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Title: Paul Gauguin, His Life and Art
Author: Fletcher, John Gould, 1886-1950
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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His Life and Art







[Illustration: Self-portrait of Gauguin.]





"Improvement makes straight roads;
but the crooked roads without improvement
are the roads of genius."








About the middle of the last century, there occurred in Paris a series
of events which seemed at the time likely to be of importance to future
history, secondary only to the days of the French Revolution. You will
seek Paris in vain for any public monument to these events, known as the
Revolution of 1848. Only the name of the hideously utilitarian Boulevard
Raspail may perhaps remind you, that in this year France achieved
another one of those political failures which have been so curiously
common in her history since 1789.

In February of that year, King Louis Philippe and his ministers had fled
before the rising storm of popular feeling. It seemed at last that the
great popular revolution of the working classes, dreamed of by every
artist since 1789, proclaimed in the Rabelaisian caricatures of Daumier,
latent in the troubled Romanticism of the epoch, was at hand. A
provisional republic was formed and elections were held to the National
Assembly. But the provinces showed that it mattered little to them
whether the form of Government was changed or not. So long as the
peasant had his farm, his cow, his money safely stowed away in a
stocking, a hard-working wife, a pipe and a glass of wine, he was
content with things as they were. If the industrial classes of Paris
were starving, that was not his affair. He shared none of their fanatic
Socialism, none of their dreams of the millennium. He wanted to be left

The National Assembly proved to be overwhelmingly moderate, and the
leaders of the Provisional Government discovered that they preferred to
stand with the majority rather than to fall with the Parisian
extremists. But the latter were not to be beaten without a struggle. On
the fifteenth of May, a mob attempted to take the Assembly by storm, and
failed. On the eighteenth, Lamartine, the former idol of the
Revolutionaries, was hooted down while making a conciliatory speech. The
Government found that it must either provide work and wages for the
Parisian unemployed or run the risk of an appeal to force. A scheme was
started, but it proved to be costly, and on the twenty-first of June the
Government faced about and announced that it intended to proceed no
further with its project. Three days later the storm broke. Two hundred
and twenty-one barricades arose as if by magic in the streets, crowned
with red flags and manned by sixty thousand men. For three days the mob
kept up a desperate resistance; then the last barricade fell, the blood
was washed off the pavements, the cause of "moderation" and "good sense"
was restored.

There is a poetic justice in the coincidence of some events. On the
seventh of June a son, Paul, was born to M. and Madame Gauguin,
residing in Paris. This infant, brought obscurely into the world to the
sound of cannon, was destined by one of the ironic dispensations of
Nature to become later the leader of an art-revolution as far reaching
and as important in its effects as the great attempt of 1848. His life
was to be a constant struggle with the growing bourgeois civilization,
the middle-class morality, of the late nineteenth century; his art was
to speak the promise of a renewed world, a world where man could again
walk naked, unashamed and free, as in Eden. He was destined to break
beneath the inert weight of social conventions and stupidities, as the
revolution had been broken by the armed forces at the disposal of the
government: but his ideas were to point the way to, new conceptions of
art and of life, which only the future can realize.

Clovis Paul Gauguin, to give the father his full name, was a petty
journalist from Orleans. He had a post as collaborator on one of the
obscure newspapers of Liberal opinion, that so greatly flourished about
this time. His influence upon his son was slight, as is the case with
the fathers of most artists. It is to Madame Gauguin that we must turn
for an explanation of the character of her famous son.

[Illustration: Portrait of Gauguin's mother.]

Aline Marie Gauguin was the daughter of a certain Chazal, of whom we
know nothing, and of the then celebrated Socialist pamphleteer and
agitator, Flora Tristan.

Flora Tristan was born in 1803 at Lima, Peru. Her father was a Spaniard
of noble descent, Mariano Tristan y Moscoso. He served as an officer in
the Peruvian Army, and probably took part in the wars of independence
which severed Peru from Spain, since we find him and his family later
occupying positions of dignity and affluence under the Republic. In 1818
he sent his daughter to school in Paris. She eloped the next year with
Chazal and was disowned by her parents. After the birth of her child she
separated from her husband and returned to Peru, seeking a
reconciliation with her family. But the family had determined to do
nothing for the self-willed, impulsive daughter, and she drifted back to
Paris, where she attempted to support herself by writing pamphlets of
strongly Socialistic tendencies. She became a pioneer of woman's
suffrage, of humanitarianism, of the trade-union movement. She toured
France making speeches. In 1836 she had the misfortune to meet Chazal
again in Paris, who stabbed her in a fit of jealousy and was condemned
to twenty years of penal servitude for the offense. A few years later
she died in Bordeaux, and the trade-unions, remembering her zeal for
their cause and her personal beauty--which had moved them perhaps more
than the fervor of her speeches--subscribed the sum necessary to put up
a monument.

Such were the parents and the grand-parents of the child who had just
been born into the world. The tragic and violent union of Chazal and
Flora Tristan serves to explain the man and the artist he later became.
In Chazal we find the source of his violence and headstrong
irritability; in Flora Tristan we see whence he drew his love of
personal and individual liberty, his hatred of moral restraint, his
scorn of the bourgeoisie, his Spanish hauteur and stoicism. Half-savage
Spanish blood flowed in his veins, a mixture of Arab, Celt and African.
Perhaps in his Peruvian descent there were even other currents--currents
of that Inca race which the Spaniards had subdued but not conquered.
Whatever else destiny held in store for him, it was certain from the
beginning that Paul Gauguin could never be wholly assimilated to the
intellectual effort of the frivolous and fickle city of Paris.


The earliest adventures of the future painter combined the peculiar
strands of tragedy, romance and savagery which were to recur so often in
his later life. In December, 1851, the makeshift Republic came to an end
and Louis Napoleon, by an easy _coup d'état_, restored the Empire.
Clovis Gauguin found himself ruined with the suspension of the Liberal
paper for which he wrote. There was only one hope remaining: that Flora
Tristan's relations in Lima might do something for Paul and his sister
Marie. So the family set out for Peru. On the way, during the terrible
passage through the Straits of Magellan, Clovis Gauguin was seized with
heart failure and died. His body was taken ashore and buried at Port
Famine, or Punta Arenas, the southernmost town in the world, in Chile.

The mother and her two orphaned children were received with kindness by
the head of the family, Flora Tristan's uncle, Don Pio Tristan y
Moscoso. Concerning this personage Gauguin himself told many anecdotes
in later years. Probably most of these were inexact to the point of
being fable pure and simple. We must remember that Gauguin at this time
was scarcely four years of age. We know that the family were wealthy
nobles, of high social standing, who lived in the old Castillian manner
of luxury and indolence. From such surroundings Gauguin doubtless
derived much of the "hidalgo manner" that distinguished him throughout
life--a blend of haughtiness, reserve and egoism, masking often a real
shyness before people. And here he saw, also for the first time, works
of art produced by a non-European civilization: ceramics, jewelry,
fabrics of Inca origin. The remembrance of these specimens of savage,
primitive art undoubtedly influenced his mind in later years.

Gauguin's stay in Lima did not last long. Four years later his paternal
grandfather died in France, and his mother returned to that country in
order to obtain her share of his estate, which proved to be only a small

In later years, the painter believed, or affected to believe, that if
his mother had remained in Peru and had neglected her relations in
France she would have been left heiress to Don Pio Tristan's property.
It is probable that Gauguin was here merely romancing, as he often did,
when desiring to mystify and startle people about his life. It is an
enchanting but fruitless speculation to wonder what course the boy's
mind might have taken had it been subjected for a few more years to the
influence of Peruvian life. Peru undoubtedly gave him a love for the
tropics, for exotic, out-of-the-way, old-fashioned places, unspoiled by
the nineteenth century. Unconsciously many of the traits that made his
character so little comprehensible to the Frenchmen of his day were
planted in him during these years.

France was now to give him something different. He was to be educated,
or rather to receive what passed for an education. He remained at a
seminary at Orleans till the age of seventeen, hating his studies,
becoming more and more intractable and unteachable. This seminary, as
all such institutions in France at the time, was conducted by Jesuit

In later days he declared that all he had learned from the years that he
had spent at the seminary were a hatred of hypocrisy, false virtue and
spying. And with malicious irony he said: "And I also learnt there a
little of that spirit of Jesuit casuistry, which is a force not to be
despised in the struggle with other people."

His sole ambition was to escape, to get to sea again, to make voyages to
the tropics. His mother dreamed of placing him as a cadet in the navy,
but he ignominiously failed to pass the necessary examination. He was
therefore placed in the merchant marine. This decision of his mother he
regretted bitterly to the end of his life.

In 1865 he embarked aboard the _Luzitano_, a cargo boat, on a voyage
from Havre to Rio de Janeiro. His grade aboard this ship was that of a
pilot's apprentice.

Of this voyage, which enabled him to see again the tropics, Gauguin
retained in later years important memories.

In the fragmentary note-books he kept in Tahiti he declared that it was
during this voyage that he heard from the lips of a ship-mate a story of
the latter's life when ship-wrecked among the natives of the Society
Islands in the Pacific. The remembrance of that story may have
influenced him later in his choice of Tahiti as an ideal residence. At
least the appearance of Rio de Janeiro's harbor awakened in his mind
fresh enthusiasm for the tropics. The stay at Rio was further signalized
by a liaison with an actress, of that eminently casual kind which
Gauguin was to experience so often later on. Finally the return voyage
brought about another liaison, this time with a Prussian woman, and in
defiance of ship's discipline. It was certain that his character--was
not of the sort that could be fitted easily into the mold of
self-restraint necessary to produce a capable naval officer. At all
events, the next thing we hear is that Gauguin quitted the merchant
service and enlisted in the French Navy as a common sailor, in February,
1868. Probably by this time his mother had refused to support him, and
he was forced into this position through necessity.

The cruiser _Jerome Napoleon_, on which he found himself, was, to his
chagrin, ordered to cruise in northern waters. So instead of seeing the
tropics again, Gauguin's new experiences were only of the ice-bound
Greenland coast and the barren North Cape. This was bad, but still worse
was to follow. The vessel was on its way to Spitzbergen when news was
brought to its captain that France had declared war upon Prussia.

"Where are you going?" said the second officer, seeing the Captain put
the helm about.

"To Charenton," replied the indignant first officer; Charenton being the
great lunatic asylum near Paris!

The vessel got no nearer to France than Copenhagen, when the melancholy
news of Sedan came. The name _Jerome Napoleon_ was painted out, that of
_Desaix_ substituted, and the unfortunate cruiser was obliged to remain
in the waters off Copenhagen till the close of the war in 1871,
contenting herself with the capture of one small ship as prize.


In 1871, after the cessation of hostilities, Gauguin obtained leave,
renewable at the end of eighteen months, to quit the navy. He was now
heartily sick of the sea, because of the enforced idleness and wearisome
discipline that he had now endured aboard the _Desaix_ for three years.
Besides the opportunity of another career was offering itself and he
felt that he must seize it.

His mother had died in the interval since he had last seen France and,
in dying, had confided the care of her two children to a well-to-do
Paris banker, Gustave Arosa. This man immediately found for Paul a place
at Bertin's, a banking house with which he was connected. And now there
opened for the young man a period not only the most prosperous but in
retrospect the most amazing of his career.

Though his character had already displayed itself to be that of an
instinctive nomad, a lover of the tropics and essentially a pagan
savage, yet it is apparent that he now yielded readily to the entrancing
prospect of amassing a fortune by speculation on the Bourse, without
troubling himself too much with the question whether his new position
might not entail heavier responsibilities in the future. He had not been
long at Bertin's before he found out how to make money quite easily.
Possibly this was not a very difficult thing to do, for the Paris stock
market had been utterly disorganized by the events of 1870-71, and, now
that peace was signed, France was making one of those rapid recoveries
that have been so common in her history. Stocks were going up and trade
was booming. Gauguin was able to take advantage of these circumstances
to such an extent that in one year, we are told, he made as much as
forty thousand francs.

In 1873 he married, thus saddling himself with a responsibility he was
never wholly to shake off. His wife, Mette Sophia Gad, was the daughter
of a Protestant clergyman of Copenhagen. The family was a good one and
enjoyed an honorable position in the society of the Danish capital. The
daughters had been educated at Paris, and one of them had married a
member of the Norwegian Parliament, while another had become the first
wife of the painter, Fritz Thaulow.

When or where Gauguin first met his future bride is uncertain, but it
was probably during the stay of the _Desaix_ at Copenhagen. At any rate
it seems that he was eager to marry, as the ceremony (a purely civil
one, owing to his wife being a Protestant) was delayed owing to the loss
of his father's certificate of birth in the bombardment of St. Cloud.

At this time, through his wife's friends and connections, through
Gustave Arosa, through Emile Schuffenecker--a fellow employee at
Bertin's--and through others, a new interest came into his life. He
began to paint, although pressure of work did not permit him to regard
this fresh occupation as more than an amusement at first. Arosa was, in
his way, an amateur of art and had collected a number of pictures by
French artists of the day--among them Delacroix and Courbet. These works
he engraved in photogravure--an art then in its infancy--and sent copies
of the engravings to his personal friends. Through Schuffenecker Gauguin
was brought closely into touch with the Impressionists, who were then
making a sensation in Paris. Gauguin bought brushes and colors and began
by painting on Sundays and holidays. It was only slowly that he began to
look upon painting as anything but a distraction.

His first essays in art were purely academic. He painted in the
prevailing style of the Salons and even sent one picture to the Salon of
1876. At the same time he began to attempt sculpture. He worked at first
in marble, a material afterwards entirely rejected in favor of the more
coarsely-grained surface of wood, clay or paste. He liked a rough
surface and counseled young sculptors to mix sand with the clay in order
to emphasize this roughness.

Gauguin's was a many-sided and a versatile nature. His early years at
sea had given him much of the sailor's ingenuity. He had a tremendous
interest in the technical processes of art. During his life he was able
to do almost equally well at painting, lithography and sculpture. He
also attempted etching, stained glass and pottery. His writings,
particularly his share in "Noa Noa," show a considerable grasp of
direct, poetic narrative--a gift that might very possibly have made of
him a good poet. Throughout his life we are unable to regard him solely
as a painter of pictures; his influence in opening new channels for
art-decoration is even more important than his pictorial work. Even in
literature his achievements have a certain force as inspiration. The
problems he set himself were as varied in their way as those that
occupied his English contemporary, William Morris, almost as varied as
those that occupied Leonardo da Vinci.

He acquired knowledge easily; his problem was always how to weigh, sift
and make use of it. But his growth to artistic maturity was slower than
in the case of artists who limit their field of effort, because he
attacked many subjects at the same time.

It may seem strange to consider this many-sided versatility as a proof,
not of a complex, but of a primitive nature. Yet it is undoubtedly true
that in the primitive stages of art the artist is able to do almost
everything. The interchangeability, the essential unity of all the arts,
is the strongest characteristic of art in its early stages. As
civilization and consequently technique become more advanced, it grows
more and more difficult for a man to become master of any single branch
of art. Perhaps that is why, in our modern industrialized states, the
arts tend to disappear, to become the interest and hobby of a rapidly
diminishing minority.

[Illustration: The painter Schuffenecker and his family.]

All this was not suspected by Gauguin at the time, nor for years
afterwards. For the time he was content to paint and to follow the
prevailing fashions in his painting. And he soon found that the
prevailing fashion of the day in Paris was Impressionism.

       *       *       *       *       *

To define Impressionism it is not necessary, as many professional
art-critics have done, to enter into long dissertations as to the
supremacy of pure colors, nor to see in Constable or Turner the ancestry
of the movement.

Impressionism was neither more nor less than the cult of Realism--or to
speak better, Naturalism--carried out in painting. This cult had already
possessed in painting one important precursor, Gustave Courbet. But it
is to literature, always the advance guard of the arts, that we must
turn to understand what impressionism intended and why it failed.

A little before 1870, which year marks a turning point not only in
France's political but also in her intellectual life, there came a
change over her literature. Romanticism, which had startled the world in
1830 with Lamartine, de Musset, de Vigny, Hugo and Balzac, was now dead.
The heroic, the Napoleonic, the Byronic attitude had somehow gone out of
life. Under the Second Empire, the bourgeois triumphed over the

A few years before the crash of 1870, Charles Baudelaire gave to the
world his _Fleurs du Mal_--the exasperated cry against life of a soul
tortured with too great a sensibility. Almost at the same time Gustave
Flaubert, in _Madame Bovary_, erected his monument of infamy to the
memory of the bourgeois. These two books opened the path to Naturalism,
to the "human document," to the de Goncourts, to de Maupassant, and to

Impressionism was the logical outgrowth, in another sphere, of the work
of these Naturalist writers.

