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1. What is the thesis? Why does the author write this essay?2. Is the author sympathetic or critical of Gauguin and his portrayal of Tahitian culture? Do you think he expects a similar opinion from his reader? Why or why not?3. What is the symbolic meaning of this painting? What are some of the individual elements you find most compelling and why?
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A Gauguin Masterpiece
Author(s): James S. Plaut
Source: Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts, Vol. 34, No. 203 (Jun., 1936), pp. 34-38
Published by: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
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XXXIV, 34 BULLETIN OF THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS
belief, were induced by a genuine conviction that
thorough, uninterrupted communion with nature was
W A1 S? ar rl
essential to his development as an artist and as a
human being. The salutary effect of the tropical
sojourns upon his art is the most eloquent testimony
for his sincerity. Instead of disintegrating under the
influence of what some have been disposed to consider a purely sensual, indolent existence, he gained
in artistic stature to such an extent that his prominence
rests almost entirely upon the paintings of the Tahitian
periods.
Gauguin’s second pilgrimage from France to the
South Seas took place early in 1 895. At Tahiti,
A Gauguin Masterpiece
almost three years later, in December, 1 897, he
N April 16, 1936, the Museum of Fine Arts
was contemplating suicide. Poverty and intolerable
purchased the large painting by Paul Gauguin
physical discomfort resulting from a badly broken
(1 848-1903) entitled D’out venons-nous? Que
foot and the ravages of a chronic illness had dispelled
sommes-nous? Out allons-nous?’ which the artist the idyll of his earthly paradise, and had left him
himself and most of his critic-biographers have pro- helpless, brooding, despondent.
nounced his masterpiece. The canvas, measuring Always a colorful actor, Gauguin laid careful plans
over twelve feet in length, is monumental in scale for a dramatic exit. For an entire month he worked
and conception. Through the richness of its color, furiously on a tremendous, climactic painting which
the subtle unity of its composition, and the absolutemight serve as a self-composed apotheosis, a fitting
significance of its subject matter, it must be considered summation of his art and his philosophy. Then, on
the most complete example of Gauguin’s genius asthe eleventh of February, 1898, he limped away
well as one of the outstanding paintings of the lastto the mountains, planning to kill himself with arsenic
quarter of the nineteenth century. Transcendingwhich he had saved from the treatment of a skin
mere decoration, D’ou) venons-nous? … reflects the affliction, and hoping to have his remains devoured
intellectual and assimilative background invariably by tropical insects. The attempt on his life was
associated with the production of the greatest Euro-thwarted by an overdose of the poison. He lived
pean painters.
five years longer, miserable and penniless, finally
Through Noa Noa, his own account of exotic dying in the Marquesas in 1903 from the cumulaTahitian experiences, through Somerset Maugham’s tive effects of his multiple ailments.
novel The Moon and Sixpence, and other more
D’ou venons-nous? .. ., the painting which was
strictly biographical treatises and, above all, becauseto have been Gauguin’s final effort, was still regarded
of an intensely romantic nature, Gauguin has already by the artist after his failure at suicide as his most
become a legendary figure. Incurably restless, in-significant creation. Later in the same month, after
quisitive, and self-assured, he turned abruptly at thirty-he had regained sufficient strength to resume fairly
five from sea-faring and a successful financial career normal activity, he wrote at length about the picture
to painting, hoping by this change to free himself to his close friend and counsellor, the banker-painter,
from the vulgarity and monotony of a Parisian bour- de Monfreid,
geois life. His quest for primitive realities and for .. . I must tell you that my decision [to commit
beauty unsmirched by the artifices of civilization led suicide] was taken for December. But before I
him to Brittany, to Martinique in the West Indies, died I wished to paint a large canvas that I had in
and ultimately to Tahiti and the Marquesas in themind, and I worked day and night that whole month
South Seas.
in an incredible fever. To be sure it is not done
Because he was arrogant, impetuous, brutallylike a Puvis de Chavannes, sketch after nature, prestrong, and indifferent to social conventions, Gauguinparatory cartoon, etc. It is all done straight from
has often been unjustly stigmatized as a dissolutethe brush on sackcloth full of knots and wrinkles, so
blackguard. Pagan he undoubtedly was, but not the appearance is terribly rough.
