Art in Europe,  English

[2/3] Paul Gauguin: Goodbye Mette!

In the autumn of 1888, there was a break in Gauguin’s isolation in Brittany. Vincent van Gogh, whom Gauguin had met in Paris in 1886, had been asking him to come to Arles for a long time. Vincent had a dream: to create in the south of France a community of painters that could help them all to overcome the difficulties of life. Theo van Gogh had negotiated a contract with Gauguin according to which the painter had to carry out twelve paintings per year for him whilst Theo would pay him 150 francs of monthly salary. On October 21, 1888, Gauguin finally made the journey to Arles.

For the rational Gauguin, the splendor of Arles did not make the same impact on him as it did on the spontaneous Van Gogh. The absence of shades in the south only reinforced his belief that color was to be laid on canvas with heavy patches of maximum intensity. Gauguin failed in becoming accustomed to Arles and Van Gogh. Nevertheless Gauguin was convinced that he had much to learn from Van Gogh. Gauguin’s portrait of Van Gogh in front of his easel remains as a reminder of their short life together (Van Gogh’s Portrait). Gauguin’s permanent bad temper and Van Gogh’s sensitiveness had a tragic outcome: during a fit of madness Van Gogh cut his ear and was taken to hospital.

On December 26, 1888, Gauguin returned to Paris. He attended the World’s Fair with enthusiasm and he spent a lot of time there. Everything was of interest to him, to begin with the modern building of the various pavilions and the Eiffel Tower. The exhibitors of the pavilions dedicated to colonial culture greatly satisfied his penchant for the exoticism of the East and of faraway islands.

Apart from some short stays in Paris, Gauguin spent most of 1889 and 1890 in Pont-Aven. Still staying at Gloanec’s inn, Gauguin once more shocked the inhabitants of Pont-Aven and the conservative side of the painters that used to meet up there with his Beautiful Angèle.

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The Beautiful Angèle, 1889. Oil on canvas, 92 x 73 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

The portrait of Mrs. Satre, the very beautiful wife of a respected man who was to become the mayor of Pont-Aven, was perceived as truly offensive to the model. Angèle Satre herself felt outraged by it and refused the portrait.

Gauguin was an artist whose work precisely needed Brittany. Traditional crosses made of stone and calvaries, often of complex compositions and numerous characters dating from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century, were found at crossroads. Gauguin used one of them as a motif in one of his paintings: Breton Calvary (The Green Christ), where the sculpture of a group of women with the dead body of Christ is put together over a single green patch contrasting strikingly with the orange rocks in the background.

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The Breton Calvary (The Green Christ), 1889. Oil on canvas, 92 x 73.5 cm.
Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels.

The calvary of the painting stands in the village of Nizon near Pont-Aven. In the same way, as one goes out of the Bois d’amour made famous by the school of Pont-Aven, there is a stone chapel in the Gothic style. There the arms of Guillaume du Plessis are kept along with the date of the building, 1558. Inside there are stone sculptures and a painted wooden crucifix from the seventeenth century. Gauguin painted it several times and represented it in two of his paintings. In The Yellow Christ, this ancient crucifix dominates a Breton landscape with its fields and hills laid as far as to reach the distant horizon. Moreover, the nearly schematic face of Christ reminds one of Gauguin’s own face.

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The Yellow Christ, 1889. Oil on canvas, 92 x 73 cm. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo.

In the The Yellow Christ, that symbolic similarity is manifest. Gauguin has already represented his face much earlier in the past in many drawings and in the portrait for Van Gogh. Here, he reproduces it on the background of two of his own creations: The Yellow Christ and the ceramic Pot Portrait in the Form of a Grotesque Head. The painter thus appears in three different ways, each of them symbolizing one of the aspects of his nature.

Gauguin was pleased with his paintings of the autumn 1889. It seems like he had done everything that he could in Europe; it was time for him to embark for distant lands again. Gauguin was still dreaming of a studio in the Tropics, an idealistic community of painters. He was hoping that Bernard and De Haan would go with him and he dreamt of living there out of “ecstasy, calm and art”.

At the beginning of March he went to Copenhagen for the last time in order to say goodbye to Mette and the children. At the end of the month, he received the reply to his inquiry: the ministry of Education and the Beaux-Arts Academy had accepted to pay for him to go on an official mission in Tahiti to study and represent nature as well as the customs of the island. On April 1, Gauguin embarked on the Oceania from Marseille.

On June 9, 1891, Gauguin arrived in Tahiti’s capital city, Papeete. Early on it seems that circumstances were rather in his favor and that he could rely on French civil servants to help him. He observed, listened and was seduced by everything: Tahiti’s nature, its mysterious nights, its inhabitants. Immediately Gauguin started to learn the local language…


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