained in Tahiti but his lack of money and hand-to-mouth existence was affecting his health and he became depressed and hankered to return to France but the Governor of the Island refused to let him leave.  In the spring of 1893, he sent a number of his Tahitian paintings to de Montfreid to be exhibited and sold.  In the autumn of 1893 he finally managed to leave the island and returned to Paris where he fully expected to be acclaimed a hero for all the Tahitian works of art he had sent home.  His works were exhibited at the Durand-Ruel Gallery in Paris and although they were well received by critics, sales were disappointing.

In the spring of 1894 he revisits Pont Aven with his very young Javanese mistress.  Gaugin had returned to this artist colony, not as a respectable gentleman artist but as the uncouth primitive savage, a persona which he had developed during his Tahitian stay.  His constant fornication with very young and under-age girls earned him a certain notoriety and his heavy drinking bouts often lead to fights with the locals and on one occasion his ankle was shattered causing him to be laid up for more than half a year.  In early 1895 he received his come-uppance for his unrestrained debauchery over the years when he was diagnosed as having contracted syphilis.  He is completely disillusioned with France and he sold as many of his paintings as he could and left the shores of France for the last time and headed back to Tahiti.

Life back in Tahiti was not kind to the ageing artist.  To his great disgust, the country had become more modern.  His health was slowly but steadily deteriorating due to the onset of the symptoms of syphilis.  His financial situation worsened and in 1897 he suffered a series of heart attacks. He also received the sad news from his wife Mette that his daughter Aline had died of pneumonia in Copenhagen, at the age of 20.   In the early months of 1898, in a moment of complete despair, he went into the mountains and attempted to kill himself with arsenic.  It does not kill him but badly damaged his internal organs and he had to be often hospitalised to stabilise his condition.  More bad news from home was to follow as his third and favourite child, Clovis, died in 1900 aged just 21.

In 1902 he moves from Tahiti to Atuona on Hiva-Oa in the remote Marquesas Islands where he died the following year of syphilitic heart failure, just a few weeks short of his fifty-fifth birthday.

My Daily Art Display featured oil on burlap painting today was completed by Gaugin in 1892 during his first stay in Tahiti and is entitled Manao tupapau -The Spirit of the Dead Watching and is housed at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York.  Manao tupapau is the spirit of the dead.  The painting is a mass of colour, the yellow blanket, the black and gold valance and the phosphorescent greenish sparks on the violet background, which exaggerate the creepy atmosphere.     This is a highly atmospheric and sensuous scene, full of mystery and foreboding.  Fear emanates from the painting.  Gaugin explained his thought process when he painted this picture:

“…I have made a nude of a young girl… who is a Maori. These people traditionally fear the spirits of the dead… I must explain this fear with as few of the time-honoured literary devices as possible… there are a few flowers in the background but… as they only exist in the girl’s imagination… I make them like sparks… finally I have made the ghost just a plain little woman, for this girl… can only picture the spirits of the dead as looking like the person who has died…”

Gauguin in choosing the face-down pose of the young naked girl knew it could be highly problematic when it was seen by the French public and of course it was these very people who would be the potential buyers of his art.    He must have been fully aware that his depiction of the young girl would strongly hint at lovemaking, which had just occurred or was about to happen.  It is interesting to note that very few paintings up until then depicted the naked body of a woman lying down.  The one well-known exception was probably the Reclining Girl by François Boucher (My Daily Art Display, May 30th 2011).   Not to be detracted from his desire for that pose Gaugin probably then decided to incorporate the “spirit of the dead” theme with the fear that came with it, so as to add some gravitas to the work.

We need to understand the thought process of the Tahitians when it came to life and death.  The Tahitians divide their day into two halves: daylight, or ao, and darkness, or po.  With po they associate the tupapaus, and therefore they fear the night.   The tupapaus are the Tahitian personifications of the spirits of death.  For the Tahitians they are a genuine and permanent threat to them and they associate them with the darkness of night.   The Tahitians are so afraid of them that they never go out of their homes at night without a light, and even with a light they never venture out alone. They always keep their homes lit at night, so as to ward off the tupapaus.