It abolished the lighting of the studio and substituted for it natural

It abolished the classical "subject" and left the painter free to paint,
as Manet said, "_N'importe quoi_."

Thus, on the one side, it led directly to the analysis of atmospheric
vibration, foreshadowed by Constable and Turner, but not by them
elevated to the rank of a science; and on the other side, it led with
equal inevitability to the total dependence of the painter upon Nature,
and the consequent atrophy of his imagination. It was, as Manet said
again, "Nature seen through a temperament."

Against Impressionism, as against Romanticism, only one artist had dared
to continue the tradition of classical, decorative painting descending
from Giotto, through Raphael and Poussin, to Prud'hon and to Ingres.
This was the Norman, Puvis de Chavannes.

But Puvis, though nearly fifty, was still unknown, still dreaming of
walls to conquer, still buried away from the eyes of the young men in
the slumbrous depths of the official salons, while Impressionism was the
_succès de scandale_ of the day.

Gauguin heard of Impressionism and became a devout follower of its
theories. He painted pictures in the manner of Camille Pissarro, who was
a compatriot of Madame Gauguin, having been born in the Island of St.
Thomas in the Antilles, then Danish territory. Gauguin took part in the
exhibitions of the Impressionist group in 1880 and 1881.

Huysmans, then as later the disciple of Naturalism pushed to its extreme
limit, praised a nude of his because it was ugly. Gauguin began to be
talked about, not only as a well-to-do amateur, but as a coming artist.
But his work at the Bourse was exhausting his strength and his time.

Although he had now a wife and five children dependent on him, Gauguin
in January, 1883, took the rash step of quitting the financial world and
devoting himself solely to art.

This decision was, as Dr. Segalen says in his valuable Preface to the
letters Gauguin wrote from Tahiti, the true turning-point in his career.
When Paul Gauguin said to himself, "Henceforward I will paint every
day," he was not only satisfying his vague and latest personal ambition
and aptitude, he was setting himself to the fulfillment of a great
impersonal duty: he was beginning to clear away the sophistications not
only of his own nature but of modern art.


It is important to note that Gauguin was thirty-five years of age when
he came to this decision. This proves that the decision was no hasty
one, of which he was liable to repent later. At such an age a man has
arrived at his intellectual maturity; and, when this man is a Paul
Gauguin, we may feel sure that he does not alter his whole manner of
living from a mere desire for change. Gauguin had something to express
and knew it. He had better work to do than dabbling in stocks and
shares. And to this work he was determined to devote himself despite all

But had he not been instinctively a nomad and a savage, with the desire
for freedom, for life without compromise and for the harmony that comes
only from a natural expression of one's deepest instincts, this decision
might never have been taken. As a husband and father he now had others
dependent upon him. That he set aside their claims to follow the deeper
call proves that, as he later said, he believed himself to have the
right to dare everything. And he was probably at first confident of
success, thinking an artistic career likely to be as easy to manage as
that of a speculator.

Madame Gauguin seems to have acquiesced in this decision. She was
naturally desirous to be ranked as the wife of a famous and successful
man, and her husband may well have dazzled her with the prospects of his
success. In any case, she was soon destined to sad disillusionment.

Gauguin found it impossible to support himself and six others on the
sums he had saved. As for his pictures, they were not sufficiently well
known to sell. It was necessary, above all things, to gain time. So he
decided to sacrifice a collection of modern pictures which he had bought
with the proceeds of his career on the Bourse, in order to support
himself. The list of these pictures is interesting, as it shows clearly
the direction of his tastes at this period. It included a Manet, several
Renoirs, some Claude Monets, two Cézannes (still life and landscape), an
early Pissarro, together with examples of Guillamin, Sisley, Jongkind,
Lewis Brown and, most significant of all, two designs by Daumier.

Whether it was that Gauguin had continued to maintain his family in a
style above his present means and was therefore now in debt, we do not
know. Nor do we know whether the sale of his collection realized an
appreciable sum or not. Probably the amount was small, for the
Impressionists, though talked about, had not achieved that purely
commercial popularity which is the modern substitute for fame. In any
case, the painter soon found himself again without resources. He had
ignominiously failed to carve out a new career for himself in Paris. He
found that he could not now obtain another commercial post to take the
place of Bertin's. So it was Madame Gauguin's turn to act. She decided
on a removal to Copenhagen, where she hoped her family would use their
influence in obtaining a position for her husband.

Once in the Danish city, however, the basic difference between husband
and wife showed itself in violent form. The atmosphere of rigid
Protestant piety, in which his wife's family lived, jarred on the
passionate southern temperament of the painter. He discovered that he
hated everything in Denmark, the scenery, the climate, the prudery and
provinciality of the inhabitants, the lack of Parisian
Bohemianism--everything except the cookery of his mother-in-law! And he
took no pains to conceal his hatred. He defiantly persisted in
maintaining his Parisian freedom of speech and manners. One day, walking
on the road that overlooks the bay of the Sund, he chanced to look down.
Each of the estates adjoining the beach is equipped with a small cabin
for bathing. It is the custom there for the sexes to bathe separately
and entirely naked. Gauguin chanced to stop and look down at the moment
when the wife of a Protestant minister was stepping into the water.
Instead of going on, he decided to indulge his æsthetic interest in the
nude. The daughter of the minister's wife saw him and called out to her
mother to return. The lady turned and started hastily back to her cabin.
But Gauguin continued his inspection. Next day there was the inevitable

Such a state of affairs could clearly not continue. Gauguin would yield
nothing to the prejudices of the Danes, nor would his wife's family
change their ideas of respectability to suit his queer notions. A
separation between husband and wife was inevitable. In 1885 it came
about with, one may imagine, no great regrets on either side. To the
painter this marriage had all along been a matter of convenience. We
shall have ample opportunity to observe throughout his career that
Gauguin attached practically no sentiment to the sexual relations into
which he entered with various women. He was probably more affectionate
with his children, particularly with his daughter Aline, than ever with
his wife.

It was now far more convenient for him that his wife should remain with
her relations, where she would at least have a roof over her head, than
accompany him to Paris, whither he was determined to return. Madame
Gauguin agreed with this arrangement, hoping to see her husband, now
disembarrassed of his family, make a rapid conquest of the Parisian
art-world. And so in 1885 Paul Gauguin returned to France once more to
try his fortune.


He was now thirty-seven years old. Hitherto the events of his life had
been largely controlled by chance; from now on he began to strive more
consciously to be the master of his own destiny. It is therefore
necessary, before going further with this story, to take stock of the
man, both as regards his physical appearance and his intellectual

Gauguin was of not more than middle height, but stockily built and of
strong physical development. His hair, which later grew thinner and lost
much of its coloring, was chestnut inclining towards red, and fell in
large straggling masses over a broad but rather low forehead. The
eye-brows were arched and gave a skeptical appearance to the eyes, which
were heavy-lidded, small and gray-green in color--the eyes of one who
has spent many years at sea. The nose was large, thick and aquiline. A
thin drooping mustache, lighter in color than the hair, hung over the
mouth, with its large, coarse lips drooping at the corners. The chin was
pointed and retreating and, in later life, furnished with a short tufted
beard similar in color to the mustache.

After Gauguin's return from the Antilles in 1887 it is the testimony of
all who knew him that his skin had become as bronzed as an Indian's, and
that he dressed and looked altogether like a sailor. Even his excessive
devotion to tobacco, a habit that later was seriously to injure his
health, had something sailor-like in it. Gauguin rolled his own
cigarettes in the Spanish fashion and smoked commonly a short clay pipe.
His hands, too, were not those of an artist but of a seaman--coarse,
square and red. Altogether he was in appearance curiously Creole; he did
not resemble a Frenchman of France. The dark tint of his skin and the
formation of the face and features belied the color of the eyes and

His personal characteristics were unfavorably judged by most of those
with whom he came in contact. It must be remembered, however, that he
was by nature reserved and even suspicious, as are many people of
fundamental genius. He differed from those about him in that he worked
by instinct, while they worked according to some conscious method. He
therefore obtained out of himself, by means of slow thinking and
laborious effort, the knowledge which many have at the beginning.
Further, the study and practice of art is in itself so exhausting of
physical and emotional fibre as to leave its possessor with little
reserve of tact and dissimulation with which to face the world. Finally,
Gauguin was shy, actually and by nature shy. People took this shyness
for rudeness and this reserve for disdain. And Gauguin was not always
unwilling to profit by this misunderstanding. He carefully cultivated
his rudeness, both to create an effect and to keep bores at a distance.

As regards his work, he was on the way to find his path, although he
never entirely found it, even to the end of his career. His versatility
prevented his art from ever becoming fixed and dead, like that of many
popular and highly successful painters.

Mention has already been made of his appearance in 1880 among the
Impressionists and of the praise bestowed by Huysmans on one of his
pictures for its frank realism. This very nude, however, shows Gauguin
massing his shadows, making them heavy and dark, which was the direct
contrary to Impressionist practice. A year later we find Huysmans
complaining of the low and muddy color of his pictures; another proof
that the painter was already trying to mass tones, to escape from the
division of tones employed by the Impressionist group.

We are safe in assuming also that Gauguin felt already an inward desire
to paint nature as he had seen her in the tropics. His early years had
shown him the tropics; and the art of the greatest masters, as well as
of the worst daubers, is based on the instinctive knowledge they have
obtained during childhood and the use they have made of it in later
years. Pissarro, too, had seen the tropics; but they had not in any way
influenced his color sense, which, indeed, grew colder and grayer as his
years advanced. But he may have had something to do with Gauguin's
inclination towards tropical subjects, though the feeling of kinship
with Nature which Gauguin brought to such subjects was all his own.

If Gauguin had but known it, there waited for him not the future of fame
and fortune of which he dreamed, but seventeen years of life-and-death
struggle with actual hunger in a world that gave him neither the means
of living nor the slightest encouragement, but only hampered him in
every way, so that he was forced to paint his finest decorative pictures
on small pieces of board or canvas instead of on great walls. He was to
quit his own country, and to go to the ends of the earth, only to find
that the system of civilization possessed by his country, whatever its
other advantages, did not permit of an artist to live and enjoy the
fruits of his labor. He was finally to sink into an unmarked grave, to
be almost forgotten, and to attain to a commercial apotheosis only when
no longer able to profit by it. Even if Gauguin could have realized
this, it is doubtful if he would have changed his mind. Ready to dare
everything, he strode forward into the future.



With the return of Gauguin to Paris there opened for him the second
stage of his career, the struggle to maintain himself on the productions
of his brush and chisel. During the first stage his character had been
formed by the hard experiences of seafaring and by the comparative
leisure and affluence of his epoch of splendor, during which he found
time to discuss the principles of art with the best exponents of the
latest French tradition. He had not only met and talked with men like
Manet, Pissarro, and Cézanne, he also visited the museums of Paris, and
did not confine himself to the Louvre, but made a special study of the
Musée Guimet with its collection of art works from the far East, and
later of the Trocadero, with its casts of Cambodian sculpture. His stay
at Bertin's had been of good service in giving him the mental equipment,
the self-education necessary to begin the struggle for artistic

Yet in his case we know far less of what passed in his mind during these
important years of development than in the case of most of his
contemporaries. "He was the sort of man to be awake to everything new in
art that was going on," says one who knew him in this period, "but not
to acknowledge indebtedness to anything or anybody." What he absorbed
was by instinct; and instinct cautioned him not to share his knowledge
with people who might fail to make good use of it.

Amid the noisy chatter of Parisian art-circles he passed silent and
unnoted. He rented a studio and began to busy himself with all sorts of
experimental projects, particularly with sculpture. But very shortly
his resolution and character were further tested by the new experience
of hunger.

For a time he suffered extreme privation. He was forced at last to
accept a salary of three francs fifty centimes a day for pasting
advertisements on the walls of the Gare du Nord in order to save himself
from starvation.

"I have known," he wrote in a small notebook dedicated to his daughter
Aline, "extreme misery, that is to say hunger and everything that
follows upon hunger. It is nothing, or almost nothing. One grows
accustomed to it and, with will-power, one can end by laughing at it.
But what is terrible is to be prevented from working, from developing
one's intellectual faculties. It is true that suffering sharpens one's
ability. But it is necessary not to suffer too much or suffering will
kill you.

"With a great deal of pride I have ended by having a great deal of
energy, and I have forced myself to be full of will-power.

"Is pride a fault, or must one develop one's pride? I believe pride must
be developed. It is the best weapon we have against the human animal
that is in us."

This quotation gives us the man entirely. He was one of those who are
not to be beaten, one of those who do not turn back. He was to go
forward and to maintain himself while seeking a path.

In 1886 he contributed no less than nineteen pictures to an exhibition
of the Impressionist group, together with a relief in wood, which seems
to foreshadow the later creator of _La Guerre et la Paix_.

Most of these early works of Gauguin seem to have disappeared. Very few
can recall seeing one. It is therefore interesting to read the following
appreciation by Felix Fenéon, which shows that Gauguin was already
traveling far from the formulas that satisfied the other

"The tones of M. Paul Gauguin's pictures are very little separated from
each other; because of this, there is in his work a dull harmony. Dense
trees rise from the fertile soil, abundant and humid, invade the frame,
pursue the sky. The air is heavy. Bricks seen between the trunks
indicate a nearby house; things are lying about, muzzles are scattered
in the thicket--cows. These reds of roofs and of cattle the artist
constantly opposes to his greens and reflects them again in the waters,
encumbered with long grasses, which run between the tree-trunks."

This shows clearly that Gauguin was treating landscape at this period
already as a synthesis, a decorative whole and not, like Manet, Pissarro
or the Divisionists, as an exercise in the analysis of atmospheric
vibration. As for the relief on wood, Fenéon writes:

"On the pear-tree wood, which we regret to see left in monochrome, a
naked woman stands out in half relief, her hand to her hair, seated
rectangularly in a landscape. This is the only number of sculpture.
Nothing in painted wood, in glass-paste, in wax."

Paris with her art-theories had nothing now to teach Gauguin. He must
find his own way, create his own tradition. Aloof alike from the
theories of the Impressionists and from those of their successors, the
Pointillists--theories of the disassociation of tones and of the
analytic disintegration of light, based on the scientific treatises of
Chevreuil and Helmholtz--he was painfully tending back to the old
decorative tradition that a picture must be an unit, the harmonious
expression of a single emotion. Hunger proved again the best friend of
the independent artist. He fled from Paris and sought refuge in the


The place of refuge which Gauguin found was the village of Pont-Aven in
the district of Finistère in Brittany.

There is no doubt that this chosen spot and its surroundings had upon
his art an influence only secondary to that exercised later by Tahiti.
Indeed the charm of Tahiti itself was slow to efface this influence.

The Celtic fringe of Europe--Cornwall, the Highlands of Scotland,
Ireland, Wales, Brittany, Galicia--presents everywhere a great
similarity in natural feature and in the character of its inhabitants.
The Celt is an outcast. Driven backward by successive waves of
civilization and conquest, he has finally occupied those lands which
were so unprofitable to his conquerors that he was able to remain in
them undisturbed. Long residence in these desolate places has made of
him a natural mystic, a conservative. Perhaps he might never have been
anything else had not the nineteenth century--with its railroads and the
life-weariness of its cultivated classes--made of him a curiosity. The
hordes of tourists, of bad artists, of dealers in journalese, who rave
about Brittany, Cornwall, or Ireland as picturesque summer-resorts, show
that civilization has obtained its revenge on the savage who prefers to
remain a savage.

Paul Gauguin did not assuredly go to Brittany to discover the
picturesque. Had he done so his painting would have ranked no higher
than the painting of Charles Cottet or of Lucien Simon. His real home as
an artist, as he was later to discover, lay elsewhere--under less
troubled skies, in the midst of more tropical vegetation. But the gloom,
the melancholy inertia, the mystic faith, the simplicity of this land of
wind-mills, small trees, granite coasts and menhirs, worked strongly on
the yet untamed primitive in him. Stronger still perhaps was the appeal
of the sea, the most restless and yet the most changeless element in
nature. Gauguin was in appearance, as in manners, a sailor--the eye, the
direct curt speech, the reserved disdain, the freedom of manners, all
these in him had been accentuated by his early experiences. In Brittany
he found the sea; he found an unspoiled people; he found, above all,
repose from the everlasting chatter of art-theories that, like the
bubbling of endless bottles of too light champagne, frothed eternally in
the cafés of Paris. Brittany gave him greater faith in himself; Brittany
began to dispel the nineteenth century skepticism that was slowly
stifling him.

