Published: February 13, 2001
HARTFORD, CONN. – Perpetually seeking isolated, unspoiled locations where he could pursue his art, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) found a temporary refuge in Le Pouldu, a rustic fishing village in Brittany. He worked there in both 1889 and 1890 and was joined by several followers, most notably the Dutch painter Jacob Isaac Meyer de Haan, who is the subject of a Gauguin painting in the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.
“Gauguin’s ‘Nirvana’: ,” organized by the Wadsworth Atheneum, reassembles more than 40 interrelated paintings, drawings, prints, and sculpture by Gauguin, de Haan, and others from collections around the world. The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum is the only venue for this special exhibition, where it is on view through April 29, 2001.
Gauguin and his circle were fond of Brittany, but their favored spot, Pont-Aven, had become too popular with tourists and other painters. So Gauguin and his newfound confidante, disciple, and patron, Meyer de Haan (1852-1895), lodged at an inn at Le Pouldu. With de Haan paying the bills, the two artists worked side by side, creating images of themselves, one another, still lifes, and the surrounding landscapes. They also decorated the inn’s dining room with murals, paintings, and wooden sculptures, occasionally with help from artists Paul Sérusier (1864-1927) and Charles Filiger (1863-1928).
Like Gauguin, de Haan had abandoned a business career to immerse himself in art, but the bond they shared was also intellectual and philosophical. Gauguin’s portraits of de Haan attest to the friends’ common interests as well as Gauguin’s mixed feelings of admiration, gratitude, envy, and rivalry toward him.
“Gauguin respected de Haan’s intellectual gifts, but initially underestimated his hunch-backed friend’s appeal to the opposite sex,” said exhibition curator Eric M. Zafran, Curator of European Painting and Sculpture at the Wadsworth Atheneum.
“Inexplicably, at least to Gauguin, their pretty innkeeper Marie-Jeanne Henry, known locally as Marie Poupee, or Marie the doll, rejected his advances but had an affair with de Haan. Gauguin’s fascination with de Haan’s carnality as well as his erudition is expressed in a remarkable series of paintings and sculptures,” Zafran continued.
Gauguin’s portrait of de Haan (circa 1889-90) in the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum, inscribed “Nirvana,” shows the redheaded Dutchman with a demonic, mask-like face with pointed eyes, ears, and beard, and holding a coiled golden snake which forms the G of the painter’s signature. In the background are two female nudes, each referring to slightly earlier paintings by Gauguin – “Life and Death” (Mahmoud Khalik Museum, Cairo) and “In the Waves” (The Cleveland Museum of Art).
De Haan’s stooped posture, satyr-like face, and red hair and beard, as well as his books on the table – Thomas Carlisle’s Sartor Resartus and John Milton’s Paradise Lost – are emphasized in another portrait (in a private collection promised to the Museum of Modern Art).
Gauguin returned to Paris in 1890. He hoped that de Haan would accompany him to Tahiti and continue to provide financial support, but the sickly Dutchman’s family, who controlled the purse strings, refused permission. Before Gauguin departed for the South Pacific in April 1891, however, his memories of de Haan and Brittany fueled the painting of “The Loss of Virginity” (1890-91; Chrysler Museum, Norfolk). In this work, the fox, defined by Gauguin as an Indian symbol of perversity and a clear allusion to de Haan, possessively perches on the reclining nude’s shoulder.
Although de Haan died in 1895 at age 43, he lived on vividly in Gauguin’s imagination. He reappeared in both a woodcut made in Tahiti, and more importantly, as a figure leering at two Polynesian beauties in one of Gauguin’s last major paintings, “Primitive Tales” (Museum Folkwang, Essen), done in Hiv-Oa in 1902.