Before us we see a young dark-skinned Tahitian female as she lies naked, face down on her stomach on top of a bed with a stray tendril of her jet-black hair lying across the pillow.  She is probably in her early teens, Gaugin’s age of choice for his mistresses.  She exudes an abundance of sexuality. Her body retains some of the “puppy fat” of a young female.  There is firmness to her limbs and buttocks and a definite seductiveness about her pose, which of course was all in the mind of the artist.    Her body is stiff as if she dare not move an inch for fear of the repercussion of so doing, although one can imagine that inwardly she is shuddering with fear.  She is terrified by the presence of the hooded spirit of death with its averted phosphorescent-coloured eye, which we see sitting crouched at the foot of the bed.  For the young girl, death was not a strange occurrence as  European ships and the sailors  brought to the island diseases such as smallpox, dysentery, scarlet fever and tuberculosis for which Tahitians had little or no immunity.  Add to this the weapons the sailors brought with them to the island to ttrade for food and which provided the natives with a much more effective killing machine during local rival confrontations.  She has witnessed death through disease and local confrontations many times over and by his depiction of this scene and despite its exotic colouring, Gaugin is, in a way,  commenting on the fragility of Tahitian life.

It is as if the spirit is keeping a vigil at the foot of the bed.  Maybe the girl believes the spirit has come to take her to the “next world”.  Native Polynesians believed that the phosphorescence of the light was the spirits of the dead.  The hag-like spirit with bulbous lips is seen in profile and the face and eye reminds me of Ancient Egyptian drawings of women.  The hand of the evil spirit lies menacingly on the bed.  In this case the spirit is the embodiment of an old woman dressed in a black shawl but for the frightened girl she is probably the embodiment of a dead relative who may have come for her.   In his 1901 book entitled Noa Noa: The Tahiti Journal of Paul Gauguin, Gaugin recalled the incident.  He had just returned home unexpectedly late one night.  The room was in darkness.  He struck a match and saw his wife, Tehura……

“…immobile, naked, lying face downward on the bed with the eyes inordinately large with fear . . . Might she not with her frightened face take me for one of the demons and spectres of the Tupapaus, with which the legends of her race people sleepless nights?…”

It is a remarkable painting and for me the story behind it adds to its appeal.

That ends my look at Gaugin and his life and I wonder what you think of him as a man and as an artist.  The two are quite different.  Such differences between the personality of a person and the quality of what he or she  produces have always existed and still do nowadays.  So should we just take in and enjoy what Gaugin has produced and put to the back of our minds his way of life and his proclivity for sex with under-age girls or is that just too difficult?  By compartmentalising Gaugin’s lifestyle and Gaugin’s art work, are we simply justifying the unjustifiable?

The Swineherd, Brittany, The Schuffenecker Family. Madame Gaugin by Paul Gaugin.

Life Story of Paul Gaugin (Part 2)

In my last blog I gave you a brief outline of Gaugin’s life up until April 1871 when Gauguin, having completed his military service, returned to his late mother’s home in St Cloud, only to find it had been destroyed during the year-long (July 1870 – May 1871) Franco-Prussian War.  He then moved back to Paris and takes an apartment close to where his former guardian Gustave Arosa lives with his family.  In 1872, through Arosa’s business connections with the owner of a stockbroker firm, Paul Bertin, Gaugin becomes a bookkeeper for the company.

The Schuffenecker Family by Paul Gaugin (1889)

It is whilst working here that Gauguin meets the part-time artist and his co-worker, Émile Schuffenecker, who joined the firm a few months earlier.  The friendship grew and they used to spend time in the Louvre studying the paintings of the Old Masters.  In December that year Gustave Arosa introduces Gauguin to a Danish woman Mette-Sophie Gad.  Mette was a judge’s daughter and formerly a governess to the children of a Danish Minister of State and she was in Paris with a friend to improve her cultural education.  Gaugin and Mette married in Paris in November 1873 and they became great friends with Emile Schuffenecker and his wife, Louise.  The Schuffeneckers who married seven years later in 1880 had two children, a daughter Jeanne born in 1882 and a son, named Paul after Gaugin, was born in 1884.   Gaugin and Mette’s first child, Emile (named after their friend Schuffenecker), was born in September 1874.  The couple at this time were experiencing a good standard of living derived from Gaugin’s earnings at the financial brokerage.