[Illustration: Struggle of Jacob with the Angel.]

His first stay in Pont-Aven was destined to be short. It is chiefly
remarkable for the fact that here he was visited by Emile Bernard, then
only about seventeen years of age, whose relations with Gauguin and
other painters afford matter for so much controversy that they must be
examined in detail.

Bernard was the type of infant phenomenon that springs up,
mushroom-like, in an overheated atmosphere of artistic and literary
controversy. At the age of sixteen he was writing violently naturalistic
and extremely bad poetry. He next went in for painting, raced off to
Brittany to see Gauguin, was received with coolness, ran back to Paris.
Here he found Van Gogh fresh from Holland and, when Van Gogh in turn
went to Arles, became his most industrious correspondent. Later he heard
that the crazy old hermit, Paul Cézanne, was living at Aix--so off to
Aix went Bernard. More letters were the outcome of the visit.

Meanwhile he progressed in painting from a divisionist and
neo-impressionist technique to a facile imitation of Gauguin's Breton
style, then to a combination of Cézanne and Gauguin, to conclude with
painting of Oriental subjects in a style not so very far removed from
that of Gerome. He imitated everyone in turn, only to end by becoming
that drab eclectic thing--what the French call a "pompier" or we an
"Academician." Thus he justified Gauguin's sardonic prophecy that
"Bernard would end up something like Benjamin Constant!"

We owe Bernard a debt in that he has preserved for us the beautiful
letters which Van Gogh wrote to him, and--more precious debt--that he
has given us those rare talks and letters in which that old stoic
Cézanne revealed a glimpse of his agony. But we owe Bernard nothing in
that he has seen fit to defame the art and character of the man whose
style he was the first to copy--Paul Gauguin. But of this more later.


The winter of 1886 found Gauguin again in Paris. Here he met another
artist whose life was destined to have upon his an influence quite
different from that of Emile Bernard.

This was Vincent Van Gogh, newly arrived from Holland. Gauguin has left
on record in a piece of prose called _Les Crevettes Roses_ his first
impression of Van Gogh, which proves beyond dispute that Gauguin loved
Van Gogh and admired him, despite his habitual reserve and the haughty
disdain with which he was already looking upon all things European.

At this time Gauguin was still painfully seeking, still patiently and
laboriously struggling towards his own self-realization. Van Gogh,
although five years younger, had fully realized himself in essence--was,
in fact, realized from the beginning. The difference between them was
that Van Gogh was an humble Dutch peasant, with the mystic blend of
religion and animality which is common to Flemish and Dutch artists (for
example, Breughel, Rubens or Verhaeren), while Gauguin was a Spaniard,
hard and aristocratic, but corrupted by cosmopolitan influences and the
strain of French blood.

For Van Gogh the future only held the liberating spiritual worship of
the sun, which was to raise his art to its highest pitch of lyric
ecstacy and to destroy the brain that had created it. For Gauguin the
future held a long and stoic struggle with the ironic destiny that left
him half-an-European to the end, his work only a broken fragment of what
he had dreamed.

It is a pity, in a way, that these men ever met. But their meeting and
the drama which was played out later between them, had in it the
inevitable quality of Greek tragedy. For the moment their meeting was
without result, except that perhaps it woke Gauguin to a realization
that to be a great artist one must love life as well as love art. In
short, one must be religious. But where was Gauguin to find his

Certainly not in Paris, the capital of intellectual skepticism. Nor, for
the moment, in sleepy and mournful Brittany. The memories of his early
initiation into the splendors of the tropics awoke in him and he
undertook, in 1887, a voyage to the Martinique in company with a young
painter, Charles Laval.

There is no doubt that this journey completely revealed to Gauguin his
own primitivism, although it left him for the time an invalid,
threatened with dysentery, suffering from constant intestinal pains, and
although it brought Laval to the brink of the grave.

If the reader wishes to know something of what Martinique was at this
time, he should turn to Lafcadio Hearn's "Two Years in the French West
Indies." Hearn, like Gauguin, was a disillusionized cosmopolite,
disgusted with the banal artifice, the blatant commercialism, the
pedantic and Puritanic hypocrisy of our Occidental civilization. Like
Gauguin, Hearn found in the West Indies a revelation of a world which
had not lost touch with Nature--a world of men who were content to
remain, in Nature's eyes, something as ephemeral and as harmonious as
the trees, the flowers, the beasts among which they lived. Like Gauguin
again, Hearn was nearly destroyed by this vision, but yet kept faith
with it to the last.

[Illustration: The Idol.]

In the pictures which Gauguin produced during his stay in Martinique, we
find the first rude indications of his later manner--the manner of a
mystic poet who sees all life, the life of man, of vegetation, of the
earth and the sea, as being parallel, harmonious manifestations of the
same Divine presence and therefore essentially in unity with each other.

If Gauguin did not realize himself in Martinique, he at least found
himself on the road to realization. But the unchecked power of the sun,
steadily sapping not only the white race, but also the race of mixed
blood, with which he, like Hearn, felt so much sympathy, banished him
from this Eden at the same time as it gave him a hint for the future.

His health demanded a return to France. He came back, bringing with him
pictures--experimental, tentative efforts to reconcile the glow and
gloom of the tropics with Pissarro's analysis of paler northern
sunlight. He brought back also the germ of thousands of other pictures
which he, as yet, could not paint. He brought back with him an idea.


After seeing the Antilles and returning to Paris, Gauguin was again
brought face to face with the problem against which he had already
struggled--the problem of his poverty.

He had obtained at Martinique the vision of a new world of art, which he
knew he was some day destined to realize. But for the present he had
neither lodging and studio, nor resources of any kind. He was forced to
live on charity.

Charity came to him in the shape of Emile Schuffenecker, who had also
given up finance for a career as artist.

Schuffenecker was not a genius, but he knew ability when he saw it, and
opened his doors freely to this needy colleague. It is a pity that
Gauguin repaid this generous hospitality of a friend by insulting
Schuffenecker as an artist.

Gauguin's relations with his friends are amongst the most painful
episodes of his life. One is almost inclined to think with Emile Bernard
that "the basis of Gauguin's character was a deep-seated egoism," or,
with Meier-Graefe, that Gauguin was nothing but a great child. Neither
of these views is, however, wholly correct.

Gauguin was the son, be it remembered, of a radical journalist and the
grandson of a Socialist pamphleteer. Journalism in France is not the
same thing as in England. There is scarcely any polite journalism in
France. Gauguin himself was always talking, according to Bernard, of art
and life needing "the blow of the fist." Paul Déroulède, Edmond Drumont,
Henri Rochefort, Octave Mirbeau, Zola, Clemenceau, and other celebrated
journalists of the Dreyfus period (the heyday of French journalism) knew
quite well what this "blow of the fist" meant, and practiced it upon
every opportunity.

Moreover, Gauguin was nearly forty, had knocked about the world a great
deal, banging himself against many sharp corners in the process, and
was face to face with want. It is also possible that he felt bound, for
the sake of his wife and children, to make as much money as possible.
Finally, he believed in himself as an artist, if no one else did. The
world had well hammered into him the hard lesson that one must either
hold a high opinion of oneself or become an object of contempt. As he
put it himself, "Is it necessary to be modest, or, in other words, an

So he accepted the use of Schuffenecker's studio, sold as many of his
own pictures as he could, and sneered loudly at Schuffenecker's attempt
to paint. Later on we find him accepting similarly Van Gogh's
hospitality, irritating Van Gogh to the pitch of madness, and--after Van
Gogh's death--sending to Bernard and seeking to oppose the proposed
exhibition of Van Gogh's pictures on the ground that Van Gogh was only a
madman. And later still, when Van Gogh's reputation began to rise in
public esteem, Gauguin declared that Van Gogh had learned from him and
had called him master.

Such traits are deplorable, if we consider Gauguin as an ordinary man.
But if we treat genius as ordinary humanity and insist upon it
conforming in every particular to ordinary standards, it is quite
certain that we will never have any genius worthy of the name. Gauguin
sinned in good company, with Michaelangelo who thought Raphael had
plotted against him, and with Berlioz who has left on record his opinion
of Wagner's music. To understand Gauguin one must share to some extent
the opinion of Flaubert--which, incidentally, Browning almost
endorses--that the man is nothing, the work is all.

It is not easy to read between the lines of Gauguin's self-imposed
reserve and self-determined resolve to shock the bourgeoisie. If we
attempt to do so, we find a man so set upon his own path that he was
almost without friends. Van Gogh he loved without understanding. Daniel
de Monfreid he perhaps loved and understood. The shadowy figure of
Tehura, a figure perhaps idealized, was to be the only woman who greatly
moved him.

Puvis de Chavannes, an artist to whom Gauguin owed much, similarly held
himself aloof from all. So did Degas and Ingres, two other artists of
Gauguin's stamp. So in ancient Greece did Sophocles.

The truly strong spirits of this world are not those who exist solely on
the surface of things. One can only sympathize with them, share their
imaginings through long and patient study. Gauguin was not altogether
strong; on some sides he was weak, as he himself admitted. But his work
increased in vitality and in strength as his aim became more clear.
Schuffenecker's studio was useful to him; he stayed in Paris just long
enough to sell as many pictures as he could and to copy Manet's
_Olympia_, a picture he greatly admired. Then once more he took the road
to Brittany.


Despite the fact that Gauguin had, before leaving Paris, held his first
one-man show and had actually sold a few pictures, his general situation
was not improved. He was now heavily in debt, and his health, undermined
at Martinique, remained bad.

He was at an age at which most men find themselves obliged to take stock
of the past and to calculate their chances for the future. In Gauguin's
case the chances were very small. He was crushed by his own impotence to
realize the art he had dreamed.

It was at this juncture that Vincent Van Gogh, now at Aries, came
forward and offered him a lodging, despite the fact that he himself
could not sell his own pictures and was entirely dependent on the
self-sacrificing efforts of his brother Theodore.

For a time Gauguin did not respond to Van Gogh's generous offer to
share their fortunes in common. But he sent his own portrait to Vincent,
a gloomy, powerful piece of painting which, in the opinion of some, so
startlingly resembles Robert Louis Stevenson--like Gauguin a wanderer,
but with what a difference! To Vincent this portrait suggested a
prisoner, with its yellow flesh and deep blue shadows. He was more than
ever determined to draw Gauguin out of the slough of despond into which
he was falling, and to work together with him for the better
establishment of both their reputations.

One can only admire Van Gogh for this decision. An artist of a childlike
simplicity of soul, a combination of Don Quixote, the Good Samaritan and
that Jesus of Nazareth whom he loved, Van Gogh was even greater as a man
than as an artist. But Gauguin was, as he knew himself later, greater as
an artist than as a man. It was natural for him to accept the invitation
of a man whom he knew, after all, very slightly, because he saw in this
acceptance possible advantages to himself.

Van Gogh's enthusiasm was unfortunately not backed, as was Gauguin's, by
a strong reserve of nervous strength. His was one of those souls whose
longing for spiritual reality followed inevitably the mystic path traced
by William Blake:--

     I will go down to self-annihilation and to eternal death
     Lest the Last Judgment come and find me unannihilate,
     And I be seiz'd and given into the hands of my own selfhood.

Gauguin's path tended to a different goal and followed the way foreseen
by Whitman:--

     O, to struggle against odds, to meet enemies undaunted!
     To be entirely alone with them, to find how much one can stand
     To look strife, torture, prison, popular odium face to face,
     To mount the scaffold, to advance to the muzzles of guns with perfect
     To be indeed a God!

Van Gogh was a lyric painter. His desire was to lose himself in the
ecstacy of the divine. Gauguin was a narrative, an epic painter. His aim
was to grow to divine stature through self-realization.

What could there be in common between the fervent admirer of Rembrandt,
Delacroix, Monticelli, Ziem, and the brooding, patient workman who was
building up his art on the classic tradition of Ingres, Cézanne and
Degas? Surely even less than between Michaelangelo and Tintoretto.

A drama between these men was inevitable. It was not slow in declaring
itself.[1] Of what actually occurred we have only Gauguin's account, of
how Van Gogh first attacked him, and then strove to take his own life.

Van Gogh, upon whose shattered nervous organism the shock had spent
itself, went voluntarily into a lunatic asylum at Arles, where, as his
grip on life grew weaker under the pressure of the inner flame that
devoured him, he painted visions of worlds tortured by the sun. Gauguin
returned to Brittany, as he said, "armed against all suffering." But he
had seen something. In striving to paint Van Gogh's portrait he had seen
a vision, once again to quote his own words, of "Jesus preaching
goodness and humility." And perhaps, in Vincent's hour of agony, while
he lay bloodless and inanimate on the bed in that little room which he
had loved and had painted so lovingly, Gauguin had another vision--of
the sombre Garden of Gethsemane.

Thus maybe there was awakened still more clearly in his spirit that
desire for harmony between the flesh and the soul, between nature and
God, between the earth and the stars that hang over the earth, which he
was to seek desperately to the last and strive to realize, despite the
baseness of that other part in him, the civilized, unprimitive part,
which strove merely to destroy the harmony and to smile at its work of

[Footnote 1: Gauguin and Van Gogh were actually together from the 20th
October to the 23d December, 1888.]



In 1889 there opened in Paris on the Champ-de-Mars the Universal
Exposition, to celebrate the centennial of the taking of the Bastile. Of
this exhibition and of the palace built to house it, nothing now remains
except the melancholy Eiffel Tower.

The pictures admitted to the exhibition were, rather naturally, of a
kind sanctioned by academic officialdom. Wherefore visitors who happened
to patronize the Café Volpini near the entrance were doubtless startled
to find upon the walls a hundred pictures of a kind calculated to shock
all their susceptibilities in art matters. Their perplexity cannot have
been greatly lessened by the receipt of a catalogue bearing this title:
"Catalogue of the Exposition of Pictures of the Impressionist and
Syntheticist Group, held on the Premises of M. Volpini, at the
Champ-de-Mars, 1889."

The exhibitors were people of whom the respectable patrons of the Café
Volpini had for the most part never heard. Their names were:--E.
Schuffenecker, Emile Bernard, Charles Laval, Louis Anquetin, Louis Roy,
Léon Fauché, Georges Daniel, Ludovic Nemo (a pseudonym of Bernard's) and
lastly, Paul Gauguin. Lithographs, printed in black upon yellow paper
and not less extraordinary than the pictures, were also visible upon
request. These were by Bernard and Gauguin.

The result of this exhibition was that the public laughed, the papers
protested, the young students of art in the various ateliers of Paris
were stimulated to furious discussion. But a few spirits, more
venturesome or more prophetic, took the trouble to test the new ideas. A
few, chief among them Sérusier of the Académie Julian, even set out to
visit the birthplace of the new movement, a lonely inn kept by a family
of the name of Gloanec at Le Poldu, a short distance from Pont-Aven.

A brief survey of the history of Syntheticism is necessary to an
understanding of the theories of the new school. Here we enter upon
debatable ground. It has already been said that the chief opponents of
the academicism of Cabanel and Bougereau were the Impressionists. Their
movement was already through its second phase and entering upon its
third. The earliest of the Impressionists, led by Manet, insisted that a
picture was only nature seen through a temperament; in other words, that
a picture must be naturalistic. This doctrine found parallel literary
expression in the writings of the de Goncourts, de Maupassant and Zola.
The first phase in Impressionism was therefore synthetic and maintained
a belief in form.

It was succeeded by an analytical phase, based upon the application to
color of the scientific theories of light, of Rood, Chevreuil and
Helmholtz. To Claude Monet, the founder of this new school of
Impressionism, nothing mattered in a picture but the atmosphere. Form
was abandoned.

After Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Guillamin, a new group, of whom
the chief were Seurat and Signac, attempted to combine the tenets of
their two sets of predecessors. They retained formal composition but
broke up color into minute points or dots. This third generation of
Impressionists were originally termed Neo-Impressionists but now, more
frequently, Pointillists.

Three artists stood out against the tendency towards scientific theory.
Puvis de Chavannes had, within the very precincts of the official salon,
created an art based on something wholly distinct, alike from the
photographic and frigid eclecticism of Cabanel and Bougereau and from
the work of both Manet and Monet. Puvis was a decorator who could think
and paint only in terms of walls. He had achieved, after a long
struggle, a decorative synthesis of his own, based upon the ruthless
simplification of masses, contours and coloring. Reserved, cold,
solitary, he had emptied his art of all rhetorical emphasis and in his
old age was tending closer and closer to the methods of Giotto, that
father of all European painting.

