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A New Paul Gauguin

ISSUE:  Winter 1928

Romantic admirers of Gauguin are pleased to see something of the towering strength and detachment of genius in his reputed conduct toward his family. To the more critically minded, however, it has more often been a source of sharp criticism and reproach. Did he not abandon wife and children for a Tahitian strumpet and a “batard cafe au lait”? In either case the presumption seems to be that the man woke one morning and finding himself possessed of an inordinate passion to paint, quit wife and home in cold blood, and never so much as gave a thought to them thereafter. Now for the first time are disclosed his letters to his wife—and how we blundered! One glance at this huge mass of still unedited correspondence covering a period of over twenty-five years is enough to convince one how thoroughly unfounded was any such judgment. Instead of the hard, cold genius with almost superhuman powers of detachment or simply the downright scoundrel devoid of all feeling and moral sense, these letters reveal a Gauguin torn from his wife by unfortunate misunderstanding, of a deeply affectionate nature, of incomparable delicacy of feeling toward his daughter. In short, a Gauguin absolutely unknown.

The story of the man’s life is simple enough. He was born in Paris, 1848. At the age of twenty-five he joined Bertin’s, exchange brokers at the Bourse. Two years later he met his future wife, an attractive young Danish girl employed as governess in Paris, fell in love with her, and married her. For the following ten years the family was comfortably installed at Vaugirard, on the outskirts of the French capital, Mme. Gauguin making an excellent housewife and mother, and Gauguin an admirable provider. The latter discovering one Sunday afternoon he had some talent for painting, pursued his hobby quietly on Sundays and in off hours. Then, in January, 1883, he decided to resign from the bank and devote himself entirely to art.

With this opens the latter half of the artist’s life so full of mental and physical trial—a sharp contrast to the quiet bourgeois existence he had led formerly. He tried to eke out some sort of livelihood from the sale of his pictures, but without success. Finally, in despair, and encouraged by his wife, he left with his family for Copenhagen where they thought her people would help him to find something. But he experienced a worse blow there. Her family, conservative, puritan functionaries, regarded the gaunt, uncouth artist as devoid of moral fibre, a ne’er-do-well, and out of his head. The fellow will never amount to anything, they kept on dinning into the poor woman’s ears until she fairly believed it herself. To be sure, his conduct was not particularly of a nature to win their good graces or good will, and we can well imagine how thoroughly shocked those good people must have been at incidents like the following:

Mme. Gauguin is entertaining some of her friends at tea. Suddenly the door opens, and in steps a man, in undershirt, bare legged, and in bedroom slippers, picks up a book from one of the tables and quietly leaves. Apparently Gauguin needed a book in the next room and simply left his bed without troubling himself about his dress.

Things soon came to a pass where he simply had to leave; there was nothing he could find at Copenhagen, and the relations with his family-in-law were daily growing more and more strained. To continue to stay on would have been a severer blow to his pride. So, one evening, (we are in 1885) he quietly took his son Clovis and boarded a train for Paris, leaving behind him his wife and four children.

Now begins the long, intimate correspondence between husband and wife—a most touching commentary, on Gauguin the man and artist. None of Gauguin’s letters are dated; wherever possible, the approximate date, only, is given. He has arrived in Paris. It is winter; he is penniless, and he has a child on his hands. He writes:

Actually Clovis sleeps on a small bed which I have rented, and I on a mattress with a travelling blanket. We are freezing, and I haven’t a sou to buy blankets.

He is compelled to look for any kind of work.

I have been promised a place as publicity inspector with 200 francs a month. For one month it has been cold and snowing. I sleep on the bare floor, wrapped in a travelling blanket. It’s true that the daily worry helps to drive away insomnia.

Matters are made worse by the illness of the boy. Fortunately he has been able to scrape together enough to take care of the child.

“My dear Mette,” he writes reassuringly, “Clovis is getting along much better. . . . You are wrong if you think I am discouraged! I have no money, it’s true, but I hope to make enough some day to be free, and above all, at peace. Don’t worry if you can’t help me. I ask nothing from you.”

The boy takes a turn for the worse, and the idea occurs to him to apply as bill-sticker in public stations. He writes:

My bourgeois appearance made the director smile, but I told him very earnestly that I had a sick child and that I wanted to work. [No doubt this trying period hastened the boy’s early death.]

Then he continues with the characteristic irony apparent in so many of his letters, but which, to be sure, is only a cloak for his real feelings.

Your self-respect as Dane will be wounded to have a husband who is a bill-sticker. What do you wish, not everybody has talent. Don’t worry about the boy, he is better and I am not thinking of sending him back. On the contrary, I am counting, as my affairs improve, on taking over the other children. It’s my duty, you know.

