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Paul Gauguin and the Impressionists

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The text below is the excerpt from the book Paul Gauguin, written by Nathalia Brodskaya, published by Parkstone International.

The only thing that set Gauguin apart from others of his circle was his unorthodox interest in art. It might have been stimulated by the atmosphere in Arosa’s house as the owner loved painting and photography and kept a splendid collection of pictures. A friend of Arosa’s, Nadar was a cartoonist and photographer and it was in his studio that the first exhibition of the Impressionists took place.

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Self-portrait with a palette, ca. 1894. Oil on canvas, 92 x 73 cm. Private collection.

Gauguin’s passion for art might also have been inherited from his relatives, as there were two artists on his mother’s side: a teacher of drawing and a lithographer. Besides, he had grown up in a house decorated with Spanish and Peruvian pottery, portraits and other paintings which were bequeathed to him by his mother but apparently perished in the fire. A decisive part in Gauguin’s initiation into art, and especially into Impressionist painting, was played by Pissarro, who willingly advised him on both the theory and technique of painting, and actually instructed him when they worked side by side painting the same motif.

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Bretons and Calf, 1888. Oil on canvas, 91 x 72 cm. Ny Carlsberg Glypothek, Copenhagen.

At Pissarro’s studio Gauguin also met Cézanne who strongly appealed to him both as a person and as an artist, and whose work greatly influenced his own. But Pissarro and Cézanne were not Gauguin’s only teachers. He used every opportunity to fill in the gaps in his artistic education, not only in painting, but in other kinds of art as well. No doubt, it was with this aim in mind that Gauguin rented a house and workshop first from the ceramist and jeweller JeanPaul Aubé, and then from the sculptor Jules Ernest Bouillot. While working at the latter’s studio, Gauguin produced, first in plaster and then in marble, bust portraits of his wife and son. In 1876, Gauguin exhibited a landscape at the Salon and received a favourable press.

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The Vision after the Sermon or Jacob fighting with the Angel,
1888. 73 x 92 cm.
Private collection, Lausanne.

From 1879 onwards, he contributed to the Impressionist shows and actively engaged in organizational work, inviting new artists to exhibit with the group. Art was gradually ousting all other interests in Gauguin’s life, and when, in 1883, he was obliged to resign his job at Bertin’s due to a financial crisis, it was not without joy – albeit not without apprehension either – that he decided to give up his banking career for good. Since that time, he made no attempts to resume it, although he realized all too soon that the life of an artist determined on having his say in art was full of hardships. His resources were dwindling fast, and in January 1884 he moved with his family to Rouen, where he hoped to find clients, but he met with no success and decided to go to Copenhagen, his wife’s native city. From now on his only purpose in life was to become an artist, and not just any artist, but an outstanding one. The earliest period in Gauguin’s artistic career which began with his Sunday lessons in professional skills, was closely linked with Impressionism. This link was inspired first by Gustave Arosa’s tastes in art and then by Pissarro’s lessons, his views and his steadfast principles. Having turned to art as a grown man, Gauguin, with his independent frame of mind, could not fail to appreciate everything that was bold and new. Thanks to his teachers, whether direct or indirect, Gauguin from the very outset was brought up in a spirit of hostility towards traditional, academy-preserved aesthetics, and he saw the work of the Impressionists as an open war against academic canons.

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Provenance: Bernheim-Jeune Gallery, Paris (judging by the firm’s label with No. 15286 on the reverse).

Very soon he began to associate it with rebellion against bourgeois society as well. That was why Gauguin continued to call himself an Impressionist even after he had fully abandoned the Impressionist principles of painting. This also explains the parallel the artist drew between himself the Impressionists and Jean Valjean, the hero of Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Misérables, in his Self-Portrait. (Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam; W. 239). For Gauguin, the “Impressionist is pure, not yet sullied by the putrid kiss of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts”. This attitude prompted him to call the 1889 exhibition at the Cafe Volpini ‘Peinture du Groupe Impressionniste et Synthétiste’, thus emphasizing the challenge to conventional salon painting.

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Wrack Collectors, 1889. Oil on canvas, 87 x 122.5 cm.
Folkwang Museum, Essen.

However Gauguin’s links with Impressionism were not confined to this aspect alone. Impressionism that had given a fresh impulse to European art, that had discovered the changeability of nature and turued to capturing the effects of ever-changing light, demanded from the artist constant, keen attention to the living world. And the fact that Gauguin had found his way into art through Impressionism was of paramount importance for his further development, even though he later broke away from his teachers more decisively and uncompromisingly than any other of the PostImpressionists. The main lesson he learnt from Impressionism was the rejection of the time-tested but antiquated traditions and the trust in the artist’s own visual experience; Gauguin remained faithful to this lesson all his life. That is why it always took him so long to imbibe the atmosphere of each new place – Rouen or Brittany, Copenhagen or Arles, Martinique or the Pacific Islands. His synthesis or symbolism was always based on the analytical method borrowed from Impressionism.

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Man with an axe, 1891. oil on canvas, 92 x 70 cm. Private collection.

At the same time, certain aspects of Impressionist aesthetics were alien to Gauguin from the start, even though he did not become aware of it until much later. He tried to see the world as the Impressionists saw it, especially Pissarro, whom he regarded as his teacher to the end of his life. He worked in the open air applied his paints in small, brightly coloured dabs, used the motifs and compositional devices of the Impressionists, discussed the issues which were important to them; he admired, understood and, in his happier days, collected their paintings. Gauguin achieved a complete mastery of the Impressionist technique, to which many of his canvases bear witness, and which makes it possible to single out the Impressionist period in his career. Among those canvases are the summer and the winter views of Rue Carcel where he lived; the landscapes painted near Pontoise, with their blossoming apple-trees or haystacks; the views of Rouen and Dieppe; and the portraits of his wife and children. But Gauguin assimilated Impressionism at a time when it was an already established system and when the Impressionists themselves were coming to realize the necessity of breaking out of its confines…

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