charlatan. His exotic leanings, contrary to popular They will say that it is careless, unfinished. It is
true that it is hard to judge one’s own works, but in
“lnv. no. 36.270; Oil on Tahitian canvas, h. 55A”, w. 148I/3″;
Signed and dated, upper right: P. Gauguin, 1897; Title inscribed, upper spite of that I believe that this canvas not only surleft. COLLECTIONS: Ambroise Vollard, Paris; Dr. Frizot, Bordeaux;
Galerie Barbazanges, Paris; J. B. Stang, Oslo; Alfred Gold, Paris; Marie passes all my preceding ones, but that I shall never
Harriman Gallery, N. Y. EXHIBITIONS: Galerie Vollard, Paris,
do anything better, or even like it. Before death I
1898; Galerie Barbazanges, Paris, 1914; Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm,
1926; L’Exposition Coloniale Internationale, Paris (Muse des Colonies),
put in all my energy, a passion so dolorous, amid
193 1; Kunsthaus, Zurich, 1932; Municipal Art Gallery, Amsterdam,
1933-1934; Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, 1935; Marie Harrman
circumstances so terrible, and so clear was my vision
Gallery, N. Y., 1936; Fogg Museum, Cambridge, 1936. SELECTED
that the haste of the execution is lost and life surges
REFERENCES: Alexandre, Arsane: Gauguin, Paris, 1930, pp. 188194, repr.; Barth, W.: Gauguin, Basel, 1929; Fry, Roger: in Burlington
up. It doesn’t stink of models, of technique, of preMagazine, v. XXXII, March, 1918, p. 85, repr.; Morice, Charles:
Gauguin, Paris, 1919, pp. 111- I 14, 203-205, repr.; Kunstler, Charles:
tended rules….”1
Gauguin, Paris, 1934, p. 175, repr.; Rey, Robert: Gauguin, Paris, 1924,
‘Les Lettres de Paul Gauguin a Georges Daniel de Monfreid, Paris
p. 47; de Rotonchamp, Jean: Gauguin, Paris, 1925, p. 168, 169.
1918. (English translation-London, Wmi. Heinemann, 1923, p. 94.)j
SELECTED REPRODUCTIONS: Art News, v. XXXIV, April
These letters are illuminating documents of Gauguin’s life, thoughts, and
25, 1936, p. 5; ‘Gauguin,’ Les Albums d’Art Druet, 1928; Catalogue
Note continued on page 36.
of Marie Harriman Exhibition, N. Y., 1936.
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BULLETIN OF THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS XXXIV, 35
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XXXIV, 36 BULLETIN OF THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS
I
I
Ou~ allons-nous? (detail) Paul Gauguin
and is nothe
its appearance
great,
almost super-human
?
In March of the same year,
again
writes
of the
painting to de Monfreid, The cold calculations of reason have not presided
at this birth, for
who my
knows when
in the depths for
of
“The large canvas has absorbed
all
vitality
beingthe
the work
was commenced?
. “I
the present. I look at it his
by
hour
and,. . I’ll
admit
In the course
Gauguin’sat
activity
Tahiti, more
the
to you, I admire it. The more
I of
look
it atthe
light tones of his earliest
works, underbut
strong ImpresI realize its enormous mathematical
faults,
I would
sionist influence,
and the harshremain
contrasts of theas
Brit-it is
not retouch it for anything.
It must
tany period
arethis
graduallyquestion
discarded, giving comes
way to
only a sketch if you like.
Yet
a more mature
systemthe
of color.
His palette becomes of
up and perplexes me: Where
does
execution
glowing and resonant, his paintings disclose rich hara painting commence and where does it end? At
that moment, when the most intense emotions are inmonies and are suffused with mellow light. In D’oui
fusion in the depths of one’s being, when they burst venons-nous? . . . the evolution is striking and deforth and when thought comes up like lava from afinitive. Sumptuous, vivid colors, coursing through
volcano, is there not then something like an explosion?the broad planes of painting, admirably unite the
The work is created suddenly, brutally if you like,elements of a vast composition. Abrupt contrasts
of hot yellow and cool blue, and subtle graduations
Note continued from page 34.
problems. They are comparable in candor and sincerity to van Gogh’s
letters to his brother, Theo.
1lbid, pp. 98, 99.
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BULLETIN OF THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS XXXIV, 37
D ou venons-nous? (detail) Paul Gauguin
and intentionally
so, raises its arms
and stares
in
of warm flesh-tones or
flat passages
of
landscape
astonishment upon these pattern.
two, who dare to think of
utilized to form a breath-taking
their destiny. of
A figure
in the foreground,
centre is picking
The strong earthy browns
the
th
fruit. Two
cats near
a child. A white
goat.1
purple garments of the
two
clothed
figures
in
An idol, pink
its arms mysteriously
raisedlight
in a sort ofand t
background, the brilliant
path of
rhythm, seems
to indicate the throughout
Beyond. Then
delicate turquoise which
appears
lastly, anrepertory
old woman nearing death
appears
to artist.
unique in the entire color
of
the
accept everything,
to resign
to her thoughts. 1 89
In the aforementioned
letter
of herself
February,
She completes
the story! At her feet
a strange venons
to de Monfreid, Gauguin
describes
D’out
white bird, holding a lizard in its claws, represents
nous? . . . in detail. He writes:
The two upper corners are chrome yellow,the futility of words. It is all on the bank of a
river in the woods. In the background the ocean,
wvith an inscription on the left and my name on the
then the mountains of a neighboring island. Despite
right, like a fresco whose corners are spoiled with
changes of tone, the coloring of the landscape is
age, and which is appliqueed upon a golden wall.
constant, either blue or Veronese green. The
To the right at the lower end, a sleeping child
and three crouching women. Two figures dressednaked figures stand out on it in bold orange. If
in purple confide their thoughts to one another.
‘It is interesting to note that the goat mentioned in the description is
An enormous crouching figure, out of all proportion,
actually dark green.