Paul Cézanne, the hermit of Aix, had faced the problem of painting with
the Impressionist palette while preserving the mass structure of his
true spiritual ancestors--the Venetians and El Greco. As a result he was
thought to be mad and even considered by some to be a myth, for he lived
far from Paris and had for long enough sent no pictures to be exhibited.
Finally, Degas, associating himself with the Impressionists at the
outset, had been careful to preserve the classic line and composition of
Ingres, who might be called the last of Florentines. Degas was
considered an artist of small importance because, unlike Manet, he
scorned to give himself airs. He lived a retired life in Paris, and did
not exhibit.

These three men--Puvis de Chavannes, Cézanne and Degas--had, through
their own inner necessity, become syntheticists. But no one of them
preached Syntheticism, because their adherence to the creed was
unconscious. The doctrine was first voiced by the men who exhibited with
Paul Gauguin at the Café Volpini in 1889, who lived and worked with him
at the Gloanec inn, near Pont-Aven. It was from these men that the
reaction against Impressionism started, a reaction which, in its turn,
was destined to provoke another reaction towards the theories of
mathematical and analytical abstraction of line, color and form, which
we know as Cubism, Futurism and Vorticism. It was these men surrounding
Gauguin, who forged the last living link in the chain of art tradition
which goes back through Giotto and Cimabue to the Byzantine mosaics,
and, through these, to the first essays in art of cave-men and savages.
With Cubism, Futurism and Vorticism we may be witnessing the beginning
of a new tradition. With Gauguin and his fellows we see the renaissance
of an old one.


As early as 1886, in an article in the _Revue Indépendante_, the
well-known critic Eduard Dujardin had spoken of a group calling
themselves the Cloissonists, who painted in flat patches of tone,
divided from each other by black lines.

Cloissonism, as the name indicates, was borrowed from the Japanese. But
as a method of painting, it had been derived less from cloisonné enamel
than from the technique of the Japanese color-print artists.

The artistic gods of the Cloissonists were Hokusai, Hiroshige, Utamaro.
It may be remembered that since 1865 men like Zola, Manet, Monet,
Whistler, the de Goncourts--in short the entire generation of the
naturalists--had collected these color prints, written about them,
talked about them.

Gauguin himself, when he returned to Paris at the close of this year
1889, pinned a frieze of Hokusai and Utamaro prints round the walls of
his studio.

But the existence of this somewhat baroque and exotic school of
Cloissonism, of which the leader was Anquetin (later ranked with the
Syntheticists), does not fully explain the use of Syntheticism with its
greater insistence upon decorative unity, and its clearer affinities to
the work of the Italian primitives.

As to the origin of Syntheticism we have divergent statements from
contemporary witnesses.

The English artist, A.S. Hartrick, who was studying in Paris from 1886
to 1889 and who knew personally both Gauguin and Van Gogh, ascribes the
Synthetic theory to Gauguin in these terms:--

"From a study of thirteenth century glass he (Gauguin) got an idea of
design and color which exactly suited his state of development, and he
then proceeded to translate it into an art of his own, using oil paint
as a vehicle."[1]

Of similar opinion is the well known French artist and writer, Maurice
Denis, whose work has done so much to popularise Gauguin. He declares in
his book "Theories,"[2] that Gauguin was the "incontestable originator"
and master of the new movement, to which he gives two names:
Neo-Traditionism and Symbolism. In the first account which he wrote of
the movement in 1890, an account obtained from the lips of Paul
Sérusier, one of the earliest of Gauguin's disciples after 1889, Denis
includes the following interesting paragraph:

"Did not Paul Gauguin originate this ingenious and unpublished history
of modeling?

"At the beginning there was the pure arabesque, as little deceptive of
the eye as possible; a wall is empty; cover it with symmetrical spots
of form, harmonious in color:--stained glass, Egyptian pictures,
Byzantine mosaics.

"From this comes the painted bas-relief:--metopes of the Greek temple,
the church of the Middle Ages.

"Then the attempt to attain to the ornamental deception of the eye
practised in Antiquity is resumed in the fifteenth century by the
Italian primitives, who replace the painted bas-relief by paintings
modeled to imitate bas-relief, but in other respects preserve the first
idea of decorative unity. Recall also under what conditions
Michaelangelo, a sculptor, decorated the Sistine ceiling.

"Perfection of this modeling; modeling in high-relief. This leads from
the first academy of the Caracchi to our decadence."

Emile Bernard holds a contrary opinion. His view was originally
published in the _Mercure de France_ and reasserted in his preface to
the letters written to him by Van Gogh.[3] Bernard, who revolted from
the Atelier Cormon with Anquetin, had, as we have seen, been repulsed
by Gauguin in in 1886. After a brief return to Paris he went off to
Saint-Briac, where he covered the walls of the inn with frescoes and
painted the windows, in imitation of stained-glass, employing essence of
turpentine as a medium. In 1888, before Gauguin came to Arles, Bernard
was brought into contact with him again through the mediation of
Theodore Van Gogh and, although young enough to be Gauguin's son (being
about twenty at this time), shared with him the honors of the Volpini

Bernard claims that he, and he alone, invented Syntheticism, and bases
his claim on the evidence of the pictures (all dated) which Gauguin
painted previous to 1888, and in which Gauguin was still definitely
Impressionist in technique. He maintains that Gauguin abruptly changed
his style after the second meeting in 1888, when he first saw what his
younger rival had been doing. Furthermore, Bernard contends that this
style was solely based upon the application of Cézanne's discoveries in

Against these contentions there are three objections to be made.

In the first place it is known that Gauguin, during his stay in
Martinique in 1887, painted pictures that are undeniably essays in
syntheticism. Martinique showed Gauguin the impossibility of painting
tropic sunlight by means of the Impressionistic division of tones.
Always purely intuitive as an artist, Gauguin began to realize at
Martinique, however vaguely, that one cannot reproduce the natural
decomposition of light by the artificial decomposition of color
attempted by Pissarro and the other Impressionists. He therefore sought
to translate sunlight into color by simplifying and exaggerating the
contrast of colors.

In the second place, Bernard's argument leaves unexplained why it was
not he, but Gauguin, who after 1888 painted those magnificent pictures
_Le Christ Jaune, Le Christ Vert_ and _La Vision après le Sermon_[4] and
carved the two superb bas-reliefs _Soyez Amoureuses et vous serez
Heureuses_ and _Soyez Mystérieuses_. Moreover, the careful reader of Van
Gogh's letters to his brother will find that throughout '88 and '89
Bernard stood in relation to Gauguin as a pupil to a master. Finally,
even if Bernard's contention be partially true and if his own essays did
induce Gauguin to reject the last vestiges of Impressionism, his story
fails to account for the masterly grasp of Synthetic Symbolism shown by
Gauguin immediately after their second meeting.

It is quite impossible to trace to Cézanne's essays in Synthetic
Impressionism the more severely linear and decorative design of either
Bernard or Gauguin. Cézanne, later on, even went so far as to assert
that Gauguin had misunderstood him. Therefore it is clear that the
opinions of A.S. Hartrick and of Maurice Denis better fit the facts.
Gauguin was the sole originator of the Synthetic style. That style was
derived, perhaps mainly, from the careful study of thirteenth century
glass, which does perfectly what Gauguin wished to do: translate the
effect of sunlight into luminous color. But it was also derived from
Egyptian painting, Byzantine mosaics and the Kakemonos of the Japanese.
In short, it was as complete a rejection of Impressionism as possible
and a return to the linear arabesque and decorative spacing of balanced
color and form practiced by the primitives of all times and preserved,
in the nineteenth century, in the works of artists whom Gauguin admired:
Ingres, Puvis de Chavannes, Cézanne and Degas.

[Footnote 1: "Post-Impressionism," by A.S. Hartrick. _Imprint,_ May,

[Footnote 2: Paris, l'Occident, 1912.]

[Footnote 3: Paris, Vollard, 1911.]

[Footnote 4: Now known as _La Lutte de Jacob avec l'Ange_.]


The exhibition at the Café Volpini brought notoriety to Gauguin. Various
young artists, wearying of the academic "receipt for art"--the phrase is
Gauguin's--which they were being taught in the ateliers of Paris, took
the road for Pont-Aven. Among these were Paul Sérusier, Chamaillard, and
the Dutchman, De Haahn.

Acting under the influence of these, and especially under that of
Sérusier, whose mind was metaphysical and filled with Neo-Platonic
mysticism, Gauguin attempted to become the teacher of a definite
doctrine. Hitherto he had been an artist of the type of Ingres, working
purely intuitively, with one eye upon tradition and another upon nature.
But his new pupils were eager for a theory, a formula, and a formula
this hater of the dogmatic attempted to create.

Artists are singularly unhappy in their attempts to explain themselves.
Whistler is not the only example of an artist who might have been
greater had he not wasted so much time in controversy. The public always
takes too literally the efforts of an artist to analyze his own methods.
All art is a synthesis, and no artist can be at the same time synthetic
and analytical.

Gauguin was no exception to this rule. Take for example, his
often-quoted statement about the use of primary colors:--

"Always use colors of the same origin. Indigo is the best basis. It
becomes yellow in saltpeter, red in vinegar. You can obtain it at any
chemist's. Keep to these three colors."

Gauguin himself did not follow this precept. An examination of his
palette shows that it was arranged thus, from left to right:
--ultramarine, silver white, emerald green, veronese green, yellow
ochre, burnt sienna, yellow chrome, vermilion, and crimson lake. No
artist needs to be told that many of these colors are dangerously
fugitive, whether used pure or in mixture.

So with another celebrated saying: "Seek harmony and not contrast, the
agreement and not--the clash of color." This saying not only goes
contrary to the previously quoted remark on the use of primary colors,
but is opposed to those equally famous dicta: "Does that trunk of a tree
seem to you blue? Paint it as blue as possible," and, "A mile of green,
is more green than half a mile."

It is therefore more valuable to summarize the main lines of Gauguin's
teaching than to quote this or that paradoxical remark. Gauguin was not
a man holding a high-school debate on theory, but a creator. He refused
even to be called a decorator, he preferred the title of artisan. He
declared outright that he had no technique. "Or perhaps I have one, but
very vagabond, very elastic, according to the way I feel when I awaken
in the morning, a technique which I apply to my own liking in order to
express my thought, without taking account of the truth of Nature,
externally apparent. People think nowadays that all the technical means
of painting are exhausted. I do not believe it, if I am to judge by the
numerous observations which I have made and put into practice....
Painters have still much to discover."

Gauguin therefore boldly called his pupils anarchists and left to them
this remark: "Do what you please, so long as it is intelligent." This
did not prevent him from having a great respect for art tradition. He
knew that tradition is not a "recipe for making art," but the sum-total
of collective human intelligence working in the past on the same
problems that face the artists of to-day. He realized that the essential
substance of art is always the same. Art is an eternal renewal of this
substance. "The artist is not born of a single unity. If he adds a new
link to the chain already begun, it is much. The artist is known by the
quality of his transposition."

The "transposition" that he himself strove for may be clearly read in
his pictures. He strove incessantly for a renewal of the decorative art
of the great Venetians, by blending the Venetian glow of color with the
calm line of Primitive and especially of Egyptian Primitive design. His
problem was essentially the same as that of Puvis de Chavannes, the
problem of how to cover a flat wall space with design and color so as to
leave it still essentially a wall and not, as Veronese and Tiepolo left
it, an optically deceptive piece of stage-scenery. Puvis had solved the
problem by the artificial means of lowering his scale of colors and by
simplifying his drawing. Gauguin solved his by the elimination of
modeling, and of graduations of tone, and by reducing his drawing to the
strongest possible arabesque of outline. In everything he sought for the
essential form, the form that contains all the other inessential forms.
As Sérusier puts it: "The synthetic theory of art consists in reducing
all form to the smallest possible number of component
forms:--straight lines, arcs of a circle, a few angles, arcs of an
ellipse." And to express this form he sought for the most harmonious
balance of color. Maurice Denis says:--"Recall that a picture, before
being a war-horse, a nude or some anecdote, is essentially a flat
surface covered with colors arranged in a certain order."

[Illustration: Tahitian Women.]

Therefore and above all, Gauguin told his pupils not to draw from the
model, but from memory. He admitted that it was useful for young
painters to have a model, as all knowledge of facts could only be
obtained from the study of models. But he added that it was better to
draw a curtain before the model while painting it. One of his pupils
declared: "We went into the country to paint seascapes and to the
seashore to do landscapes."

Gauguin's teaching in this respect exactly agrees with the methods
practiced for centuries by the great Chinese and Japanese painters. He
would have enjoyed that story of a Chinese painter, who was sent out by
the Emperor to paint the most celebrated landscape views in the Empire,
and who returned without having painted anything. When the Emperor asked
him: "But where are your pictures?" he replied: "I have them here"--and
pointed to his forehead. Gauguin, with his hatred of copying either from
nature or from the masters of the past, would also have appreciated the
Chinese idea of a "copy"--a free rearrangement of old material according
to one's temperament.

Lastly, he counseled his pupils not to paint movement but repose. "Let
everything you do breathe peace and calm of soul. Avoid all animated
attitudes. Each of your figures should be perfectly static. Give
everything a clear outline." This counsel sounds strange to ears
deafened by the tumult of modern life and by the clamorous theories of
Cubists, Futurists and Vorticists. But to Gauguin it was the basis of
his own mystical religion. He gave it to the world, however, not for
this reason, but because he realized that painting to be decorative
must be architectural. He himself was a builder, an artisan. In Brittany
he painted the walls and windows of the inn where he lived; he made
furniture, carved and ornamented a pair of wooden sabots for himself,
worked at bas-reliefs, decorated pottery. Movement, restlessness, would
have but troubled the lines of that ideal building, which, even then, he
was erecting in his dreams.

Such was the doctrine of Paul Gauguin. It may seem strange that such
ideas could have ever been considered revolutionary. In the Far East at
all events, they had been the commonplaces of art for centuries.
Revolutionary or not, Gauguin went on his way undisturbed. From an
examination of his letters, and of the statements of those who knew him,
the fact emerged that this "anarchist" preserved throughout his life a
great respect for artists of the past. Rembrandt especially, in his
mystical and visionary phase, appealed to him and Rembrandt's influence
may be traced in more than one of Gauguin's Tahitian pictures.
Velazquez, Rubens, Proudhon, Corot, Whistler--Gauguin was able to learn
something from all these men as well as from Memling and Holbein. As for
his pupils, the measure of the intelligence they displayed in following
his precepts may be judged by the fact that Gauguin remarked about one
of them: "His faults are not sufficiently accentuated for him to be
considered a master," and by the fact that the first synthetic picture
of another was, according to Maurice Denis, painted on the lid of a
cigar box!


It is in the works of this period that we must seek for a solution of
Gauguin's mystic doctrine and for an explanation of the struggle that
went on in his soul: a struggle that was solved finally by his denial of
civilization and affirmation of pagan savagery at Tahiti.

Gauguin, as has been seen, was not naturally but only deliberately a
teacher of others. Especially in his intimate and personal concerns, he
commonly guarded an air of defiant reserve. In the matter of views on
art, he contented himself with the expression of dogmatic and
paradoxical opinions which, if disputed, were merely affirmed with
greater violence.

It is related of him that, if any one persisted in holding an opinion
contrary to his own, Gauguin would reply only by an oblique glance from
those cold gray eyes an answer that usually reduced the speaker to an
embarrassed silence.

Nevertheless, we owe to the fortunate preservation of various
fragmentary notes, made in the solitude of his last desperate years,
indications of what Gauguin's religious and political opinions were.
Here are some of them:--

"If I gaze before me into space, I have a vague sense of the Infinite;
nevertheless I am the conclusion of something that has been begun. I
understand then, that there has been a beginning and that there will be
no end.

"In this I do not possess the explanation of a mystery, but merely the
mysterious sense of this mystery--and this sensation is intimately
linked to the belief in an eternal life, promised by Jesus.

"But then, if we in ourselves are not the beginning when we come into
the world, it is necessary to believe, with the Buddhists, that we have
always existed.

"A change of skin.

"All this is very strange.

"The unfathomable mystery remains what it has always been and what it
is, unfathomable. God does not belong to the scholar, the logician. He
belongs to the poets, to their dreams. He is the symbol of Beauty,
Beauty itself."

From these and other jottings we can understand what was passing in
Gauguin's mind when he painted the pictures: _Le Christ Jaune_ and _Le
Christ au Jardin d'Oliviers_; when he carved the contrasted bas-reliefs:
_Soyez Amoureuses and Soyez Mystérieuses_; when he drew the lithographs:
_La Cigale et les Fourmis_, and _Léda_ which bears the defiant
inscription "Honi soit qui mal y pense."

