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!