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XXXIV, 38 BULLETIN OF THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS
than its literary, qualities assume
anyone should tell Beaux Arts pupils aesthetic,
for therather
Rome
first importance.
That Gauguin’s execution of the
competitions: ‘The picture you must paint
is to reppainting, under the strained circumstances of what
resent, Where do we come from- What are we
he supposed were his last days, should do full justice
-Where are we going?’ What would they do?
to his inspired conception may be regarded as an
So I have finished a philosophical work on a
theme comparable to that of the Gospel. I thinkextraordinary artistic achievement. To paraphrase
it is good . . .
a recent estimate of the painting, it conveys an imA painter seldom agrees with his critics in ap-pression which remains unique and exceptional in
modern art. In D’ou) venons-nous? . . . Gauguin
praising and interpreting his art. In the present intruly wrote his own testament.
stance, however, the observations of Gauguin, his
contemporaries, and later writers reveal a singular
JAMES S. PLAUT.
unanimity. All accord the great canvas the highest
place in the artist’s production, praising its splendid
color and monumental figures. Diverse opinions
are encountered only in the matter of symbolism,
The Ledgers of Paul Revere
for in so literary a work, critics instinctively seek aOF primary importance in Mrs. Pauline Revere
theme and a motive.
Thayer’s bequest is the unequalled collection
It is hard to subscribe to the occasional contentionof silver by her illustrious great-grandfather, Paul
that D’ou? venons-nous? . . . is a symbolical revela-Revere. This has been an interesting part of our
tion of Gauguin’s own life. The artist himself
exhibitions since some of the pieces were lent for the
denied any such implication, and the most discerning
first large showing of American silversmiths’ art in
critics have found little basis for this theory. Yet1906, a pioneer exhibition which came at a time
the broad philosophical meaning of the figures and
when many fine pieces of American family plate
their functions is apparent. Wnrting to his friend
were considered of English or Continental European
and critic, Charles Morice, in 1901, Gauguin
origin, for the skill of our colonial craftsmen was as
attempted to clarify the symbolism in cryptic fashion: yet unrecognized save by a few connoisseurs. From
“In the large painting -Where are we going?
that time Mrs. Thayer steadily added to her collecAn old woman nearing death. An exotic stupid tion and with true and appreciated generosity lent
bird. What are we? Daily existence. The man
the silver where it might be enjoyed by many.
of instinct wonders what all this means. Where do
From time to time she “borrowed” a few pieces
we come from? The brook. A child. Communal that she might have the pleasure of using these
life. The strange bird concludes the poem – an treasures which meant so much to her, but rarely did
inferior being contrasted with an intelligent being,
they remain away from the Museum for long.
which is the answer sought in the title.
In 193 1, when an eighteenth century room was
Behind a tree, two sinister figures, wrapped ininstalled to contain Revere silver and the portraits
gloomy clothing, inject, near the tree of science,
so generously given by other members of the family
their note of sorrow, caused by this same science,(Bulletin No. 1 75), Mrs. Thayer lent the chest of
as compared with the simple beings in a virgin drawers, the beautifully made needlework screen
nature, a paradise of human conception, giving (Fig. 7), the “Chinese Lowestoft” plate, the miniathemselves up to the joys of living.
ture, the ring, and the topaz charm which had beExplanations and obvious symbols would give longed to Mr. and Mrs. Paul Revere. These, too,
the canvas a sad reality and the question asked have now become a permanent part of our exhibits
would no longer be a poem.”
by her bequest, which included also copies of the
Whatever its actual context may be, the painting
two remaining Ledgers kept by Revere from 1 761
will always stand primarily as a magnificent pieceto 1 79 7. Mrs. Thayer’s interest in this room was
of design. The late eminent Roger Fry, declaring
unflagging, even when she was involved in her most
himself unwilling to inquire in what way D’ou pressing political and social activities, and she welvenons-nous? . . . expresses the artist’s life, saidcomed opportunities to increase its importance and
“Gauguin’s Noa Noa proves how readily a literary
scope. Our first contact with the Ledgers was in
form of expression came to him; how much of a 1930 when we told Mrs. Thayer of a very fine
poet he was as well as a painter, so that one need
Revere coffee pot offered to the Museum for purnot wonder at finding him towards the end of his
chase. Mrs. Thayer, in a search of the accounts,
life trying also to make his extraordinary powers ofverified its history by finding the entry complete with
design serve the same ends. Fortunately, he neverweight and cost of engraving debited to Paul Dudley
forgot the limitations of pictorial art, so we areSargent, and presented the coffee pot to the Museum
really not in the least concerned here with the mean-for the Revere Room (Bulletin No. 1 72).
ing of the symbolism, nor would our pleasure in the Our present emphasis on the Ledgers is due to
picture be heightened by knowing it.”2
their great value in studying the many pieces of
D’ou) venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Otu
Revere’s work in the Museum, and because they
allons-nous? is of such intrinsic beauty that its
seem to settle several questions, although they have
raised others. Particularly do we wish we might
lIbid, pp. 94, 95.
2Op. cit.
know what governed Ledger entries, for certain
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