Gauguin was a mystic who sought instinctively for religious
illumination, not in the systems of philosophers and theologians, but in
nature and in man. Among the higher types of civilized man he saw only a
false system of morality, politics and religion, which elevated the
wealthy above the level of the rest of humanity and forbade to the
thinker, the artist, the independent workman, the very right to live.

Against the organized materialism of the nineteenth century, he
recognized in Jesus Christ a revolt and a protest; but a revolt and a
protest that had failed. Humanity had not yet produced, save by
exception, the higher type of man, the man capable of "selling all and
giving to the poor," the man chosen "to enter the Kingdom of Heaven." A
terrible epoch, he foresaw, was coming in Europe for the next
generation: an epoch where the tyranny of money would destroy mankind.

Therefore, in contemplating Christ, he was moved by a sense of despair,
of the futility of this sacrifice. His attitude to Christianity became
purely Protestant. Across his pictures there moves no gracious shadow of
the beneficent Virgin, sharing with humanity the joys and sorrows of

In _Le Christ Jaune_ he gives us the symbol of a faith which has proved
impotent to elevate mankind to its level. _Le Christ au Jardin
d'Oliviers_ echoes the awful cry, "My God, my God, why hast thou
forsaken me?" The terrible little picture, _Les Misères Humaines_ sums
up in its two figures the despair and hypocrisy of our vaunted
civilization. Even the later Tahitian _Birth of Christ_ renders nothing
but the physical anguish and exhaustion of maternity. In the _Ia Orana
Maria_, or the Salutation to Mary, the Virgin is represented merely as a
happy human mother.

Nature, on the other hand, seen by him luxuriant and unfettered, as at
Martinique, taught him the uselessness of revolt, struggle and effort,
the need of fatalism, of resignation. He grew to believe that man was
better, more rational, more harmonious when no longer struggling against
the inexorable laws of birth, begetting, and death. Thus in his art he
aimed at repose, the quietism of the Buddhists. His knowledge of
Buddhism was not deep--indeed in his eyes, Buddhism, too, was a vain
revolt against nature--but his respect for Buddhistic doctrine remained
greater than his respect for Christianity. At the bottom of his soul
there dwelt an old, old thought, the essence of all paganism: "Eat,
drink and be merry, for to-morrow we may die."

As he put it later in the pages of his Tahitian recital:--

"To the eyes of Tagatha (the God) the most splendid glories of kings and
their ministers are but dust and spittle:

"To his eyes, purity and impurity are like the dance of the six

"To his eyes, the search for the Way of Buddha is like the coming of

It is only by meditating long on this disillusioned mysticism of a man
who was never more than half an European, that we are able to understand
how the same mind could have conceived the exasperated sensuality of the
bas-relief, _Soyez Amoureuses et vous serez Heureuses_ and the somber
despair of _Le Christ au Jardin d'Oliviers_. That mind, as we have
seen, was neither wholly Christian or Pagan--though the untamed Pagan
element in it was destined slowly to get the better of the more refined
Christian side. Therefore it is useless to ask ourselves whether Gauguin
as an artist, displayed more of the Classic tradition than of the
Gothic. Gothic as well as Classical strains remained mingled in him up
to the last. Throughout his work there runs a longing--obscure,
tormented, and ultimately foiled--for a natural religion: a religion
that would reconcile man with nature in one harmony, a religion, which,
like the rest of his striving, would be a synthesis.


By the end of the year 1889, Gauguin's name had acquired a certain
renown, and he naturally gravitated back to Paris. Being however still
without resources, he took residence once more with Emile Schuffenecker.

At that period, the literary and artistic school which had produced
naturalism and impressionism was growing rapidly old-fashioned. Paris
was on the verge of her æsthetic nineties. A small group of writers,
chief of whom were Verlaine, Mallarmé, and Huysmans, had proclaimed a
sort of revolt against the nineteenth century, and had been, in
consequence of their love for the remote past, at first labelled
Decadents. This title was soon abandoned for the better designation of

Gauguin appeared to the smaller fry of Symbolism as a sort of hero. Here
was a man whose revolt was something not fictitious. He had definitely
broken away from his own commercial surroundings. He had defiantly
ruptured his own family ties. He had abolished Impressionist science and
had sought to restore art to its primitive condition, revealing in the
process the inexhaustible strength and vitality of peasant and popular
art. His appearance amongst them, in a sailor's jersey, a sailor cap,
sailor's trousers, and carved wooden shoes, excited a sensation. He
became to the facile crowd of hero-worshipers and hangers-on, a sort of

Some critics have stated that Gauguin's head was turned by this
adulation, but in reality, under a new veneer of affectation, he
remained what he had always been. No man was less fitted for living in
the midst of cultivated society than he. For a time, during that strange
epoch of his financial career, he had indeed become, to outward seeming,
largely an European; but this was merely on the surface and had
completely vanished in the course of his later vagabondage. An
invincible shyness and indisposition to reveal himself to others were in
him, masked by an appearance of sullen reserve and discourtesy. This
shyness disappeared when he was with children, peasants, or natives. But
to every one else Gauguin attempted to be as rude as possible, in order
to keep them at a distance. And, generally, he succeeded.

It is small wonder then that Schuffenecker shortly found his guest again
intolerable, and that Gauguin had to seek out a more modest lodging.
Schuffenecker is scarcely to be pitied. He seems never to have realized
that Gauguin was the sort of man whom it was worth while trying to love
and understand. In losing Gauguin, he lost the one thing that was ever
likely to bring him fame, the reputation which his studio had already
acquired in the eyes of certain amateurs, as housing Gauguin's
collection of pictures and sculptures by himself, by Cezanne, Van Gogh,
and Odilon Redon.

Gauguin shortly found a better friend perhaps the only real friend he
ever had--who was willing to give him the use of a studio. This was
Daniel de Monfreid, who had, incidentally, under the name George Daniel
taken part in the Volpini exhibition.

It is worthy of note that what brought them together was not a community
of taste in matters of art, but a common love of the sea.

De Monfreid, like Gauguin, had been a sailor. He was a man enjoying a
certain competence who had taken to yachting as an amusement. Every
summer, he dropped his palette and brushes, put on his master mariner's
cap, which he had won after an apprenticeship aboard a coasting vessel,
and set forth in his own schooner of thirty-six tons for a cruise in the
Mediterranean. This went on for years until de Monfreid, weary of
dodging quarantine restrictions, and getting entangled in the
complications of maritime law, retired from the sea, generously offering
his schooner to the Naval School at Cette, where she ultimately met her
end. At this period he was known to his artistic friends in Paris as
"the captain," and had been introduced to Gauguin by Schuffenecker, on
the former's return from Martinique in 1887.

To this man all lovers of Gauguin's art owe an immense debt. Whether it
was due to the independent and roving disposition, shared by both, or to
their common love and experience of the sea, or to the fact that both
were painters (de Monfreid's experiences in the Mediterranean had made
of him a good colorist), or to a certain bond of savage frankness and
nomad primitiveness to which all the rest of their common tastes were
due, is unknown. The fact remains that the friendship between them was
of that ideal kind that is never broken: the friendship between the
creator and helper, which all artists long for and to which so few
attain. In finding de Monfreid, Gauguin experienced almost the last
stroke of good fortune that he was to have in life. The last stroke of
all came a little afterwards when, in the year after accepting de
Monfreid's hospitality, he suddenly decided to leave Europe for Tahiti.

[Illustration: Hina Maruru (Feast to Hina).]

The happy discovery of a letter which Gauguin wrote at this time to a
Danish painter, Willemsen by name, clears up the long-vexed point of
what induced him to take this decision.[1] He chanced to attend, or to
read the report of, a lecture on Tahiti, given by a certain Van der
Veere. Van der Veere apparently pitched the tone of his discourse to
suit the tastes of a fashionable audience. He pictured Tahiti as a
terrestrial paradise where money was unknown. "Under a sky without
winter, upon an earth of a marvelous fertility, the Tahitian has only to
lift his hands to gather in his food; so he never works. For him life
means singing and making love." It is easy to picture the effect of such
phrases on the mind of a born lover of repose like Gauguin. Tahiti held
out the hope that Martinique had failed to realize; the hope that he
might be the first painter of the tropics. Gauguin's imagination was
fired by the idea. He declared that he intended to quit Europe and live
in Tahiti henceforward. There he could perhaps forget all the hardships
of the past, and die forgotten by Paris, happy and free to paint "sans
gloire aucune pour les autres." And if his children could join him
there, all the better--his isolation would then be complete.[2]

The young Symbolists of course shouted "Bravo!" at the news of the
proposed voyage. Tahiti! Another symbol! They had already spoilt Gauguin
sufficiently for serious art, by persuading him to embark on various
symbolistic enterprises, such as the production of a masterpiece
entitled _Loss Of Maidenhood_, which has fortunately vanished, and an
etching representing Mallarmé with Poe's Raven in the background.
Perhaps their eagerness to see Gauguin safely embarked for Tahiti only
concealed a growing boredom with their idol of yesterday.

At all events Gauguin was fêted, wined, dined. Thirty of his works were
auctioned off at the Hôtel Drouot, producing the small sum of nine
thousand six hundred and eighty francs. The Government consented to make
his voyage to Oceania an official "artistic mission," on condition that
this did not involve them in a responsibility for the expenses. A
banquet was held at the Café Voltaire, where all the Symbolists were
assembled. Gauguin has left some ironical observations on this or on a
similar banquet, which show clearly his opinion of the ceremony. Finally
a benefit performance was given by the Théâtre d'Art for the departing
artist and also for Verlaine, then rapidly sinking into the squalor of
his last years.[3]

The most interesting fact about the performance was that, included in
the program by a strange stroke of irony, Maurice Maeterlinck's play
_L'Intruse_ made on this occasion its first appearance on the stage.
Death walked the stage before Gauguin's eyes, as if to show him what to
expect. And yet he did not draw back.

On the fourth of April 1891, Gauguin, abandoning Paris, started on his
voyage of discovery to Tahiti. Morice, in his interesting book on
Gauguin, declares that when the decision was irrevocably made, and the
mission to Tahiti had been stamped with official approval, Gauguin's
self-possession momentarily abandoned him, and he broke down, and wept.
And when Morice asked the reason, he replied in these strange, tragic,
touching words:--

"Listen to me.... I have never known how to keep alive both my family
and my thought. I have not even been able, up to now, to keep alive my
thought alone. And now that I can hope for the future, I feel more
terribly than I have ever felt, the horror of the sacrifice I have
made, which is utterly irreparable."

With this knowledge in his heart, Gauguin abandoned civilization.

[Footnote 1: _Les Marges_, Paris, May 15, 1918.]

[Footnote 2: Gauguin had also undoubtedly read Loti's book. His letters
show that before deciding upon Tahiti he had considered the possibility
of going to Tonkin or Madagascar.]

[Footnote 3: It may be noticed that Gauguin received no financial profit
whatever from this performance, and Verlaine very little.]



Tahiti, the largest of the French Society Islands, lies in the South
Pacific Ocean. That is about the limit of the average person's
knowledge. Many perhaps understand vaguely that the climate is tropical
but modified by sea breezes, the scenery wonderful, the people famous
for beauty and licentiousness. Nevertheless, a more thorough knowledge
of the island's mysterious racial story could not fail to interest.
Tahiti, Samoa (known to us through Stevenson), Hawaii, New Zealand and
the Marquesas (familiar to readers of Melville's "Omoo"), which are the
chief links in that story, were all, at the time the islands were
discovered, inhabited by the same people and a people utterly different
in appearance from the woolly-haired Papuans of New Guinea and Fiji, or
from the straight-haired Malays of the peninsula, made familiar to us
through the stories of Joseph Conrad. These island people, the
Polynesians, were found speaking all the same tongue, though in
different dialects; they had, for the most part, the same social
organization and their religion, manners and customs were very similar;
they had, in many cases, traditions pointing to a common place of origin
in the island of Samoa. And yet from Samoa they lived separated by
thousands of miles of intervening ocean, still imperfectly known,
abounding in coral reefs, liable to dangerous storms, full of shifting
currents. How then had they reached Tahiti?

The anthropologists assure us that the race is physically a branch of
the Caucasian or Indo-European. Though their skin is dark, it is for the
most part less dark than that of the natives of India. Set a Maori
soldier from New Zealand beside an Indian cavalryman and note the
difference between the clear yellow skin of the former, which seems to
give out light and the swarthy, somber brown of the latter. In other
characteristics too the Polynesians are essentially Caucasian. They are
a tall, well built, massive race, contrasting favorably with the Malay.
Their hair is black--or in some cases copper brown--and wavy, again
contrasting with the straight hair of the Malay or the fuzzy mop of the
Papuan. Finally, the cast of face is purely Caucasian and in many cases
very beautiful. Only the nose appears abnormally broad and flat, due to
artificial flattening in infancy.

We must suppose then, that at some period unknown, but probably after
the Christian era (the folk-lore of Hawaii, which must have been settled
late, goes back to the fifth century) a seafaring race of Indo-European
stock set sail from some part of the Indian peninsula in decked ships,
capable of carrying one or two hundred persons and provisions for a
voyage of some weeks. (We know the Polynesians were capable of building
such ships.) From India they made their way to the Malay peninsula,
where traces of their passing still exist, and so gradually to Samoa,
whence they spread northwards to Hawaii, southwards to New Zealand,
eastwards to Tahiti, to the Marquesas and to Easter Island. In order to
accomplish all this, their seafaring enterprise, warlike energy and
astronomical knowledge must have been great. Later on, under the
influence of too luxuriant a climate, the Polynesians became indolent,
careless, effeminate. And, as such, they were discovered by the
enterprising Anglo-Saxon, by the Frenchman with his Parisian vices, by
the thorough and scientific German. The combined influences of
missionaries, drink, disease and the labor market reduced the
inhabitants from 150,000 in 1774 to 10,000 in 1889.

To these people came Paul Gauguin, unwitting of the tragedy of their
history. It is true that he was weary of Europe and had set out with the
aim he had cherished since the Martinique days--to be the first painter
of the tropics. But it is probable that he chose Tahiti at hazard,
because he believed that here was a country where one could live for
almost nothing. It must always be remembered that Gauguin had no private
means and that his pictures, like all works in advance of their time,
did not sell. Cezanne, Degas, could afford not to sell their pictures
because they had other resources. But Gauguin was forced to find some
way of existing while producing pictures that, as he knew well, it would
take the public some time to accept. In a letter to de Monfreid he
stated his system: "From the beginning, I knew that this would be a life
from day to day; so, logically, I habituated myself to it. Instead of
losing my strength in work and worry for the moment, I put all my
strength into the day--like the wrestler who does not employ his body
except in the moment of wrestling. When I lie down in the evening I say
to myself: One more day is gained, perhaps to-morrow I shall be dead.
In my work as a painter, ditto--I do not trouble about anything, but
each day for itself--at the end of a certain time, this covers a
considerable extent of surface. If men would not waste their time in
disconnected struggles and labors! Every day a link. That is the great

Such was the frame of mind in which Gauguin went to Tahiti. What he
found there was not the "Pays de Cocaigne" he probably expected. The
Gods do not give their gifts in this fashion. Gauguin asked much from
Tahiti and much was given. But he asked for material comfort and was
offered instead spiritual salvation. In Tahiti, Paul Gauguin found, at
last, his soul; and the work that he achieved there, though it brought
him in no material fortune, was to stand and speak to later ages, its
own terrible parable to all men.


On the night of the eighth of June 1891, after sixty-three days of
voyaging, Gauguin at last arrived at Papeete, the capital of Tahiti. He
was at the time suffering from bronchitis, contracted during the last
winter in Paris, and within a few days of his arrival was obliged to
take to his bed.

He was now within a few days of his forty-third birthday. Although
possessed of a normally strong constitution, fortified by the open-air
existence of his youth and by various athletic exercises, such as
boxing, fencing and swimming, of which he was very fond, his health,
when he reached Tahiti, became immediately worse. This was largely due
to his constant over-indulgence in tobacco and partly also to the
privations which he had endured throughout his five years' struggle for

His prospects were not brilliant. The governor, Lacascade, an ignorant
and brutal negro, learning that he had an official mission, at once took
him for a spy sent out from Paris, and by every possible means attempted
to hinder his getting into contact with the degraded and exploited
native population. The society of the pseudo-European capital, Papeete,
disgusted him. The natives of the interior were suspiciously hostile to
all whites.