It is with considerable calm and self-control that I read all your letters telling me—with much reason, besides—that I have loved you. But that you are only a mother, and not a wife, etc. These are memories very agreeable to me, but which have the great disadvantage of leaving me with little illusion about the future. You shouldn’t be surprised if one day, when my position improves, I find a woman who is something more than a mother, etc. . . . I know well that you consider me lacking in all charm, but then that’s a spur to me to prove to you the contrary.

I think we can well forgive his wife, if, compelled to support a large family, on the uncertain earnings from translation work she complained more than once, and bitterly. On the other hand, we can understand the mixed feelings of regret and resentment it aroused in Gauguin who was reduced to the worst kind of penury and want. He writes with a naivity that would seem humorous, were it not so grim.

I have received your letter describing your sad position, and I have made some effort to agree with you, but I confess, I do not think it is as sad as you would have it. You are in your house, conveniently enough furnished, surrounded by your children, engaged in work, difficult enough, but which pleases you. . . . You see people, and since you like the society of women and your compatriots, you enjoy yourself sometimes. You have the benefits of marriage, without the inconveniencies of a husband. What more do you wish, if not a little money? While I am driven out of my house, and I live where? Among four walls, a bed, a table, without fire, without a single soul.

And in another letter written at about the same time he writes with the same caustic bitterness:

I have luckily just passed twenty-seven days in the hospital. Unfortunately, I am out now. I thought I’d pass out this time, but bah! this damned body of iron holds on. . . . You have your house and black bread certain every day. Hold on to it preciously. It’s a paradise in comparison with this.

The letters, however, despite the acrid tone of many of them, leave no doubt about his strong attachment to his wife. He keeps her steadily in touch with the progress of his work; she becomes for him a sort of confidante. His work alone, he feels, can justify his conduct.

“Perhaps one day when my art shall have pierced the eyes of the world,” he writes her in a characteristic letter, “some enthusiastic soul will pick me up from the gutter. . . . My painting raises much discussion, and I must say, finds a favorable reception among the Americans. It’s true I have made much progress, and you would hardly recognize my work.

“Let’s hope that the coming winter will be better: at any rate I shall be less uncertain. I would rather kill myself than be the beggar I was last winter.”

And for the first time in his letters appears the name of Tahiti which was to play such a significant and tragic role in his life:

I am offered a job as farm labourer in the South Seas. But that is to abandon my entire future, and I cannot resign myself to it. I feel that my art, with patience and a little help, may yet hold for me a few pleasant days.

But the difficulties do not abate. Winter has set in; it snows; he is without food, and penniless. The strong Peruvian strain in his blood asserts itself. He would go off to some tropical island, far from the European struggle for bread, there in peace, and freed from material cares give himself up entirely to his work and his genius. The idea germinates. Then in March, 1887, the decision. He writes:

Next month, on the paquetboat of the 10th of April, I shall be sailing for America. I cannot continue to live here in debt—this tormenting, harrowing, existence. Why do you go such a long time without writing? It seems to me I have the right to have some news from you from time to time. My letters are not particularly cheering, but what do you wish, I have suffered so much it’s almost past human endurance. Before leaving for the unknown, I should very much like to have some news from you for want of embracing you. . . . I leave with enough money for the voyage and I shall arrive in America without a cent. What I expect to do there, I don’t know yet, but what I want, above all, is to flee Paris which is a desert for the poor man.

And he ends the letter thus:

I shall always suffer from the absence of my family, but I shall not have to do this begging which revolts me.

How different a Gauguin from the one it has been the custom to paint—the hard, cynical, cold egotist!

Significantly enough, the hope of reuniting his family and enjoying his wife’s affection never leaves him. He is particularly concerned about her future attitude toward him. Directly before embarking, he writes:

If, one day, after so many years of hardship I succeed (we shall have to live together), will it be the hell and misunderstanding of these days that you will bring to our home? Is it love that you promise, or rather hate, all the bitterness of these years of torment and anguish? I know that at heart you are good and also somewhat noble: I trust also in your reason.

But the fellow’s luck never turns. The same disappointment awaits him in the New World. Upon arriving at Martinique, after a fruitless effort to find work in Panama, he falls ill of dysentery, and yellow fever. He returns to Paris, discouraged, and penniless, of course.

“Ma pauvre Mette,” he writes, “I am sorry, I am not dead. Everything simply slips from under our feet since I have quit Copenhagen. It’s just . . . besides, nothing good can come when a family is separated.”

