[1/3] Paul Gauguin: The Temptation of the Orchid Woman

In 1886, the works of Gauguin were presented at the Eighth Impressionist Art Exhibition. Paul Gauguin was ten years younger than the Impressionists, which in this case is of major importance. Indeed, when Gauguin was still a child, Monet, Renoir and Sisley already used to meet up in Professor Gleyre’s studio and were starting their artistic journey. Nadar, the great photographer who offered them the premises for their first exhibition, was a friend of Gauguin’s tutor, Gustave Arosa.

It is thus hardly surprising that Gauguin, an amateur painter of twenty-six, followed the turns taken by the newly born Impressionist movement with emotion. And it was of course an honor for him when Félix Fénéon counted him as one of them in his reviews of the exhibitions. Indeed, for Gauguin, to belong to Impressionism was, first of all, the proof that he was standing against the whole classical system of the Académie des Beaux-Arts.

Paul Gauguin was born on June 7, 1848, in Paris. His mother, Aline Chazal, was the daughter of the painter and engraver André Chazal and Flora Tristan, a writer of notorious fame and a strong believer in Saint-Simon’s theories. His father, Clovis Gauguin, was a journalist at the National, a moderate Republican newspaper during the 1848 Revolution. At the end of the revolution, in 1849, he left Paris and sailed with his wife and children for Peru where his wife’s family was settled, but he died on the way. Paul Gauguin, his mother and sister were joyfully welcomed by his greatuncle Don Pio Tristan Moscoso in Lima. All his life, Gauguin kept wonderful memories of the six years that he spent in a marvelous climate.

The return to France was hard for Gauguin. He had to learn French for he had only spoken Spanish so far. His memories from childhood attracted him towards faraway exotic lands, but his average results in school did not allow him to enter the École Navale. In 1865, Gauguin embarked on the Lizitano in Le Havre as an ordinary seaman.

During his years of service in the merchant navy, Gauguin travelled all over the world. He only came back to Paris in 1871 at the end of the Franco-Prussian war. His mother died around the same time, leaving her old friend, the photographer and collector Gustave Arosa, in charge of her children. Arosa did everything that he could for his godson.

With some help from his brother who was a banker, he managed to have Paul recruited by the stockbroker Paul Bertin, whom he left at the end of the 1870s to join a bank. His relatively stable financial security allowed Gauguin to marry Mette Gad, a beautiful Danish girl who had been staying in Paris on holiday in 1873.

In 1883, at the age of thirty-five, Gauguin finally decided to resign from his job in order to fully dedicate himself to art. At the time he was gaining a growing authority amongst his art colleagues. He was a recognized and most respected participant in the Impressionist exhibitions. At the fifth Impressionist exhibition in 1880, eight of his works were on display; at the sixth in 1881, six paintings and two sculptures; at the seventh in 1882, eleven paintings, one pastel and a sculpture.

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Garden in Vaugirard (Painter’s Family in the Garden in Rue Carcel), 1881. Oil on canvas, 87 x 11 cm. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

Paul Gauguin was always loitering in the Nouvelle Athènes Café where he spent time with Édouard Manet, Impressionist artists and critics. At the last exhibition in 1886 Gauguin displayed nineteen paintings and a wooden bas relief. However, it was difficult for him to sustain the family without a permanent job. At that time, he and Mette already had five children. Gauguin first took his family to Rouen, then to Copenhagen, Mette’s native city. But the painter found himself in an unbearable situation there; his wife’s family reproached him with being incapable of earning money.

During the summer of 1885, Gauguin came back to Paris and started his new life as an artist. He was not yet forty. As an artist he was incredibly prolific, carrying out numerous paintings and sculptures. Having been introduced to the ceramist Ernest Chaplet by the Impressionist engraver Félix Bracquemond, he passionately took up ceramics.

Towards the end of the summer of 1886, Gauguin indeed discovered Brittany. He spent three months in the charming little town of Pont-Aven. It appears clearly in his Breton works that his style started to change slightly. The touches of color, whilst still split up, started getting rigorously applied in the shape of a round wooden crown. But above all the relationship of the painter with nature’s colors changed. In Brittany Gauguin met Charles Laval who became his ‘partner in crime’ in the colorful life that he lived.

On April 10, 1887, Gauguin embarked on a ship for Panama, accompanied by his friend Laval, of course. But Panama did not come to their idealistic expectations. In order to earn some money, they had to work as navvies during the building of the Panama Canal which only brought them nasty diseases. He finally got back to France as an ordinary seaman on a sailing ship.

In January 1888, he stayed at Mrs Gloanec’s inn. The loneliness of Pont-Aven in winter and the austerity of nature itself in Brittany had a positive influence on his thinking. Gauguin realized that painting was the only way for him.

First of all, time was needed for him to assimilate everything that he had learned and that was awaiting him in the Parisian artistic world. As ever, he continued to have a lot of respect for Impressionism and admired Cézanne. But he had not ceased dreaming of the tropics and he thought that a new stay in Martinique would be fruitful and give off the results that he was waiting for.

“I have done a painting for a church; it got rejected, of course,” he writes from Pont-Aven in October. Vision of the Sermon: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel takes place in a village in Brittany. Coming out of the church after the sermon some Breton women see with their own eyes the struggle of Jacob with the Angel, which the priest has just talked about.

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Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), 1888.
Oil on canvas, 72.2 x 91 cm. National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh.

The new painting by Gauguin was different not just from classical paintings, but also from the style of his contemporaries. In that painting, the field, which is not green but vivid red, is cut in two strictly diagonal parts by a tree trunk. The figures of Jacob and the Angel become entangled in the process of struggling, which creates a flat green zone over the red background. The women’s white bonnets are flat too, and constitute the compositional limit of the foreground.

In the summer, Gloanec’s inn was full of artists belonging to two rival groups: the classic and their opposite, the avant-garde followers who were grouped around Gauguin. He was himself indisputably recognized as the leader of the group which took the name of The École de Pont-Aven. The young Émile Bernard, who was strongly drawn to Symbolism, admired Gauguin. Unarguably Bernard’s works played a major role in Gauguin’s quest for a new type of language.

The still lifes painted in Brittany – Still Life with Three Puppies and The Celebration Gloanec – give testimony of Gauguin’s quest for a decorative composition. No natural lighting, no shade interferes in the composition of the painting, the surface of the table is laid on canvas, and the form and color of objects are carefully balanced.

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Still life with three puppies, 1888. Oil on canvas, 62.6 x 91.8 cm. The Museum of Modern Art

He was still working on nature but kept a right to create, from it, a work based on a new concept, which is what he himself called abstraction. Hence his painting Vision of the Sermon was the best expression of his new way of conceiving color in painting….

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