Paul Gauguin: From 1848 To 1889
By 1889 when the artist Paul Gauguin arrived in the small village of Le Pouldu in Brittany, he had already led a remarkable life. He was born in Paris, but his maternal grandmother, Flora Tristan, who as a well-known adventurer and political activist, was of Peruvian descent. Gauguin’s father, Clovis, a liberal journalist, was forced into exile and died on shipboard en route to Peru with his wife, their daughter, and the two-year-old Paul. Gauguin spent four years living in relative splendor in Peru before his mother brought the family back to France to stay with distant relatives in Orleans, where young Paul attended a Jesuit seminary. He went on to a pre-naval college in Paris and became a merchant seaman and then a second lieutenant in the Navy.
During the 1860s and 70s he sailed to South America, the North Pole, and London. In 1872, through the assistance of his guardian uncle, Gauguin began a career as a stockbroker. That same year he met both his future wife Mette Gad from Denmark and Emile Schuffenecker, also a stockbroker as well as a part-time painter, who encouraged Gauguin to take up the same hobby. Gauguin became increasingly devoted to painting and finally had one of this works accepted for the Paris Salon in 1876.
But it is from 1879, when he encountered Camille Pissarro and was invited to join the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition, that Gauguin’s artistic career truly began. Through 1886 he participated in the next four Impressionist exhibitions; however, he obtained little critical success. Having given up his job, and as the father now of five children, his situation was rather desperate. As he would continue to do throughout his life, Gauguin sought a distant refuge, far from the modern urban world.
First, he visited the town of Pont-Aven in Brittany, and then he and the painter Charles Laval went to Panama, in April of 1887. They worked on the construction of the Canal and then traveled on to Martinique. There, before contracting malaria, Gauguin, inspired by the tropical vegetation and local people, began painting in a looser and brighter style.
On his return to Paris in November 1887, Gauguin was introduced to both Vincent van Gogh and his brother, the art dealer Theo, who would become one of the first to purchase his paintings. In October of that year Gauguin joined van Gogh at Arles, but their relationship was stormy and by late December Gauguin had returned to Paris. In 1889, Gauguin was an enthusiastic visitor to the Exposition Universelle, the great world’s fair, with its many displays of eastern cultures.
Before completing the arrangements for a display of works by himself and his friends at the fair grounds, he went back to Brittany. By July he had met the Dutch painter Meyer de Haan and they soon settled at the isolated inn at Le Pouldu, where Gauguin would produce some of his most original works.
Paul Gauguin: From 1890 To 1903
By early in 1890, Meyer de Haan’s family subsidy came to an end, and he and Gauguin had to depart from Le Pouldu. In 1891 de Haan returned to Holland where he died in 1895, while Gauguin decided to finally pursue his dream of living in an “idyllic” uncivilized place. After a brief and final visit with his wife and children in Copenhagen, he departed in April of 1891 for Tahiti.
Enamored of the Polynesian people, their mythology, and the lush tropical setting, he was extremely productive over the next few years, but unfortunately earned hardly any money. Thus in August of 1893 he had to return to France. The next year he went back to Brittany, briefly visiting Le Pouldu in a vain attempt to reclaim some of the works he had left there. In 1894 Gauguin exhibited in Paris “Noa Noa,” his highly original series of woodcuts based on Tahitian motifs.
Then, in July of 1895, he again left France, and via Australia and New Zealand arrived back in Tahiti. In addition to several grand paintings, Gauguin also produced a set of woodcuts based on many of his earlier Breton themes. Suffering from failing health, Gauguin moved from Tahiti in 1901 to the even more isolated Marquesas Islands, settling in Atuona on the island of Hiva-Oa. There he painted a series of inspired works often recalling earlier subjects. On May 8, 1903 he died at the age of 55.
When Gauguin first visited the western coastal region of Brittany in 1886 and 1888, he stayed at the picturesque village of Pont-Aven. It soon became too crowded with tourists and other artists for his liking. During this time, however, he had already discovered the more remote village of Le Pouldu, and it was here that he decided to take up residence in the summer of 1889.
Le Pouldu was only a tiny hamlet where the residents made their living primarily by harvesting seaweed. The inhospitable coast was distinguished by the famed black rocks, covered by seaweed and mussels, which supposedly had curative powers. Gauguin first stayed in one of the few local hotels.