Back in Paris he runs across a former friend of his at Bertin’s, Emile Schiffenecker, a painter himself. The latter puts him up in his studio. Once assured of a workroom, he throws himself into his work with terrific concentration. Schiffenecker is all enthusiasm over the results. He tells Gauguin of a wealthy amateur who would be interested in buying one or two of the canvases. One morning while Gauguin is out, he has him visit the atelier. The amateur is pleased and talks about buying, when Gauguin enters: “What!” he shouts at the top of his voice, “talk about selling my work while I am gone. I’ll say that’s taking advantage of a man’s confidence. . . . Get to . . .” And without a word more, he shows the amateur the door, leaving his poor friend dumbfounded. And, for several days after, Gauguin in his frightful temper remained locked up in the atelier, preventing Schiffenecker from the use of his own studio.

Some months pass, and he has scraped up enough money, to pay the long protracted visit to his family. He is all on edge to embrace wife and children. But the meeting is a disastrous one—at any rate for Gauguin. The children hardly know him; his wife is distant, almost cold—what if God blessed her with another child? . . . Her people had warned her. Surrounded and watched constantly by her brothers and sisters they did not have a single minute to themselves. Only his daughter, Aline, grasped something of her father’s tragedy. The memory of that frail, sensitive girl, inspired by an instinctive sense of admiration and sympathy for her poor father, remained with him to his death. How much she must have meant to him we can only sense from letters like the following:

“My very dear Aline,” he writes her on the occasion of her birthday, “how big you are! . . . Sixteen years, but I thought it was seventeen! Weren’t you born the 25th of December, 1876? You do not remember, and with good cause, but I see you very small, very still, you open your clear eyes. Thus you have remained, I think, always. Mademoiselle goes to the ball! Do you know how to dance well? I trust you do, and gracefully, and that the young men speak much about me, your father, because that in a way means courting you indirectly. Do you recall, three years ago, when you told me you would be my wife? I smile sometimes when I think of your naive fancy. You have asked me if I have sold many pictures. Unfortunately no! but for that, I would have much pleasure in sending you— to be placed under your Christmas tree—several nice things. My, poor children, you must not think ill of your father, if there is not enough money in the house. Some day you will know what counts most in the world.”

Something of a final and permanent tribute to the girl’s memory Gauguin has left in his “Cahier pour Aline”—the note book he especially prepared for her twentieth birthday but which alas! the poor girl did not live long enough to see.

In 1891, as chance would have it, Gauguin stumbles over a catalogue on Tahiti. The usual enthusiastic cliches follow:

“Would that the day come, and soon,” he writes, “when I could bury myself in the woods on some Pacific island, and five there in ecstasy, in peace and with my art. Surrounded by my family, far from that European struggle for money, there at Tahiti, I could, in the silence of those beautiful tropical nights, listen to the murmuring music of my heart keeping sweet time with the mysterious breath of my beloved ones. Free finally, without worry about money, I could love, sing and die.”

But he continues more significantly:

. . . Our two lives are broken, you say wrongly. Your own is free from every hindrance. Surrounded by your family and your children, the days pass, not without painful work, but free from marital authority, esteemed, honoured, loved. Your personality finds its expression.

Life in Paris continues to weigh him down. He turns to the Pacific islands as his last hope. He is forty-three years old, an age when a man cannot afford to lose much time from his work. He must decide quickly. He writes the Danish painter, Willemsen:

My resolution is taken; I wish to go shortly to Tahiti, a small island in the Pacific, where life is free from material worries. A terrible epoch is opening up in Europe for the coming generation: the rule of Gold. Everything is rotten, both men and art. One bruises oneself constantly. There, at least, under perennially blue skies, in a land of marvellous fecundity, the Tahitian need only raise his arm to find his food. Also, he need never work.

On April 4th, 1891, Gauguin embarks for the promised land. His first letter from Papeiti to his wife ends:

Many kind kisses to the dear children and for you the warmest from your faithful lover and husband.

Fate never left the poor fellow long in doubt about what was in store for him. His disillusionment comes quickly. No sooner has he settled down in Tahiti than he learns that there has been a change of ruler. He is unable to make the connections he counted on. Two more years of want and distress follow:

“I am in the course of ruining my health,” he writes his wife, “because of the little nourishment I take. I prefer that to abandoning the struggle I have begun. Nine years I have lived without you or the children, without home, and often, without eating. For two months I have cut out every kind of nourishment. Every day, maiore, an insipid fruit which resembles bread, and a glass of water. I cannot even offer myself a cup of tea because sugar is so dear. I bear this situation bravely, but it alters my health, and my eyes which I need so badly are failing considerably.”