Mette Gad (Madame Gaugin) in an Evening Dress by Gaugin (1884)

Gauguin love of art blossomed, thanks mainly to two people.  Firstly from his former guardian Gustave Arosa who had, along with his brother, managed to build up an impressive collection of paintings from the likes of Gustave Courbet, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Eugène Delacroix and Jean-François Millet and it was Arosa who introduced Gaugin to Camille Pissarro who would occasionally tutor him.    The other person who encouraged Gaugin to paint was his friend and work colleague Émile Schuffenecker and the two of them would often go off on Sundays on painting trips.  The pair also spent the occasional evening at the life classes at the art school, Académie Colorossi.  To give one an idea of how quickly Gaugin learnt the art of painting, it should be noted that in 1876, within four years of starting to paint, Gaugin had a landscape Under the Tree Canopy at Viroflay accepted at that year’s Salon.  There was also a family connection with art as Mette’s sister Ingeborg had married the Norweigan painter Fritz Thaulow and when he and Gaugin got together they would discuss painting and Thaulow would offer critical advice to Gaugin about his works of art.

At the start of 1877, Gauguin decided to leave Paul Bertin’s stockbrokerage firm and move to André Bourdon’s bank. The job at the bank was better for Gaugin as it had regular business hours which meant that he could set aside regular periods for his painting.   Financially life was still good.  He received a regular salary from the bank and he had been very successful with his speculations on the Paris stock market.  Gaugin and his wife moved house and went to live to Vaugirard, a suburb in the south west of Paris, where they rented rooms in a property owned by the sculptor, Jules Bouillot and one of their neighbours was Jean-Paul Aubé.

In 1877 Gaugin’s daughter Aline was born and the following year there is an upturn in Gaugin’s financial situation as share prices rise and bank bonuses roll in.  Gaugin spends this money on buying contemporary art by the likes of Camille Pissarro and some of the other Impressionist painters.  In 1879 Gaugin is invited by Pissarro and Degas to exhibit some of his work at the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition.  That same year, Gaugin’s second son, Clovis, is born.  Life is good for Gaugin and his wife. They wanted for nothing. They are happily married; he is earning good money at the bank and is exhibiting more of his paintings at the Impressionist Exhibitions.  In April 1881 his third son Jean-René is born.

However, as in life, all good things come to an end.  For Gaugin the end came in January 1882, for it was then that the Paris Bourse (French stockmarket) crashed.  It caused the worst crisis in the French economy in the nineteenth century. The crash was triggered by the collapse of l’Union Générale Bank that month.  Around a quarter of the brokerage firms on the Bourse were on the brink of collapse and Gaugin lost most of his money he had riding on the stock market.   Now it was decision time for Gaugin; should he get out of the once lucrative world of finance altogether and concentrate on his art but by taking this course of action he risked the wrath of his wife?   That was his dilemma and despite having an ever expanding family to support (his fifth child Paul, often known as Pola was born in December 1883), he decided to turn his back on finance and commerce and become a full-time artist.    In January 1884 on the advice of Pissarro, Gaugin, now with little of his savings left and very little income coming in from the sale of his paintings,  moved his family from Paris to Rouen where the cost of living was less than in the capital.  Sales of his work were slow and he has to sell off some of his much loved art collection.  This life of poverty did not go down well with his wife Mette and the couple were constantly arguing and their marriage started to unravel.

In the summer of 1884 Mette had had enough of their impoverished lifestyle and along with the children sailed off to Copenhagen to be with her parents    She does return to Gaugin in Rouen and tells him that she has secured a position teaching French to Danish children but told him there was a great opportunity for him to sell his art work in Copenhagen as the Danes are showing an interest in Impressionism art.   In November 1884, Gaugin reluctantly joined his family and his in-laws, the Gad family, in Copenhagen and works for a while as a tarpaulin salesman for Dillies & Cie. on a commission-only basis.  Whereas his wife is very happy to be back home, he is extremely unhappy.  He could not speak the language, hated the job which he found demeaning and which got in the way of his one true love – his art.  However he persisted with his painting and in January 1885 wrote a somewhat upbeat letter to Shuffenecker in which he said:

