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.
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.
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.
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.