With an introduction from Theo van Gogh, he was joined there by Dutch painter Meyer de Haan. De Haan provided the funds for their stay in exchange for becoming Gauguin’s student. By October of 1889, they had found lodging at the recently built inn owned by the energetic and attractive young woman Marie Henry, or Marie Poupée. She and de Haan were to have an intimate relationship.
However, what was most important about this time in the artists’ lives was that Gauguin and de Haan during the next 14 months, joined on occasion by several other painters, entered into an astonishingly creative period. Far away from Paris, they replaced the earlier Impressionist precepts of transcribing reality with a new symbolic approach. Their subjects, often derived from fantasy and dreams, became more fantastic and their forms and colors mote abstract and imaginative.
Benefiting from the isolation of Le Pouldu, Gauguin experimented not only with painting, but also with ceramics, sculpture, and fresco. He and de Haan, following the example of Monet and Renoir, often painted the same subjects, especially landscapes and still lifes, and sometimes the pupil was as original as the master. With his knowledge of literature, religion, and philosophy, de Haan fueled Gauguin’s powerful imagination with ideas for new and provocative subjects.
Jacob Meyer De Haan: 1852 – 1895
The painter Meyer de Haan, who only sometimes employed his given name Jacob, was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Amsterdam. Their business was primarily the manufacture of bread and matzo, but the young Meyer, who was a hunchback, was more interested in art and music. In exchange for his share of the business, he was given a stipend to pursue a painting career.
He studied with the academic master Petrus Grieve and became a skilled painter of portraits and genre subjects in a dark Dutch manner. His major canvas, worked on from 1878-88, was a depiction of the liberal Seventeenth Century Jewish thinker Uriel Acosta before the tribunal. Although painted in a traditional Rembrandtesque style, its subject was controversial, and de Haan decided to leave Holland for the most liberal atmosphere of Paris.
He arrived there in the fall of 1888, and through the art dealer Theo van Gogh was introduced to members of the avant-garde. He undoubtedly saw the exhibition of works by Gauguin and his colleagues in the Volpini Café at the Exposition Universelle in the summer of 1889 and decided to follow this new style. De Haan and Gauguin probably first met in Pont-Aven and were soon working together as master and pupil there and then at Le Pouldu.
Through Gauguin’s tutelage de Haan was liberated, and his landscapes and especially his still lifes became vibrant, bold compositions in the manner of Cézanne. Following Gauguin, de Haan also adopted a new flamboyant style of dress and with his large head and hands, red hair, and pointed ears was a frequent subject in the works of Gauguin and other painters.
His own self-portraits, however, are quite different from the exaggerated, demonic ones of his colleagues. De Haan’s Jewish background, as well as his knowledge of esoteric and classical literature, was of great interest to Gauguin. He incorporated books and objects relating to religion and philosophical ideas into his symbolic portraits of de Haan, who remained his friend, despite their supposed rivalry for the affections of their innkeeper, Marie Henry.
When he left Le Pouldu in late 1890, Meyer de Haan not only abandoned most of his works but also Marie Henry, who gave birth to their daughter in June of 1891. He returned to Holland and, ill, apparently produced no more art before his death on October 25, 1895.
The Inn At Le Pouldu
Gauguin and de Haan, joined later at times by Paul Sérusier and Charles Filiger, found their chief lodging in Le Pouldu at the inn called the Buvette de la Plage, which was owned by the young Marie Henry. There the painters had their meals, slept, and also made a temporary studio. Their greatest activity, however, in the winter of 1889 became the decorating of the inn’s dining room. Meyer de Haan’s portrait of Marie Henry with her daughter, known as “Maternity,” was the centerpiece of one wall. On another flanking the fireplace were Gauguin’s portraits of himself and de Haan. On the large west wall of the dining room, the painters were most creative.
Inspired by the subjects and techniques they had seen at the Exposition Universelle in Paris earlier in the year, both de Haan and Gauguin painted large-scale compositions directly on the plaster walls. When Marie Henry sold the inn in 1893, she took away with her all the movable paintings and sculpture, and these were later sold by her heirs. The wall paintings left behind were covered by wallpaper and only rediscovered in 1924. At that time they were removed and have also now been widely dispersed. The Wadsworth was able to reunite a number of the original works from the inn at Le Pouldu and give some sense of its distinctive aura.