A few days after his arrival a public event occurred which roused his
interest. It was the death of the last male representative of the old
royal house of Tahiti, Pomare V, the son of the unfortunate Queen
Pomare, who had vainly struggled to enlist Great Britain's sympathy in
her opposition to the French occupation. Pomare V had abdicated eleven
years previously; now he was dead and, with his death, the last dying
gleams of Tahitian hopes for independence became extinct.

Pomare was buried in the uniform of a French Admiral, with full official
ceremony and according to the rites of Christianity; but in the
attitude of the natives to this event, Gauguin was able to see that the
embers of paganism still smoldered in the island and were ready to
revive at any favorable opportunity.

He decided to quit Papeete and to hire in the interior a hut--a process
which went far to exhaust his small capital. There he attempted to live
as a native and to get in touch with the inhabitants. This made still
further inroads on the nine thousand francs he had brought away with him
from France. The natives held aloof, suspicious; they were only ready to
approach him and to act as models at the sight of provisions, liquor,
money. His efforts to get into closer touch with them were met only by
enigmatic and evasive smiles.

Nevertheless Gauguin persisted. Though we must regard the account given
by himself in the pages of "Noa Noa" as representing rather the dream
than the reality, he undoubtedly made a brave attempt to persuade the
natives to accept him as one of their own kind. But, unfortunately, the
natives had seen thousands of Europeans before him, either voyagers of
the Pierre Loti type or commercial exploiters looking upon them as
"dirty Kanakas." They now had their revenge in the only way possible to
a conquered race. They spent his money, flattered his painting and his
vanity, and smiled behind his back.

Before a year was out his capital had vanished. There were no buyers for
his pictures on the island and Paris was far away. Gauguin found that he
had suddenly aged--a common experience enough for white men coming
suddenly into a tropic climate. His heart began to give him trouble.
This savage Eden, which the white men had found and corrupted, was
taking its little revenge.

He attempted to persuade the governor to furnish funds for his passage
back to France. In vain. He hoped that buyers for his pictures would
come forward in Paris. Useless. Fortunately his fame was now
spreading to neutral countries. Thanks to his wife's efforts he was
invited to take part in an exhibition in Denmark.

[Illustration: The Old Spirit.]

On the eighth of December, 1892, he forwarded a packet of eight pictures
to this exhibition, among which was the superb canvas _L'Esprit Veille_.
The picture created an immense stir at Copenhagen when exhibited the
next year and brought him in some money. But in Paris his fame steadily
declined and he was every day less talked about.

Albert Aurier, a young critic who had written in his favor and helped to
make his art known, was dead. Theodore Van Gogh, who had supported him
and had attempted to find buyers for his work, had followed his
unfortunate brother into the grave. Meanwhile his pupils of yesterday,
Bernard, Sérusier and the rest, were going about Paris vaguely hinting
that they had taught Gauguin something and that Cézanne and Van Gogh
were better artists. The halo of victory which had crowned his
departure from Paris was rapidly fading.

He had painted already at Tahiti, as he knew, magnificent
pictures--pictures better than anything he had done before. Moreover, he
believed that he could now paint others from memory as well in Paris as
elsewhere. What he had seen in Tahiti had given him the necessary
material upon which his imagination, always synthetic and non-realistic,
could work. His health and his future prospects could only suffer by a
longer stay. He believed that in returning to Paris he could make
himself once and for all an outstanding figure. If he did not, perhaps
it would be better to give up painting altogether. He was growing old.

On the thirtieth of August 1893, he arrived at Marseilles with four
francs in his pocket, after a terrible voyage in the steerage, in the
height of summer, during which three unfortunate passengers died of heat
in the Red Sea. It is almost incredible to think of, that this man,
during the two years he had been away from France, had painted, despite
failing health, and financial miseries, over forty canvases, among them
such masterpieces as L'Esprit Veille, Matamua, and Ia Orana Maria. And
yet this very same man arrived back in France a pauper! Truly, he might
well say of himself, that he was born with the evil eye, which brings to
its owner, as well as others, only misfortune.


Paris has been for a century the most fickle and cruel city in the
world. Since her spoiled darling Napoleon fell, there has been no one to
whom she is willing to grant her favors for more than a day. There are a
few exceptions to this rule. Hugo, because he lived in exile; Balzac,
because he, too, was a hermit, continually pestered by his creditors;
and of recent years Verlaine, because he haunted the lowest cafés, the
vilest dens, and only emerged from these to go into a hospital or a
prison. Such men may be the idols of Paris. For the rest, Paris is
willing only to think of her children as sons for a day.

Gauguin returned, picturing a complete conquest of Paris. But he had
already enjoyed the brief hour of glory that was to be his.

Had he but managed his affairs more wisely, he might, on the strength
of the sensation his pictures had created in Denmark and subsequently in
Sweden, Norway, and Germany, have now concluded with a picture-dealer an
arrangement enabling him to obtain a small fixed sum every year for his
work. But Gauguin demanded all or nothing! And, as was the case before
with his mother and her Peruvian relatives, the result was nothing.

He decided to give a general exhibition of his entire Tahitian work,
forty-four pictures and two pieces of sculpture. Durand-Ruel gave him a
gallery and Charles Morice, chief of the young symbolists whom Gauguin
had met after the Volpini show, wrote a preface to the catalog, which
probably only served to mystify the public still further.

For the effect of the exhibition on public and press was to produce
frank bewilderment. Of the forty-four pictures exhibited, thirty-three
remained unsold. What misled visitors more than anything else were the
titles that Gauguin had seen fit to attach to his pictures. These titles
were in the Tahitian language. Every one immediately supposed that in
order to understand the pictures, it was necessary to be expert in the
history, the folk-lore, the manners and customs of Tahiti. Naturally
therefore the pictures seemed to be mere archæological and ethnological
puzzles, only to be read by those possessing the key.

Gauguin, of course, had intended something else. Just as he had used
Brittany to suggest the somber passion and suffering of Christ, so he
had used Tahiti to suggest the primal innocence, the enigmatic mystery
of life as it was lived in Eden and in the days of man's awakening--in
that Golden Age dreamed by every great poet and every great painter. But
it was useless for him to try to explain that Tahiti had merely given
him material out of which his imagination had evolved pictures.

Morice pictures him standing at the exhibition, day after day, and
listening with perfect composure to the stupid remarks and laughter of
the crowd. It was, as he later said of himself, the torture of the
Indian who smiles at the stake. Only Degas came and understood. To him
on the last day of the exhibit, Gauguin said: "Monsieur Degas, you have
forgotten your cane," and taking down a cane he himself had sculptured
handed it to the astonished painter.

The bitterness of sheer starvation would assuredly have been his, had
not fortune, with sly mockery and with perhaps a desire to save Gauguin
for better things, sent him means of salvation. A brother of his father
died in Orleans, well-to-do and a bachelor. From his estate, Gauguin
inherited thirteen thousand francs.

The exhibition had been a mistake, but his next move was sheer folly.
Instead of reflecting calmly upon his situation, he rented a studio and
determined to make one more attempt to impress and startle Paris. Morice
admits that this was done at the insistence of his so-called friends. If
this was the case Gauguin would have done well had he uttered the
well-known prayer, "Deliver me from my friends!" For Morice, even,
admitted later that it was, under the circumstances, a mistake.

About Gauguin's studio and his life at this period the legends have
grown with the years. It is undoubtedly a fact that his walls were
colored pale yellow, and his windows painted with Tahitian subjects in
imitation of stained glass (these same windows were, by the way, on
exhibition at a dealer's in Paris a few years ago). It is true that his
rooms were decorated with trophies, boomerangs, wooden clubs, spears. It
is true that he kept a monkey and a model, a mulatto woman who is said
to have come from Java and who was certainly more of a trial to him than
anything else. It is true also that he wore a strange costume,
consisting of a long blue riding coat with pearl buttons, a blue
waistcoat embroidered yellow, brown pantaloons, and a gray slouch hat
with a blue ribbon. But the importance of these and of similar details
is very slight. Gauguin has been dead now for some years and it is time
that the recollection of these pitiable attempts to attract the
attention of heedless Paris were dead also and forgotten.

Despite this parade of self-satisfied vanity, Gauguin found himself
ill-at-ease. The facile adulation of the symbolists, who frequented the
tea-parties he gave at his studio, could not hold him. He wandered off
to Bruges, where he remained rapt with admiration before Memling and
astounded, half-overwhelmed by the brutal energy of Rubens. He lost
interest in the new pupils who offered themselves, Seguin and O'Connor.
After a vain attempt to get a post from the Government as a resident in
Oceania, he again drifted back to Pont-Aven.

There, one day, promenading upon the beach with the persistent mulatto
model at his side, he was jeered at by some sailors. In a moment, all
his ridiculous artifices and carefully-studied poses slipped from him.
He was again a savage, fighting for the right to exist in his own way.
He attacked the sailors but they were too many for him and one, slipping
behind him, launched a well-aimed kick and broke his leg at the shin.

The mulatto fled, took a train to Paris, entered the empty studio,
seized whatever she could lay her hands on and vanished. As for Gauguin,
he lay on a stretcher, uttering not a groan but stoically rolling and
smoking a cigarette.


Little by little there had been dawning in his mind a vague
understanding; and now, as he lay on his bed in the inn at Pont-Aven,
this understanding became a conviction.

He saw and understood at last what it was that he had tried to
accomplish and why he had failed. He knew now what his art had been; a
great protest, an external manifestation of the inner revolt that had
gone on in his soul. What he had fought against was the cunning
extortion, the moral degradation, the bargaining hypocrisy, of
nineteenth century Europe. And nineteenth century Europe had risen
against him, was casting him out, was destroying him. He must either
submit or declare war, for the sake of his life, his art, his soul.

Among the people of Tahiti, labeled contemptuously "savages" by the very
folk who had hampered the development of his art at every opportunity,
among these savages he knew that he had found honor, courage, moral
dignity, and disinterested kindness as he had found them nowhere else.
Among these oppressed and exploited savages, there still survived
vestiges of a civilization in which art had its proper place in the
scheme of things, as a means to fuller and more joyous life and as a
door opening upon the mysteries of that beyond which neither scientists
nor theologians could ever pierce. Among these savages he had found a
dark subterranean hatred of the new civilization, which they knew to be
destroying them; and now he looked and saw the same hatred in his own

On September 20, 1894, he wrote to Daniel de Monfreid:--

"As you say, I have not given any news of myself recently and every one
is complaining. The reason is, you see, that I have lost all my strength
through suffering, above all at night, which I frequently pass without
any sleep. And into the bargain naturally I have done nothing this
infernal month except spend money. For the rest, I have made a fixed
resolve to go back and live always in Oceania and shall return to Paris
in December in order to occupy myself exclusively in selling all my
bazar at no matter what price. If I succeed I shall leave as soon as
possible in February. I can then finish my days without care for the
morrow and without the external struggle against fools--Farewell to
painting, except as a means of distraction. My house will be in
sculptured wood."

The resolve expressed by this letter was carried out. Gauguin returned
to Paris and threw the "bazar," as he called it, upon the market. An
auction sale was planned of the pictures remaining in the studio. On his
return from Tahiti, Gauguin had met August Strindberg, then living in
Paris. Strindberg had taken a certain interest in his work and for a
time the two men had lived together. Gauguin now applied to him for a
preface to the sale catalog. The following letter was Strindberg's
response and in its words we read intellectual Europe's complaint
against Gauguin:

"You insist absolutely upon having the preface for your catalog which I
wrote in remembrance of the winter 1894-5, when we were living here,
behind the Institute, not far from the Pantheon, more important still,
close to the Cemetery of Montparnasse! I would have willingly given you
this souvenir, to take away with you to that isle of Oceania, where you
wish to seek a decoration in harmony with your powerful stature, and a
breathing space, but I feel myself in an equivocal position from the
outset, and I respond immediately to your request by an 'I cannot' or,
more brutally, by an 'I will not.'

... "I cannot grasp your art and I cannot love it--I know that this
avowal will neither astonish nor wound you, because you seem to be only
strengthened by the hatred of others; your personality, careful to
remain intact, is pleased by the antipathy that it arouses. Perhaps with
reason, for, from the instant when, approved and admired, you obtain
partisans, either they will rank you or classify you or give to your art
a name which the younger men shall have used for five years to designate
a super-annuated style of painting.

... "It was of Puvis de Chavannes that I thought last night, when to the
southern sounds of mandolin and guitar, I saw on the walls of your
studio an uproar of sunlit pictures, which pursued me in my sleep. I saw
trees which no botanist will discover, animals unsuspected by Cuvier and
men which only you can create.

"A sea which pours forth from a volcano, a sky in which no God can
live--Sir, said I in my dream, you have created a new heaven and earth,
but I am not delighted in the midst of your creation. It is too sunny
for me; I prefer more chiaroscuro. And in your paradise there lives an
Eve who is not my ideal, because truly I, too, have a feminine ideal or

"This morning, I went to the Luxembourg gallery to look at Chavannes,
who always comes back to my mind. I contemplated with a profound
sympathy his picture of the Poor Fisherman, so attentively occupied in
watching the boat, which brings him to the faithful love of his spouse,
and slumbering child. That is beautiful. But it seemed to me this
Fisherman wore a crown of thorns, and that shocked me. For I hate Christ
and all crowns of thorns. You understand that I hate them. I do not
desire this pitiful God who accepts blows. My God is rather
Vitsliputsli, who, in the sun, eats the hearts of men.

"No, Gauguin is not formed from the work of Chavannes, nor from that of
Manet, nor from that of Bastien-Lepage.

"Who is he then? He is Gauguin, the savage who hates a wearisome
civilization; something of a Titan who, jealous of his Creator, in
his idle moments makes his own little creation; a child who breaks up
his toys to make others; he who denies and defies the rabble, preferring
to see the sky red, rather than blue, as they do.

[Illustration: Calvary.]

"Bon voyage, Master: but come back here to me. I shall by that time
perhaps have learned to understand your art better, which will permit me
to make a true preface for a new catalog of a new sale, since I am
beginning also to feel an immense need for becoming savage and creating
a new world."

To this letter, Gauguin replied-with the following profession of

"I have received to-day your letter; your letter, which is a preface for
my catalog. I had the idea of asking you for a preface, when I saw you
the other day in my studio playing the guitar and singing, your blue
northern eyes gazing attentively at the pictures on the walls. I had
then the presentiment of a revolt, of a shock between your civilization
and my barbarism.

"You suffer from your civilization. My barbarism is to me a renewal of

"Before the Eve of my choice, which I have painted in forms and
harmonies of another world, your remembrances have perhaps evoked a
sorrow of the past. The Eve of your civilized conception makes you and
the rest of us almost always misogynists; the old Eve, which in my
studio frightens you, will perhaps smile at you less bitterly some day.
This world of mine, which neither a Cuvier nor a botanist can find, will
be a Paradise, which I shall have only sketched out. And from the sketch
to the realization of the dream is very far. What matter? To envisage
happiness, is that not a foretaste of Nirvana?

"The Eve that I have painted, she alone, logically can remain naked
before one's eyes. Yours in that simple state could not walk without
shame, and too beautiful (perhaps), would be the evocation of an evil
and a sorrow."

In February, 1895, the pictures were sold bringing in twelve thousand
francs. And shortly after the artist shook the dust of Europe from his
feet and departed for his final voyage to Tahiti. As Morice says, he
left Paris with a smile, and without turning his head to look back.


It was in the same spirit as that in which he quitted Europe finally,
that Gauguin set himself the task of writing the story of his life in
Tahiti. This story, which appears in the pages of the book he entitled
"Noa Noa" (a native word meaning "fragrant"), is at once the best
commentary on and the final analysis of his mind.

We do not know when Gauguin first conceived or executed the part of the
book that is his. It may have been during his long hours of solitude on
his first visit to the island; perhaps it was during his stay in Paris;
perhaps it was after his return. The part of the book that is not his
refers in passing to events that took place as late as 1897.

Gauguin wished to write the story of his conversion to savagery--the
conversion of a man who realized that he himself was tainted with
civilization, incapable of becoming more than half-a-savage, yet
realizing utterly that savagery was naked, healthy and sound, while
civilization was corrupt, over-luxuriant and decaying.

To accomplish this task, he sought for a style as free from literary
artifice as possible. His aim was to state what he had seen in Tahiti,
in the style of a folk-tale. He deliberately eschewed rhetoric, exotic
ornament, all the devices of the tourist, the journalist, the
professional litterature. What he wanted, above all, was to make others
feel, in the incidents of a naïve story, the essence of Tahiti--the soul
of the native.