“.. Here [in Copenhagen], I am more than ever tormented by art and although I have to worry about money and look for business, nothing can deter me…”

To make things worse the exhibition of his art work at the Academy of Art in Copenhagen proved to be a failure and is shut down after just five days.  Although he managed to paint a little he could not keep down a job and bring in money for his family and his attitude did not please his in-laws.  To Gaugin, his wife and her parents were holding him back and so in June 1885, he decided that enough was enough and returns to Paris with his favourite child, his second son Clovis.   Art historians have often discussed Gaugin’s split from his wife and many would have you believe it was not so much that he abandoned his wife but more the case that she threw him out.  Whatever the situation was Gaugin when he arrives back in Paris arranges to have six year old Clovis live with his sister Marie who is now married to a Chilean businessman Juan Uribe.   Between the years of 1883 and 1886, due to the many upheavals in his life, Gaugin paints very little.  In the summer of 1886, thanks to some financial assistance from his sister, his son Clovis attends a boarding school, leaving Gaugin free to travel to Pont-Aven, a picturesque Breton village and a centre for a community of artists.  He is happy here and is soon looked up to by his fellow artists.  In a letter to his wife in July 1886, Gaugin wrote:

“… I am respected as the best painter in Pont-Aven, although that does not put any more money in my pocket…”

Gaugin fell in love with Brittany and the Breton way of life. He lived for five months in the Pension Gloanec boarding house and struck up a friendship with the artists Charles Laval and Émile Bernard before returning to Paris in the autumn of that year.

Gaugin is unhappy with life in Paris and has once again developed a wanderlust,  maybe brought on by his days in the navy, and once again the desire to get out of the capital city and travel kicks in, as he explained in a letter to his wife Mette in January 1887:

“…what I want above all is to leave Paris which is a wasteland for a poor man… I am going to Panama to live the life of a native.  I know a little island called Tabogas a league off panama; it is virtually uninhabited, free and very fertile.  I shall take my paints and brushes and reinvigorate myself far from the company of men…”

I am wondering whether Gaugin occasionally feels pangs of guilt about leaving his wife in Copenhagen as in a letter to her in February 1887, he writes to her and tries to justify his departure and tries to get her to look on the bright side of their separation:

“…You are in your house, comfortably furnished, surrounded by your children, doing a tough job but one that you enjoy, you see people, and as you like the company of women and your compatriots you must be satisfied sometimes. You enjoy the comforts of married life without being bothered by a husband. What more do you want other than more money, like many others…”

I once again break off this life story of Gaugin at a point in his life when he looks forward to leaving France and enjoying a worry-free lifestyle in the Caribbean and Central America.  Was his journey a success and did it bring him the all that he desired.  I will tell you in the next blog.

The Swineherd, Britanny by Gaugin (1888)

One of the paintings Gaugin completed during his stay in Pont Avon was entitled The Swineherd, Britanny which he completed in 1888 and now hangs in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

This colourful work of art is much more realistic than his later works in the way the artists divides the various areas of the canvas.  There is a definite foreground in which we see the swineherd with his pigs.  There is a middle-ground partly separated from the foreground by a long low stone wall.  In the mid-ground there is the small village with its tall spired-church and a collection of houses and cottages with their black-tiled roofs.    There is a definite background in which we see the blue sky over rolling hills with its patchwork-quilt like fields.

The Vision After the Sermon (Jacob wrestling with the Angel) by Paul Gaugin

The Vision after the Sermon (Jacob and the Angel) by Gaugin (1888)

The featured artist in My Daily Art Display blog today is the much loved French post-impressionist painter Paul Gauguin.  This is the first time I have featured a painting by the artist which I am sure is very remiss of me.  I have spent a great deal of time researching Gaugin’s life.  There are numerous books and articles about his life and what I found strange is that they don’t all agree on some of the lesser known facts.  I have tried to bring together the masses of information I have discovered about the great man and I have made an informed guess as to which is the true version of some of the things that happened to him.  My collated version of his life is a little too long to put into one blog so over the next few weeks I will serialise the fascinating tale of his life and on each occasion include one of his major works.  So let me start at the beginning…………………………