It is truly remarkable that throughout this harrowing struggle he never loses confidence in himself or his genius. So intensely sincere is the pride which animates him that it can hardly excite laughter.

I am an artist, and you are right, you are not crazy, I am a great artist, and I know it. It’s because I know it that I have suffered so much hardship in order to realize my end, if not, I should consider myself a brigand— that which I am anyway for many people. Finally, what matters it! What bothers me most is not this misery, but the constant setbacks to my work which I cannot do as I want and could without this misery tying my hands.

You tell me I am wrong in remaining too far from the artistic centre. I have known for a long time what I am doing and why I am doing it. My artistic centre is in my head, and not outside, and I am strong because I have never been side-tracked by others and because I create what is in me. Beethoven was deaf, blind, and alone. His work breathes of an artist living in a planet of his own. Look at Pissarro: because he always wants to be in the front, in touch with everything, he has lost every semblance of personality, and his whole work lacks unity. It always follows the newest tendency, from Courbet and Millet to those young chemists ‘qui accumulent les petits points.’

He went to Tahiti because he thought he would be able to work in quiet—his art demanded it. He stays on for the same reason.

No, I have one end, and I follow it always. I alone am logical, also I find very few who can follow me for a long time. Poor Schiffenecker reproaches me for being hard-headed in what I want! But if I did not act thus, could I support for just one year this bitter struggle which I have undertaken? My actions, my paintings are always criticized at the moment, then finally people tell me I am right. And one is always to begin all over again. I believe I am doing my duty, and, strong because of that, I do not accept any advice, any reproach. The conditions under which I work are unfavourable and it is necessary to be a colossus to do what I have done under them. I stop on this subject, and I have never spoken as much about it because I know that at bottom you are interested in these questions.

Do not regard badly my idea of remaining another year. I am in full swing; I know now the soil, its odour and the Tahitians, whom I make in my own peculiar way. It has taken me almost one year to come to understand it, and now that I am here, to go . . . it’s enraging! . . .

I am quite pleased with my last pictures, and I feel that I am beginning to understand the peculiar character of the South Seas. I can assure you that what I do has never been done by anyone and that it’s unknown in France.

And this in another letter of about the same date:

Because I have deprived myself of nourishment, I have ruined my stomach and I am thinning day by day. But it is necessary that I continue to fight always, always. The blame will fall on society. You have no confidence in the future, but I have. I have to have it—otherwise I would have blown my brains out long ago. To hope, it’s almost to live. It is necessary that I live to carry out my task to the end, and I can do it only by keeping alive my illusions, by living in hope. When I eat here each day my dry bread with a glass of water, I come to believe it’s a beefsteak.

He does not, however, expect to remain in Tahiti for long. In one of his letters, he entertains the hope of being appointed inspector of drawing. And he adds:

That would be for us, dear Mette, the assurance of our old days reunited with our children and happy. That would be the end of all uncertainty.

In August of 1893 he succeeds in securing free transport to France and returns to Paris, a broken man. Two more years of disillusion. Paris disgusts him; its literary and artistic life seems sterile and empty, Tahiti—it seems his only refuge. He senses he can no longer remain in Europe. There may be yet some happiness in store for him in the Pacific. He would take his wife and children and finish his last days among his gentle, hospitable Maoris. But she will not even hear of it. Alone, perhaps. But with five children, it would be criminal.

All illusions about his family and wife now shattered, bitter, Gauguin departs again for Papeiti in 1895—this time for good. He must tear wife and children out of his heart. The correspondence grows less frequent, as it grows more bitter. Gauguin avoids it:

If you must write me in the future such letters as those since my arrival, I pray you to stop. My work is not yet finished, and I must live: think of that and stop these perpetual complaints which do you no good, and do me much harm.

A long silence ensues, only to be broken by the news of the death of Aline. The man is crushed.

Her grave is over there, with the flowers, it’s only an illusion, her grave is here, near me—and my tears are flowers, living flowers.

The bitterness the blow precipitates is too much for husband and wife to bear. Gauguin’s last letter, which she has suppressed, was so hard and inhuman she never replied. This was in 1897. He died six years later.

Thus was closed, at least outwardly, an attachment which continued over twenty-two years and which undoubtedly did more to sustain him in his work than any other single factor. Perhaps without its incentive, the development and history of the most vivid, passionate and intensely sincere modern artist would have been different. Up till now it has been the vogue to detach, for romantic reasons, or otherwise, Gauguin the artist from Gauguin the father and husband. But the correspondence, of which necessarily, we could get here only a cursory glance, would have us know that it is just there that we must look for much that is significant in his genius and art.


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