It is therefore useless to ask whether the story of his return to
savagery told by Gauguin in this book, has any basis in fact or whether
it is largely allegory. It may be both or neither. It contains certain
undoubted facts: first, that Gauguin saw on his arrival at Papeete the
royal funeral and was struck by the attitude of the natives to that
event; second, that he quitted Papeete and attempted to live as a
native, abandoning European dress and speech as far as possible; third,
that in the course of his stay in the island he entered into relations
with one or more native women; finally, that he quitted the island,
owing to money troubles and in the hope of obtaining a substantial
triumph in France.

These facts are not important, and are merely the vague skeleton upon
which the fascinating story of Gauguin's spiritual development is bit by
bit, built up. He made use of these facts in the same way as he made use
of models in his pictures, as the basis for the suggestion of beautiful
forms. All art to him was transposition, and in the pages of his recital
he deliberately attempted to transpose his opinions on civilization,
savagery, and life, into a series of imaginary adventures, which we are
at liberty to believe or not as we choose.

So we follow him from Papeete into the backwoods. We find him holding
aloof from the savages at first and marveling at their simple
hospitality. We see him making his first tentative attempts at
establishing a community of thought. He tries to persuade the natives to
sit for their portraits--with little success. He tries to find solace
in the companionship of the half-caste Titi, in vain. Then Jotefa comes
upon the scene, the young man whose body reveals to him the hitherto
unsuspected fact that civilization has only accentuated differences of
sex, and thereby rendered sex more dangerous, more artificial, more
unnatural. So he gets his first gleam of intelligence. The next comes,
when Jotefa declares that he cannot touch the chisel, that an artist is
not like other men, but some one producing a thing useful to others.
This further enlightens him. He contrasts this opinion on art as
something useful to man with art as the European sees it, a mere
freakish amusement. Finally, he hazards everything. He takes a young
native girl and makes her his wife, not without qualms of fear. All goes
well until one day away from home, when he is out fishing with the
natives. They laugh at his luck. He asks them why. Because his line has
caught in the lower jaw of the fish and that is a sign of a man's wife
being unfaithful to him. He returns home, half-believing the
superstition. The native girl prays, weeps, asks to be beaten. He cannot
beat her. He can only forgive and understand. So the story closes.

From such a story, we should naturally receive the impression that
Gauguin's life in Tahiti was ideally happy. But his letters reveal that
he was even more unhappy there than in France. So whatever elements of
fact may be in his story, it is evident that they cannot be disentangled
from the fictional details. It is better to take "Noa Noa" altogether as
a series of fictitious adventures, designed to bring out the fact that
Gauguin became, despite himself, as nearly one with the natives as it is
possible for any European to be. Thus we see, bit by bit, the Tahitians
claiming him as one of their own, from the day that he is forced by
necessity to accept their food offered and at first scornfully refused,
to the day when he finds that he shares their superstitions and even
their easy tolerance of marital infidelity. If we look at the story in
this light, it becomes an allegory easily readable, an allegory of
civilization going down before primitive nature, expressed in a series
of parables.

Unfortunately, Gauguin suspected that this story would seem too bare and
devoid of literary charm if he published it as it stood, and he asked
Charles Morice to collaborate. Morice thereupon wrote a series of highly
florid descriptions and poems, inspired by Gauguin's pictures, in a
style strongly tinged with the influence of Stéphane Mallarmé. These
poems and descriptions were intercalated between the pages of Gauguin's
recital.[1] The result is that "Noa Noa" contains two books; the first
Gauguin's, the second, Morice's, and the reader is liable to be confused
unless he remembers that the sections by Gauguin are all headed "Le
Conteur Parle," and that these sections form by themselves a continuous
story. Morice's contributions can therefore be disregarded.

It is perhaps better not to discuss whether or not these contributions
add anything to Gauguin's recital. Some people may even prefer the glow
of Morice's rhetoric to the naked blaze of Gauguin's poetry. Gauguin
himself philosophically remarked that he wished Morice's work to stand
beside his, in order that people might observe the difference between a
civilized decadent and a naïve and brutal savage.

[Footnote 1: They have been wisely omitted from the English



With Gauguin's last return to Tahiti there opened for him the final and
most important phase of his life, the last stand of the savage against
encroaching civilization. The letters that he sent to de Monfreid during
this period are painful reading. They breathe the weary cry of a man who
knows that Fate's dice are loaded against him, the complaint of a
warrior who realizes that fighting is useless, but who has no choice but
to fight on. For Gauguin was now exhausted by the struggle that he had
carried on so long with the world out-side and within himself. The wound
in his leg, given him by the sailors, had never properly healed; under
the climate of Tahiti, it reopened. Owing to the rash exposure of his
skin to the effects of tropical light, both legs were attacked by
eczema. Night after night was spent in sleepless pain. To add to his
troubles, his eyesight began to fail; nature was taking her revenge on
him, was wreaking upon his body retribution for the sins of which the
white race had been guilty in their dealings with the natives. It seemed
to him that the gods he worshiped had become his enemies.

Before leaving France, a number of friends had agreed to buy his
pictures, and assure him a steady income. These now withdrew their
support. He had leased a plot of ground in order to build the house of
sculptured wood which he dreamed of; the construction of the house
carried away his remaining capital. He was everywhere fleeced, not only
by the French colonists, but also by the natives, who were growing more
and more corrupt every day, thanks to the happy influence of
civilization. Even after his house was built, he was not allowed to
keep it in peace. The owner of the ground died, leaving his affairs in a
tangle; Gauguin was forced to obtain another plot and to reconstruct the
house, or see it destroyed. This last he refused to do, so he was
forced, finally, to borrow money, a thing he had never done in his life

Towards the end of 1897, his situation grew even worse. His eyes, now
permanently inflamed, were so painful that he could not even touch a
brush. The tragic portrait of himself in profile, which he sent about
this time to de Monfreid, clearly reveals the condition of his eyesight.
De Monfreid had sent him colors, but these were useless--he could not
even exchange them for bread. And to add to all he was in debt, more and
more heavily, month after month. De Monfreid wrote him encouragingly,
tried to sell his pictures, spoke of articles, of a press campaign on
his behalf. The answer was--"I only desire silence, silence and again
silence. Let me die in peace, forgotten, or if I ought to live, let me
live in peace, forgotten.... What matter if I am the pupil of Bernard or
Sérusier? If I have painted daubs, why set out to gild them, to deceive
people as to their quality?"

Early in 1898 his resolution was taken. Weary, exhausted, at the end of
his tether, he decided to meet death half-way. He finished a large
picture, a sort of strange allegory of despair, entitled _D'où venons
nous? Que sommes nous? Où allons nous?_ and then took arsenic. The dose
was too strong and only brought about terrible nausea, which recurred
for some months afterwards whenever he attempted to take food. Meanwhile
his creditors menaced him with the destruction of the house that had
taken him so much trouble to build.

In order to obtain food, he shortly afterwards returned to Papeete and,
at the age of fifty, took up a position as a shipping clerk at the Board
of Public Works, with a salary of six francs a day. To such straits was
he reduced, and yet he continued the fight. Can one help admiring his

Meanwhile, the devoted de Monfreid had been busy. He had enlisted the
interest of Degas, of Vollard and others, and had succeeded in selling
some of the artist's pictures. Gauguin might now have counted upon a
steady income, had he chosen to forget past injuries. But with him,
there was to be no compromise. Because Bernard, Sérusier, Maurice Denis
had made his theories popular and had even claimed to have some
influence on his development, he refused either to be ranked with them
or to exhibit in their company. Of course he merely made himself more
unpopular in Paris by such conduct. But Gauguin's personality was of a
kind unable to endure the society of second-rate people. He admired
genius where he found it, in a few solitaries such as Degas, Poe,
Balzac, and Mallarmé. For ordinary society, he preferred either natives
or children. Nevertheless his pictures were sold and, by de Monfreid's
efforts, he found himself out of debt in 1899 and able to return to his
house, now in a deplorable state of neglect and decay. Things seemed to
improve a little, though he was now permanently crippled by the disease
of his legs. He set himself once more to paint and to plant the flower
seeds which de Monfreid had sent, at his request, from France. Ill,
ruined in health and physique, a victim to drugs, he went onward to his

[Illustration: Matamua (Olden Days).]


It is difficult to judge fairly the next stage in Gauguin's career,
unless we remember that he had suffered so much from his physical
ailments, from the complete solitude in which he found himself and from
the terrible crisis of the previous year, that he was afflicted for the
time being with something closely resembling persecutional mania. He had
been driven to war on civilization and he believed that some unknown
power was now pursuing him with its hatred. In his next stage, we find
him turning even against the natives.

On his return to Tahiti he had taken a young native girl aged
thirteen-and-a-half for wife, companion and model. She had served him
devotedly, had procured him food when he was unable to walk, had nursed
him in his illness. After his return to the house from Papeete, she had
resumed with him the old life and had given birth to a child. Now, for
some reason or no reason, Gauguin suddenly took it into his head that
she had robbed him, and drove her out. The poor soul, however, returned
and, as the painter was by this time a helpless cripple, he attempted to
call in the law to enforce her removal, claiming that her return was a
violation of his domicile. Of course, the law did nothing.

This only further enraged Gauguin. He decided to attack the entire
colonial administration. Since his return, he had been everywhere
treated by the Europeans at Tahiti as a madman or fool. Now he would get
his revenge.

With the aid of a copying apparatus he set up and printed several
numbers of a paper called, first _Les Guèpes_, and later _Le Sourire_.
The contents of these papers have been printed and are the poorest stuff
that Gauguin ever wrote. But these crude gibes at the governor and at
the colonial administrations generally, together with the equally crude
caricatures that Gauguin drew of prominent people in the colony, seem to
have produced a stir. People began to fear him at last; it was, for a
moment, a triumph.

But Tahiti had by this time grown too civilized to hold him. A railway
had been built into the interior; the Protestant missionaries grew every
day more powerful; disease and drink were rapidly carrying off the
natives. Gauguin for a time thought of turning doctor and even wrote to
de Monfreid for medicines. But shortly he found his own need of medicine
as great as that of any of the wretched natives. An epidemic of
influenza struck the island and the painter was obliged to take to the
hospital, where he had to pay twelve francs a day. To add to his griefs,
the supply of food in the island became scarce and prices ran up to an
impossible figure.

Hearing that life in the Marquesas Islands was cheaper, that the natives
there were physically more unspoilt, also that Europeans were few and
far between, he decided to quit Tahiti and install himself in the
island of Hiva-Hoa or Dominica. He hoped to find there elements of a
purer savagery and to paint with fresh strength. This hope was destined
to be realized only in part.

Gauguin's art is almost entirely associated with three spots,
Martinique, Brittany and Tahiti. He might have done better work at other
places, had he had the time, the opportunity or the strength. In the
case of his removal to the Marquesas it was the strength that was

Traces of the exhaustion of his endurance and of the affection of his
eyes are to be found even in his latest Tahitian pictures. Owing to his
habit of dating his pictures, we can follow the failure of his power.
The first things that he painted after his return are, on the whole,
superior to the productions of 1891-93. The _Te Arii Vahine_ or
Reclining Woman, of 1896 is finer in design even than the _L'Esprit
Veille_ of 1892-3. The _Youth Between Two Girls, La Case_ (1897), the
beautiful _Navé Navé Mahana_ (Delightful Days) of 1896, with its feeling
of a terrestrial paradise--these are masterpieces of their kind. But the
portrait of himself (1897) already shows signs of inability to finish
and remains a sketch, albeit a powerful one. And with many of the
succeeding works there came a greater impatience, a greater
carelessness, a more hectic and feverish lack of control. The more
savage Gauguin's work grew, the less became his strength to produce it.
One is reminded of a similar case to his, that of the Irish dramatist,

The Gauguin who sought solitude of far-off Hiva-Hoa was not the Gauguin
of ten years before. He was an extinct volcano, a burned-out crater. And
he was destined to find only death in this last solitude. Nevertheless,
before death came, his art attained its final summit of expression.
Pictures like the _Jeune Fille à l'Eventail_ (1902) or the magnificent
_Contes Barbares_ (also 1902) in which the Marquesas type appears, are
the last word of Gauguin's gospel of beauty, the revelation of a new
heaven and earth. The flame burned clear in him just before the
close--then the shattered body yielded and all was darkness.


The Marquesas Islands are small and, in contrast to the coral and
basaltic formation of Tahiti, of volcanic origin. They lie about a
thousand miles nearer to the equator and this makes their climate more
humid and less supportable to white men. Owing to this fact, and to the
fact that they are out of the track of steamers between San Francisco
and Sydney, they have preserved more of their unspoilt character.

The natives are said to be the finest in appearance of any Polynesian
peoples. In distinction to the Tahitians, who are either red or olive
brown, their skin is largely of a clear golden color. In this they
resemble the Maories of New Zealand, as in the practice of
face-tattooing common among the males. They were formerly great
fighters and ferocious cannibals, as Herman Melville's "Omoo" tells us.
The first white settlers amongst them were French Roman Catholic
missionaries who, by buying up most of the valuable land, by
discouraging the drink traffic and by preventing other familiar colonial
abuses, have succeeded in preserving the native stock fairly well. The
Marquesas have never become the sink of vice and corruption which is

It was on the chief island of this group that Gauguin installed himself.
His capital enabled him to buy a plot of ground and to start
constructing another house. This, like his house in Tahiti, was
ornamented with bas-reliefs in wood and large decorative paintings. In
the garden, stood a rude clay statue--a sort of combination of a Buddha
and a Maori idol--under a canopy. Gauguin called this statue Te
Atua--the God, and was reported to say his prayers to it every day. On
the base of the statue were engraved these words, taken from Morice's
verses in "Noa Noa":

     "The Gods are dead and Tahiti dies of their death,
     The sun, which once lit the isles with flame, now sleeps,
     A sorrowful sleep, with brief dream wakenings:
     Now the shadow of regret pierces the eyes of Eve,
     Who pensively smiles, gazing upon her breast,
     Sterile gold, sealed by some divine design."

Altogether in the Marquesas, Gauguin found a great charm and repose. He
seems to have rapidly established a great friendship with the natives
and to have looked upon himself as being a sort of king. But his health
was so bad that he was unable to leave the house and but for one Chinese
boy, he lived alone. He even dreamed of abandoning the Marquesas (not
because he was weary of the place, but because he knew his strength was
small) and seeking a more favorable climate in Spain, where he thought
he might be able to paint.

Except for the constant trouble with his health, his only difficulty was
with the missionaries. With the exception of a few settlers, they were
the only whites on the islands. Gauguin had advanced in savagery to
such a point as to be unable to bear the presence of white people. He
refused to see that the Catholic Missionaries had at least attempted to
save the natives from the worse fate that had befallen them under the
Protestant Missionaries in Tahiti. The insistence of the Catholics upon
monogamy, upon European dress, upon mission schools and religious
observances infuriated him. He made a statue of a nude woman and set it
up in his garden. The Bishop protested. Gauguin promptly made a
caricature in clay of the bishop, with horns on his head like the Devil,
and set it up facing the statue. Something of the old Gothic love of the
grotesque, something, too, of the typically Parisian desire to "_épater
de bourgeois_" remained in him to the last.

But this was not all. Gauguin was not the sort of man to end his days in
peace. Although de Monfreid had worked devotedly, his position in France
was still insecure; Vollard might at any moment refuse to take more
pictures to sell. The wound he had received by his failure to impress
Paris in 1893 still smarted. He determined to write two articles
containing his opinions on art, technique, painting, life and morality,
in order to confound the Parisian critics. These articles, entitled
"Anecdotes of an Apprentice" and "Before and After," are little more
than a series of feverishly jotted notes. Later, with other notes of a
similar nature, they were embodied in a large album entitled "Avant et
Après," which remains the fullest body of information about Gauguin's
life and art we possess. The _Mercure de France_ judged, perhaps
rightly, that their tone was too personally violent and refused to print

The other old score that he had to wipe out was with the French colonial
administration. In Tahiti, he had fought the governor, the law courts,
and the gendarmes. Here it was the customs officials who roused his
wrath. Two American ships had recently visited the island and a certain
amount of goods had been sold to the natives, through the connivance of
the gendarmes, without paying tax. Gauguin immediately wrote a letter on
the subject to the Administration, stating the facts as he understood
them and protesting, on behalf of the natives, against the bribery and
corruption of the Customs in this instance. The only reply made was a
notice from the law courts that the Administration intended to take
steps against him for the dissemination of an untrue statement. Gauguin
appeared in court, where he was promptly condemned to prison for three
months and to a fine of a thousand francs.