Paul Sérusier: 1864 – 1927
Born into a Parisian business family, Sérusier was only allowed by his father to pursue art in 1886. He then entered the Academie Julien and made rapid progress, exhibiting his work at the Paris Salon for the first time 1888. In the summer of that same year, Sérusier went to Brittany and in Pont-Aven met Gauguin, who agreed to give him a single lesson. This literally changed Sérusier’s life, as he produced a remarkable little abstract painting on board of a forest view.
When he returned to Paris and showed it to his young colleagues, on whom it had a profound effect, it became known as “The Talisman.” These artists formed a semi-secret group, which they called the “Nabis,” after the Hebrew word for prophets, and they became devoted to a flat, decorative type of painting often with religious overtones.
Sérusier returned to Brittany in 1889 and again in 1890, spending time with Gauguin and Meyer de Haan in Le Pouldu, and may have done some works in the inn’s interior. His several views of the region exhibited here reveal how he adapted their subjects of lonely farm girls, broad expanses of fields, and paths demarcated by gates. Sérusier, however, was able to invest all these with his own distinctive air of melancholic spirituality. He eventually settled in Brittany and devoted much of his art to theatrical and religious themes.
The Volpini Prints
After his return to Paris from the time spent with Vincent van Gogh in Arles, Gauguin, encouraged by the dealer Theo van Gogh, produced a series of prints devoted to themes drawn primarily from his experiences in Martinique, Brittany, and Arles. Created on zinc plates, these zincographs were then printed in a limited number on vivid canary yellow paper.
A complete set of them was shown at the exhibition of so-called Impressionist and Synthetist artists which Gauguin instigated but which his friend Schuffenecker actually organized at the Café belonging to Signor Volpini on the grounds of the Exposition Universelle in the summer of 1889.
For the printed catalogue of this exhibition, Gauguin sent to Schuffenecker a drawing of women at the Black Rocks. This image combining the female from the paintings “In the Waves” and “Life and Death” (much as they are seen in the background of “Nirvana”) was adapted as a linecut for the catalogue’s title page.
“Seen together, these startling works and others will illuminate the significance of Gauguin’s encounter with Meyer de Haan, which resulted in their collaboration on the inn’s décor and side-by-side studies of still lifes and landscapes. They will also offer the new insight into the Wadsworth Atheneum’s masterpiece,” said Zafran. “Most interesting is that ‘Nirvana’ was left by Gauguin in the keeping of Spanish sculptor Paco Durrio, later a good friend of the young Picasso who was obviously influenced by the ‘modern’ and primitive qualities of Gauguin.”
Lenders to the exhibition include private collections in Brazil, Switzerland, and the United States; the National Gallery of Art, Washington; the Museum of Modern Art; the Cleveland Museum of Art; the Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Va.; UCLA at Armand Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Indianapolis Museum of Art; New Orleans Museum of Art; Yale University Art Gallery; National Gallery of Ottawa, Canada; Musee des Beaux-Arts, Quimper, France; and Museum Folkwang Essen, Germany.
A 160-page catalogue with more than 75 color images and 20 black and white illustrations has been published by the Wadsworth Atheneum in association with Yale University Press. It features essays by Zafran; Charles Stuckey, senior curator at the Kimbell Museum of Art in Fort Worth, Tex.; Ogomila Welsh-Ovcharov, a professor of art history at the University of Toronto; Victor Merlhes, an authority on Gauguin’s letters; and a technical study of “Nirvana: Portrait of Meyer de Haan” by Stephen Kornhauser, chief curator at the Wadsworth Atheneum.
The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art is at 600 Main Street. Hours are Tuesday to Sunday, 11 am to 5 pm, and on the first Thursday of most months until 8 pm. For information, 860/278-2670 or www.wadsworthatheneum.org.
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