Aline Gaugin, mother of Paul Gaugin

Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin was born in Paris in June 1848.  His father, Pierre Guillaume Clovis Gaugin was a radical French journalist working as an editor for the liberal-leaning, anti-Bonapartist National newspaper. His mother was Aline Maria Chazal, who was half French and half Peruvian Creole and who like her husband had strong political convictions. Paul Gaugin was the youngest of the couple’s two children, and their only son.   Gaugin’s maternal grandmother, who lived in Peru, was Flora Tristan.  She was the daughter of a Peruvian nobleman, and came from a very powerful and wealthy Peruvian dynasty.   She was a socialist writer and activist and also one of the founders of modern feminism.

In 1848 Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte came to power which caused a great deal of political unrest.  It ended in a coup d’état and revolution in 1851 and the dissolution of the French Assembly along with the imposition of Napoleon III on his people.  Gaugin’s father held strong political against Napoleon III and he frequently expressed such opinions in newspaper articles.  In August 1849 because of the political turmoil, he and his family fled Paris and headed for Peru with the idea of setting up a newspaper in Lima.   Gaugin’s father, Clovis, suffered a sudden heart attack during the voyage and died, aged 35, leaving Paul, his mother and sister Marie to fend for themselves. They lived for four years in Lima with Paul’s great-uncle and his family. Gaugin’s mother sought protection and help for her family from  the powerful and wealthy Don Pio Tristan Moscoso, the head of their extended family, who had family connections with the president of the country.

Despite the Gaguins sharing the exclusive and wealthy lifestyle of the Moscosos in Lima, when an opportunity arose to return home to France at the end of 1854, Aline seized it.  She was well aware that her presidential cousin was losing political power and that Don Pio’s promises to leave her a comfortable legacy might come to nothing.  Gaugin’s mother Aline decided that her best opportunities of an independent life lay in Europe.   Around this time she had also received word that her late husband’s father, Guilliame Gaugin, a retired merchant and widower, who was close to death, wanted to make his only grandchildren, Paul and Marie, his heirs.  Aline Gaugin realised that her future and that of her family now lay not in Peru but back in France.

In 1855 Aline, Marie and Paul Gaugin returned to Orléans, and went to live with their paternal grandfather.   While living there Paul and Marie attend an Orléans boarding school as day students. Their grandfather Guillaume died within months of their return to France, and it was also around this time that Aline’s great-uncle, Don Pio de Tristan Moscoso, died in Peru.  In 1859, Paul Gauguin enrols in the Petit Séminaire de la Chapelle-Saint-Mesmin, which was one of the top boarding schools located a few miles outside of Orléans, where he completed his education over the next three years.  His mother leaves Orléans and moves to Paris, and her children live with her there while on school breaks.  With the money she has received in her father-in-law’s will and because she was a trained dressmaker, she opens her own dressmaking business on the rue de la Chaussée in Paris in 1861.  Aline Gaugin falls ill in 1865 and retires to the Parisian countryside of St Cloud, a western suburb of Paris.  It is whilst living here that she meets and is befriended by a Parisian financier, Gustave Arosa, a wealthy Jewish businessman of Spanish descent who has his summer residence near to her home.

After his spell at the boarding school in Orléans, Paul Gaugin attends the Loriol private school in Paris where he prepares for the very demanding École Navale’s entrance examination.  It is probably at this juncture in Gaugin’s life that he receives his first artistic training as part of the exam is to be able to draw from plaster casts and live models as well as technical drawing and map making.  He doesn’t succeed in the exams but in December 1865, aged 17, Gaugin is accepted as a pilotin (officer cadet) in the merchant marine and his first positioni is on the vessel Luzitano which plied its trade between Le Havre and South America and Martinique.  He eventually reaches the rank of second lieutenant at the age of eighteen.  His mother Aline dies in July 1867 aged 42 whilst her son is away and in her will she entrusts Paul Gaugin and his sister Marie to the guardianship of Gustave Arosa.  Gaugin’s arrives back in Le Havre in December 1867 and he leaves the ship.  In January 1868, Gauguin joins the French navy to fulfil his military service requirement and in that March becomes a sailor third-class aboard the vessel, Jérôme-Napoléon in Cherbourg.  At the start of the Franco-Prussian War in July 1870, Gaugin serves in the French Naval campaigns in the Mediterranean and North Sea.