It was ruin, but Gauguin determined to appeal. The tribunal was
irregularly constituted and his facts had been proven to be in part, at
least, true. He was sure of winning his case, but an appeal necessitated
a return to Tahiti and the costs of an attorney, and his capital was
again running low. He wrote to de Montfreid, begging him to find a buyer
for three pictures, at the price of fifteen hundred francs; he sent off
ten more pictures to Vollard. Then he prepared to make his appeal.

Death surprised him suddenly and Paul Gauguin's appeal will never be
heard in this world.

A letter from the only white man, the Protestant minister Vernier, who
knew him, leaves no doubt on the subject of the cause of Gauguin's
death. It was not the eczema of the legs, nor leprosy, as some have
hinted, nor another dose of arsenic, nor syphilis, that ended his life;
it was a simple syncope of the heart. His energy, with which he had kept
up for so many years the struggle with the world and out of which he had
drawn so many beautiful pictures, was worn out. The machine slackened
and stopped.

Paul Gauguin died on the 6th of May, 1903.

A few days before his death he had written his last letter to Charles
Morice, the words of which stir one like a trumpet.

"I am on the ground but I am not beaten. The Indian, who smiles while he
is being tortured, is not conquered. You are mistaken if you meant that
I am wrong in calling myself a savage. I _am_ a savage, and the
civilized feel this, for there is nothing in my work which could produce
bewilderment save this savage strain in me, for which I am not myself
responsible. It is therefore inimitable. Every human work is a
revelation of the individual. Hence there are two kinds of beauty; one
comes from instinct, the other from labor. The union of the two, with
the modifications resulting therefrom, produces great and very
complicated richness. Art-criticism has yet to discover the fact....
Raphael's great science does not for a moment prevent me from
discovering the instinct of the beautiful as the essential quality in
him. Raphael was born with beauty. All the rest in him is modification.

"Physics, chemistry, and above all the study of Nature, have produced an
epoch of confusion in art, and it may be truly said that artists robbed
of all their savagery have wandered into all kinds of paths in search of
the productive element they no longer possess. They now act only in
disorderly groups and are terrified if they find themselves alone.
Solitude is not to be recommended to every one, for a man must have
strength to bear it and to act alone. All I have learnt from others has
been an impediment to me. It is true I know little, but what I do know
is my own."

Yet civilization, after all, had the last word. The very bishop, whom
Gauguin in life had hated and caricatured, intervened when he lay cold
and lifeless and the body of the painter was interred with full Catholic
rites in the cemetery of the Church at Atuana. And, by a concluding
stroke of irony, the grave was left unmarked. Thus one of the greatest
painters of the later nineteenth century, and one of the bravest men the
world has ever seen, mingled his dust with that of the humblest
natives, in the same way as Blake, one of the greatest painters of the
early nineteenth century, had been buried before him in an unmarked
grave among the paupers, at Bunhill Fields.


The immense industrial development which occurred during the nineteenth
century took place so rapidly and universally, that no one was able to
estimate its significance or dispassionately to weigh its effects. At
the outset of the century the vital idea that pervaded Europe and
America was the spiritual idea of liberty and the rights of man, born in
the fires of the French Revolution. After 1848 this idea gradually
vanished, and another took its place; the purely material idea of
progress. The perfected application of steam and the consequent
development of machinery; the immense tapping of the world's resources
of coal, metals, agricultural products; the equally immense, universal
exploitation of human effort necessary to develop these resources to
their maximum; the creation of an international finance, resting upon
vast hoards of wealth in the hands of a limited few, whose world-wide
interests were linked together by railways, steamship lines, telegraphs,
telephones; the ordered regimenting of mankind into a small capitalist
class, invisibly controlling the old, decayed aristocracy, the official
church, the machinery of the law; a larger middle class, dependent upon
and subservient to the capitalists; and an immense laboring class,
exploited in the interests of the two preceding classes: all these were
virtually the creation of a single century.

Against this overwhelming flood of change, a few exceptionally gifted
men vaguely protested, affirming the greater value of human life over
mechanical invention; maintaining the antique dignity of man. Their
protest was incoherent, individualistic. These men were like broken and
scattered fragments of dykes, still unsubmerged and striving to hold
back the waters of a flood. Among them must be ranked the artist whose
life-story I have written.

All that is vital and valuable in French painting of the nineteenth
century, since Ingres, springs directly from the enthusiasm and
spiritual energy of the French Revolution. The somber fury of Delacroix,
the colossal caricature of Daumier; the peasant art of Millet; the sane
realism of Courbet; the mordant irony of Degas and Forain; even the
feeling for nature and the open air which the Impressionists gave us,
all represent phases of humanity's vague and enormous hunger for
personal freedom, for human liberty and development. When Gauguin
arrived on the scene, the reaction was already taking place. The
official, academic painters were merely ringing the changes upon a stock
of outworn formulas. On the other hand, the Impressionists were striving
to render nature scientifically, unemotionally. Nature was becoming to
them no longer the mother and nurse of man but a collection of chemical
formulas for soil, air, sunlight. Only Puvis de Chavannes remained,
aloof and misunderstood, painting great decorations that seemed but the
remembrance of some golden age of the past, and easel pictures of a
profound, hopeless pessimism.

Gauguin began to paint, and the protest against science, against
materialism, against unemotional vision began. At the outset he
attempted to follow the scientific formulas of the Impressionists. But,
by the purest instinct he discovered, as Cézanne had already discovered,
that the sensation of light could not be painted, could only be rendered
in color. And he also discovered (this time the discovery came from
Puvis de Chavannes) that the sensation of form could not be painted
either--that out of the variety of shifting forms offered to us by
nature, the artist must select those most significant to him and that
even these must be transposed, altered, accentuated or suppressed to
suit the harmony of the composition. Thus unconsciously, almost without
volition on his part, he was led to understand that the Primitives
everywhere were the truly great artists, since they expressed great
human emotions about man and nature, without troubling whether their
vision was or was not exact. And so he fought, bitterly, savagely, for
the actual restoration of primitive art and life; for the cause of
natural humanity against the cause of mechanical, dehumanized

Unless we realize this fact, we have not grasped the key, either to his
art or to his life. Gauguin himself admitted that his painting was only
a fragmentary indication, an unrealized promise of an unaccomplished
world. And he may have had knowledge also of the fundamental discord and
disorder of his own life, but have despaired of ever attaining to
harmony with himself. At least the caricature of himself in _Contes
Barbares_ is here to remind us that he was not altogether the spoiled
child that some imagine him to be. Having both the world and himself to
struggle against, he at least determined that his pictorial work should
represent the best part of his personality, even if his life proved
only to be, as he said in his last letter to de Montfreid, "a downfall
followed by an attempt to rise, followed by another downfall." And so in
his pictures we realize the truth of the remark made by Van Gogh after
the disaster that parted them: "Gauguin made one feel that a good
picture should be the equivalent of a good action."

And indeed it is so. Every artist carries upon his shoulders a profound
moral responsibility. This responsibility is not, as supposed, the duty
of teaching us to conform to the modern official distortion of Christian
ethics, by which we are ruled. It is not the duty of upholding a system
of negations, of prohibitions, of compromises, striking at the very
roots of life. It is a far nobler, far more difficult task. The duty of
the artist is to affirm the dignity of life, the value of humanity,
despite the morbid prejudices of Puritanism, the timid conventionality
of the mob, despite even his own knowledge of the insoluble riddle of
suffering, decay and death. This duty Gauguin in his art strove to
accomplish. He affirmed his faith in man and in the scene of man's
labor, the earth. Cézanne, perhaps a more accomplished painter, endowed
perhaps with a deeper respect for nature and for the style of the great
painters of the past, shrank from making Gauguin's affirmation. He
accepted in his own life a compromise; in his art he ruthlessly
eliminated the role of the creative and interpretive imagination. And
then, towards the end of his life, Cézanne complained that Gauguin had
vulgarized him.

"Gauguin has not understood me; never will I accept the lack of
gradation and of tone; it's nonsense."

It would have been better for Cézanne to have said that he could not,
dared not understand Gauguin.

Nor is this all that Gauguin accomplished. He restored painting to its
proper place in the ordered hierarchy of the arts. He showed us that its
place is between architecture and music, and that sculpture is its twin
sister. He was the first man to suspect that the progress of the
scientific spirit among the Greeks had produced the same effects in
disassociating and destroying the arts, as has the progress of the
scientific spirit in the present day. He believed, and constantly
affirmed, that painting was entering upon a new musical phase and he
built up his pictures on a definite scale of color harmonies, as well as
upon the chosen architectural proportions of form, which, whether given
by perspective or not, seemed to him necessary. Thus he reconciled the
Venetians and the Primitives, and showed that the goal of both form and
color is decoration.

William Blake might perhaps have admired this rude artisan, who painted
his dream of a golden age in his own way, who steadfastly strove to
grasp the essential truth in every tradition: Egyptian, Cambodian,
Persian, Chinese, Gothic, Greek and Renaissance. But Gauguin could
never, had he known of Blake, have pardoned in him the ultimate ascetic
negation, the contemptuous denial of earthliness, of "the delusions of
the goddess Nature." In Gauguin, the spirit never conquered the flesh,
and he remained to the end, a man. Blake was possibly the greater
visionary: Gauguin is certainly the better stone on which to build.


After Gauguin's death, his art rapidly became almost forgotten in
France. He remarked himself towards the end of his life that there were
not fifty of his pictures in that country. Even the few there are, hang
in scattered private collections, each containing one or at most three
or four. The great bulk of his work is in Germany, Scandinavia and
Russia. It proved impossible even in 1911 to raise sufficient money to
buy _L'Esprit Veille_ for the Louvre.

It is greatly to be regretted that no museum or collection has been able
to assemble a considerable quantity of his work. Gauguin was, above all
things, a decorator, and half a dozen of his pictures make a greater
effect than one. One does not judge Puvis de Chavannes, another
decorator, solely by his easel pictures, but by the great decorative
schemes in Paris, at Amiens and in Boston. This remark applies equally
to other decorators, such as Raphael, Michelangelo, Tintoretto and
Veronese. A room hung with twenty Gauguins would produce an immense
effect of monumental power. That such a room exists in Moscow can be
small consolation to Western Europeans at present.

His pupils and followers either plodded along unimaginatively, like
Sérusier, or drifted off into academicism, like Bernard, or watered down
their technique into the tasteless picture-book and stage-costume
decoration of Maurice Denis. None of them seized Gauguin's secret of
remaining simple, direct and savage. Aristide Maillol is an honorable
exception. A sculptor and tapestry designer, he was able to work upon
the indications that Gauguin had left for the guidance of these branches
and to show us, in part at least, how they might be realized.

The main stream of French art simply ignored Gauguin. Instead of making
with him a bold leap backwards to the origins of all tradition, it went
forward to even more scientific and unemotional essays in painting. The
Neo-Impressionists with their spots of complementary colors were
followed by disciples of Cézanne, who sought to reduce all forms to
certain geometrical primaries, basing their doctrine on certain words
which the master of Aix had let fall concerning the simplification of
form. Out of these emerged Matisse, whose art became, through a more and
more ruthless elimination of modeling, through a more and more arbitrary
placing of colors, an abstraction, an utterly unemotional series of
hieroglyphs. Then Picasso came upon the scene, eliminated color
altogether and began to paint the abstract geometry of form. The Cubists
followed Picasso. The Futurists in their turn started another kind of
abstract painting, the painting of mechanical energy, the dynamism
latent in form.

The Expressionists, meanwhile, held to Van Gogh's and Gauguin's idea
that the picture must represent some emotion, but they denied Gauguin's
corollary that some form derived from nature was necessary to transpose
this emotion into its pictorial equivalent. Consequently they eliminated
form and strove to paint abstract emotion. Finally, the Vorticists
combined Futurism and Expressionism into a single whole and painted the
abstraction of an abstraction--the emotion of dynamic energy, thus
declaring painting to be an absolute-thing-in-itself, an art utterly
innocent of any illustrative purpose whatsoever.

The motives of all these confused art movements, perplexing and
apparently in-congruous, were identical. They were all actuated by a
mania for scientific discovery, a desire to analyze phenomena until the
reality behind phenomena could be found. The physicists, chemists,
philosophers had proven that the world of appearances was not the real
world--that everything that existed was merely a question of ions and
electrons, of radiant or non-radiant energy, or perhaps of elasticity
and inelasticity. These young art revolutionaries, who gave themselves
so many queer labels, were not, as many supposed, either insincere or
insane. They were merely smitten with the desire to make painting--and
not only painting, but even other arts as well--a branch of abstract
science. The world of phenomena had been proved to be an illusion,
making some abstract concept. Therefore they strove to paint, not what
seemed to them unreal, but their absolute conceptions. This new
metaphysic, this new attempt at absolute realism, this final development
of scholastic art-dogma, as narrow and soul-destroying in its way as the
rules for painting religious ikons, evolved and practiced for centuries
by the Byzantine monks of Mount Athos, was rapidly conquering the whole
field of aft when the past war broke out. Nor has the war altogether
suppressed its manifestations.

The enormous destruction of human life, of nature, of art, in the past
war has been altogether out of proportion to the military results
achieved by either side. However true it may be to hold the Germans as
primarily responsible for this destruction, in the first instance, yet
it remains true that none of the contending forces can escape
responsibility for the later developments of the struggle. Apart from
Germany's undeniable guilt in starting the war, civilization as a whole
must answer for the horror of its method. A piece of heavy artillery is
equally destructive, whether it be cast at Essen or at Le Creusot; a
Caproni aeroplane can carry as many bombs as a Gotha; the submarine was
first employed in war by the Americans; the machine gun is an English
invention. For all these devices of destruction we of the twentieth
century, with our belief in purely material progress, stand guilty
to-day; and the blood of our guilt has reddened earth already for over
four years and may continue to do so for many generations to come.

The past war before it came to an end had long ceased to be a contest
between national ideals and had become a struggle between man and an
inhuman, scientific, organized machine. And the machine was victorious.
Just as the scientific spirit, conquering art before the war, led to the
extravagances of Cubism and Vorticism so, since the war, it has attacked
life itself; and made of national existence, no longer a problem of
human bravery, resource and intelligence, but merely a problem of
relative man-power and munitions. We have learned to speak of
"man-power" as our books on physics speak of "horse-power." The task we,
in the war, set ourselves was a grisly paradox; we proposed to save
civilization, to undo a great wrong, by destroying the very basis of
human life on which all civilization stands.

It is therefore with a sense of liberation that we now turn back to a
few artists who, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, foresaw
that material progress would end in annihilating humanity, that nature
and humanity, hand in hand, are more sacred than all the shells that
could ever be produced, the guns that could ever be mounted or the laws
that could ever be written. With a sense of spiritual release we revert
to those who dreamed of the great return to nature--to Rousseau,
Whitman, Gauguin, as well as to others who, although perhaps lesser men
than they, followed in their path--David Thoreau, Richard Jefferies.
They were the prophets of the new gospel that must some day prevail--the
gospel that will set humanity above material progress and nature above
æsthetic negation. Their vision was of something not in themselves but
of something higher and nobler, as Gauguin knew when he deliberately
caricatured himself in _Contes Barbares_. As he knew also, the vision
was of something stated only fragmentarily, inscribed as a promise, a
foretaste, an indication of what might be. In Rousseau's prose, in
Whitman's poetry and in Gauguin's painting we see the only gleam of hope
for self-tortured humanity, and the promise of a land where nature and
man are one and where reigns a peace that passes all understanding.



1. Paul Gauguin par Jean de Rotonchamp, Imprimé à Weimar par les Soins
du Comte de Kessler et se Trouve à Paris, chez Edouard Druet, Rue de
Faubourg Saint Honoré, No. 114. 1906. Edition limited to 250 copies.

2. Gauguin, by Charles Morice. Floury, Paris, 1919. This and the
preceding work are the standard sources of Gauguin's life.

3. Lettres de Paul Gauguin à Charles Daniel de Monfreid. Paris, Cres,

4. White Shadows in the South Seas, by Frederick O'Brien. New York, The
Century Co., 1920. A travel book, with a few new sidelights on Gauguin's
final period.

5. Avant et Après. Paul Gauguin aux Marquises. 1903. 100 copies only
published in photo-reproduction from the original manuscript. A
translation into German has also appeared. Kurt Wolf Verlag, Berlin,


1. Modern Painting, by Willard Huntingdon Wright. New York, The John
Lane Company.

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