by Manuel Vicent (translated by Louis S. Bedrock), October 4, 2017
Around 1870, at the tender age of 25, when he closed his office every evening, Paul Gauguin would leave the Berlin Bank, where he worked as a liquidator, and cross the Rue Laffitte puffing on an English cigar. He wore expensive clothes: well-brushed, straight legged pants, polished boots, a velvet frock coat, and cravat. He was the model of the respectable bourgeois young man: respected, well fed, rosy cheeked. And thus, as the evening fell, he would arrive home, a hotel with a garden on Rue Carcel, and his wife, a Danish Protestant named Mette-Sophia Gad who had borne him five children, would give him a kiss.
In the bank, he was allowed to speculate in the stock market on his own. This brought him an additional 50 thousand francs per year.
This fortune of Gauguin afforded him the pleasure of buying paintings of some of the unholy artists who had been rejected by the jury of the Salon of the Universal Exhibition in 1867. In this respect, it is clear that Gauguin was not as bourgeois as other people.
For 15 thousand francs, he had decorated his walls with works of Renoir, Cézanne, Monet, Pissarro, Manet, Sisley, and other painters proscribed by the critics of the time.
Soon, a strange virus took control of Gauguin’s spirit. After working in finance all day, Gauguin would put on stained coveralls and begin to paint. At first, his wife considered this activity a mere hobby that she reluctantly tolerated—especially if on Sundays he opted to continue to soil canvases instead of taking her to the theater or going for a walk in the Bois de Boulogne with the children.
One serious problem with this strait-laced woman sprung up when the aspiring artist asked the maid, Justine, to pose nude for him one night. The incident worsened when it became known that one of the nude studies of Justine had been admitted to the Salon des Indépendants and had received an emotional favorable review by the great poet Mallarmé—a success that swelled the head of Gauguin.
One morning of January in 1883, Mette was surprised to see that her husband wasn’t getting out of bed to go to the office. She thought he was ill but he told her resolutely:
—I’m never going to work in the bank again. I’ve presented my resignation to the director. From now on I’m going to only be a painter. That day started him on his journey toward glory—reached only after crossing through the inferno. To satisfy this new passion, he depended on his savings. Very soon, he found himself without money. Gauguin tried Bohemia but his wife was not willing to put up with penury, left him alone in Paris, and fled to Denmark and to the house of her parents with their five children.
For his part, the artist retreated to Rouen where life was cheaper. He painted and he was hungry; and when he couldn’t bear it any longer, he went to his in-laws in Copenhagen with his tail between his legs. Those orthodox people, unsparing in their scorn and seeing him as a heathen, assigned him a room with one very small window and very little light.
There, he had no other alternative other than painting self-portraits—his face with his huge mustache, his grim expression as seen from a sideways glance into a mirror, his knife-edged profile.
In June of 1885, Gauguin returned with no money to his sordid life in Paris and lived between four walls, with a table and a bed; without fire and without anybody. He sought relief fleeing to Pont-Aven where there was a group of artists in a pension that gave credit to artists. Its landlady, Marie-Jeanne Gloanec accepted paintings in exchange for a bed and meals.
While feeding cherries dipped in aguardiente to turkeys and painting pigs different colors to amuse himself, he learned that one of his children had died and that his wife had cancer. The artist prayed for the dead child, hoped that his wife could find a good surgeon, and followed his destiny. Some models posed nude in the attic of his pension. He painted women from Brittany and green landscapes with cows without managing to sell a single painting.
A friend, Meyer de Haan, had built a very profitable cookie factory in Holland. Gauguin responded to his call and tried his luck working for him. But he soon got bored.
Without having shaken off the influence of the virus, he set off to Panama with the help of some relatives and worked on the excavation of the canal. Then he headed to Martinique and for the first time he experienced the savage wind and pure light of primitivism. It was a revelation.
He returned to Paris with a macaque, who would be his constant companion, and began slowly accumulating paintings that were ridiculed in galleries and auctions.
Gauguin was in love with the work of Van Gogh and went to Arles to work with him. This was a case of two kinds of madness that promptly collided causing continuous disputes, which at first were aesthetic disagreements, and later fistfights. After one of their fights, Gauguin abandoned Van Gogh. In the middle of this tumult, Van Gogh cut off one of his ears and sent it to a prostitute.
Gauguin put several oceans between himself and Van Gogh and wound up in Tahiti. There he found Tahura wandering through the forest and she became his ideal model. He painted her obsessively. He expressed his vision in synthetic symbolistic planes. With a magnificent cargo of new work, in which preternatural happiness and innocence are incorporated in indigenous bodies, Gauguin returned to Paris to exhibit his new aesthetics.
On November 4, 1893, he displayed 44 canvases and two sculptures in a gallery of Durand-Ruel on la Rue Lafitte. The bourgeoise took their children to the exposition so they could make fun of the monstrosities painted by one Paul Gauguin. It was rumored that he was a madman who had abandoned his job as a banker and his wife and five children in order to devote himself to painting.
The laughter got worse when the public saw paintings of nude Javanese together with the Spirit of the Dead. At one auction, a painting of a white horse was exhibited upside down. The auctioneer told the crowd that it was Niagara Falls. Amid the loud guffaws of the crowd, an astute art dealer, Ambroise Vollard, bid for the painting and walked off with it for 300 francs.
With the promise that the gallery owner would send him a monthly stipend so he could continue painting—a promise that was never fulfilled, Gauguin said goodbye forever to civilization to return to Paradise. The night before setting off for Tahiti, he was accosted by a harlot on a street in Montparnasse. He carried a gift from her—syphilis, to Polynesia where glory and torture reigned supreme.
Surrounded by the pleasures of the uncivilized world and the love of the natives, happy semi-nude adolescents under the coconut trees, his painting didn’t require any imagination. However, his body began to rot. First, he lost a foot; then a leg; and ultimately the disease reached his heart.
Gauguin was actually already a leper when he decided to advance further into the wild purity and went to Hiva Oa, one of the Marquesas Islands, to live among cannibals. Here his canvases achieved the excellence that would make him one of the highest valued painters in history.
While on his death bed, he was cared for by several young Polynesian women while at their side one of the cannibals was crying inconsolably. When Gauguin died, the cannibal bit one of his legs so that Gauguin’s soul would return to his body in accordance with the rituals. The natives surrounded the hut and dressed the cadaver in the clothes of the Maori. They rubbed perfumes onto the body and covered it with flowers.
A Bishop from a mission rescued the remains and buried them in a Catholic cemetery. Under his mattress, Gauguin had only 12 francs in loose currency.
This occurred in Atuona on May 9, 1903. Gauguin was 54 years old. His life’s work consisted of about three hundred paintings. He is, without doubt, one of the most highly esteemed painters in the history of art.
illustration by Fernando Vincente