In April 1871 Gauguin completes his military service and returns to his late mother’s home in St Cloud, only to find it has been destroyed during the Franco-Prussian War.  He then moves back to Paris and takes an apartment near to where his former guardian Gustave Arosa lives with his family.

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel by Gustave Doré (1855)

I will leave Gaugin’s life story at this point in time, 1871, and look at My Daily Art Display’s featured painting which Gaugin completed in 1888.  It is entitled La Vision après le Sermon (La Lutte de Jacob avec l’Ange) [The Vision After the Sermon (Jacob wrestling with the Angel].  It can now be found in Edinburgh, hanging in the National Gallery of Scotland which purchased the painting in 1925 for a mere £1150.  The depiction of Jacob battling the angel had been depicted in paintings and murals before.  Rembrandt painted the scene in 1659 and Eugène Delacroix painted a mural of the scene in 1861 which can be seen in the Church of St-Sulpice in Paris, which of course has received thousands of visitors since the church was featured in the book The Da Vinci Code.  Works of art concerning the subject were also painted by Gustave Doré in 1855 and Gustave Moreau in 1878.  The latter two could well have been seen by Gaugin.

The painting before us by Gauguin has no identifiable light source and it is dominated by heavily-outlined flat areas of pure and contrasting colours.  The perspective Gaugin uses is sharp and by doing this he forces us to look at the paintings background and Jacob’s tussle with the angel.  The grass instead of being green is red.

The Plum Garden in Kameido by Hiroshige (1857)

A tree lying across the painting, bottom right to top left creates a strong diagonal as it dissects the painting, separating the real world from the imaginary one.  At the time of this painting France was being flooded with all things Japanese and it is thought that the way the tree dissects the painting in Gaugin’s work is something he may have seen in the woodblock print of The Plum Garden in Kameido by the Japanese artist Ando Hiroshige.  To the left of the tree we see a solitary cow and a group of Breton women wearing their traditional headdresses.  Each design of headdress denotes the ladies class, marital status, standing in society as well as which part of the area the woman comes from.   The women have emerged from a church service and on the far right of the painting is the priest who has just delivered the sermon.  On the other side of the tree we have the imaginary world created in the minds of the people after hearing the priest’s sermon about Jacob’s struggle with the Angel.

Here we see Jacob wrestling the angel and it is thought that Gaugin’s portrayal of the pair wrestling could have been based on one of the Japanese artist, Katsushika Hokusai’s prints of sumo wrestlers in his 1888 publication The Manga.  The story of Jacob and the Angel comes from the Book of Genesis, Chapter 32, in which we are told that Jacob is frantically trying to prove to the angel that he has repented for his sins and will not allow the Angel to leave until he has been successful.

This painting is all about what Gaugin believes the women will be thinking on leaving the church after hearing the priest’s sermon.  Gaugin loved the simple faith of the peasants and their spiritualism.  He believed that art should be about the inner meaning of the subjects, and not necessarily about their obvious outward appearance. He explains his thoughts about this painting in a letter he wrote to Vincent van Gogh in September 1888.

“…I have just painted a religious picture, very clumsily; but it interested me and I like it. I wanted to give it to the church of Pont-Aven. Naturally they don’t want it. A group of Breton women are praying, their costumes a very intense black. The bonnets a very luminous yellowy-white….. An apple tree cuts across the canvas, dark purple with its foliage drawn in masses like emerald green clouds with greenish yellow chinks of sunlight. The ground (pure vermilion). In the church it darkens and becomes a browny red. The angel is dressed in violent ultramarine blue and Jacob in bottle green. The angel’s wings pure chrome yellow.  The angel’s hair chrome  and the feet flesh orange…”

Gaugin offered the painting to the local curé of the church in Nizon, Pont Aven but he was horrified by the depicted scene and declined the offering!