Saturday, October 3, 2015

Chapter 13: Paul Gauguin

Paul Gauguin Went To The Dogs


Long before a spiritually tormented Paul Gauguin painted Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, which he considered his masterpiece, his path from birth in Paris to Tahiti featured a smorgasbord of hot and cold life experiences along the way.

Milk for Gauguin's Cat / © Deborah Julian
Few people who fall in love with the emotional intensity of his later paintings in museums around the world would guess that, before he became a full time artist, Gauguin was a successful stockbroker at the Bourse in Paris. He pulled down roughly $125K annually in equivalent American dollars today. 

While raking in handsome sums at his day job, he also fathered five children with his Danish wife, Mette. He painted pictures on the side, tutored by Camille Pissarro.

You’d probably be even more surprised to learn that, after the stock market crash of 1882, he moved his family to Copenhagen and worked as a tarpaulin salesman. That effort flopped worse than the stock market because, among other things, Gauguin could not speak enough Danish to persuade his wife’s countrymen to buy French tarpaulins.

Only then, after Mette’s family threw him out, did he return to Paris and become a full time painter. He was already thirty-six years old. 

Just a little over four years later, he moved in with Vincent Van Gogh in Arles, encouraged by Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, which resulted in nine increasingly tumultuous weeks of strife between the painters and one less ear among them. 

Fortunately, before that, Gauguin painted the peaceful, domestic Still Life with Three Puppies, while still living in Brittany. 

“Art is an abstraction,” he declared, which came "from nature while dreaming before it.”
An abstraction this painting certainly is and a bit surreal, too.

Still Life with Three Puppies is stranger than it appears at first glance. You have the still life with pears and apples in a bowl and on a cloth that appears to drop off the edge of a table. But if it’s a table, where is the separation between it and the puppies dunking their little heads in a big cast iron kettle on, you would think, the floor?

What makes it even odder is a single fabric, a giant floral table cloth on which both the still life and puppies reside. The effect is not quite real, on the edge of dreamlike.


When Deborah brought George along to appreciate the scene, he wasn’t put off by the surrealism at all. Unafraid, he marched straight into Gauguin’s make-believe and slaked his thirst by joining the puppies in slurping some tasty, fresh milk, probably still warm from a nearby cow.