Gauguin Portraits

The French painter’s main subject was himself, John Westbrooke finds

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Paul Gauguin (1848 – 1903) is best known as the artist who briefly worked with Vincent Van Gogh, then escaped late 19th century Paris society for Tahiti. He’s not really known as a portrait painter, though, so the National Gallery’s latest exhibition is the first to focus on what might be seen as a minor part of his work.

Their argument is that it was a much bigger theme than viewers have realised. Yes, he painted occasional portraits, but is better known for studies of unidentified people in their own surroundings: these, say the curators, are portraits of a sort. So are some paintings that don’t have anyone in them at all.

He was a late starter. After a childhood in Peru he returned to France, married a Danish woman, got well-paid work as a stockbroker, collected Impressionist art, met the artists and dabbled in art himself. But when the stock market collapsed, he decided, in his 30s, to do it full-time, and left his family.

He had painted them occasionally, but he doesn’t look involved. “Mette in an Evening Dress” is holding a fan and looking away; you’d never guess she was his wife. All his life his most common subject was himself. He seems to have believed you could only paint your own vision: in that sense, all his portraits are self-portraits and he wasn’t afraid of seeking new ways to express himself.

So there are three paintings here in which he linked himself to Christ, two ostensibly self-portraits, and one in which he’s his own model for “Christ in the Garden of Olives”, presumably feeling martyred and alone. He doesn’t seem to have had much in the way of empathy, however: rather than feeling Christ’s suffering, he may have expected Christ to feel his.

He went to Brittany in 1886, having heard that it offered a more authentic, primitive way of life than metropolitan Paris. It seems he found more painters there than primitives, though the locals were happy to dress up in traditional costume and enact local rituals for the visitors, for a fee. He did produce good work, the clear air chiming with the broad, flat expanses of colour he preferred; but it wasn’t enough, and he began to look to the French Pacific.

After a trip to Martinique and Panama (he worked on digging the canal), he set sail for Tahiti in 1891, having received government funds on the promise of producing ethnographic studies – which he did, in a way. Indeed, he “married” three Polynesians, one aged 13, the other two 14, which conformed with local custom but sounds uncomfortably like sex tourism.

And yet his paintings of islanders are among his finest work. The unspoiled way of life he’d hoped to find had long been spoiled by missionaries and disease, so the many striking nudes he painted of women may have been more nostalgic than real. (There aren’t many in this exhibition.)

Instead, “missionary dresses” – neck-to-ankle affairs encouraged by preachers – were by now fashionable, the clothing a woman would wear to be painted in. The young female in “Faaturuma/Melancholic” is swathed in pink, which may not have been how the artist wanted to see her but it’s a rich display of Gauguin colour. “Tehamana Has Many Parents” shows his best-known wife, done up in good Christian stripes but surrounded by writing and figures vaguely reflecting her island heritage. (Her family were Rarotongan, not Tahitian; she died of Spanish flu in 1918.)

Her expression, though, is a blank. Though he took Polynesian culture seriously – he used a stopover in New Zealand to study Māori artefacts at a museum – Gauguin seems also to have regarded it as something outside his own experience and therefore unknowable, rather as Orientalist artists delighted in the mysterious and exotic (and often imaginary) world of North Africa and the East but didn’t make too much effort to find out the facts.

He loathed the missionaries and what they’d done to Tahiti’s heritage, but he too was exploiting the locals in his own way. For all that he supported them, he was still thinking of Paris and hoping to return home as a rover with stories to tell and paintings to sell; but when he did, nobody was much interested. In 1895 he returned to Tahiti, then in 1901 left for the even more remote Marquesas Islands, where he died in poverty.

Though he lost friends as quickly as he made them, the gallery devotes a room to two, both Dutch painters: Meijer de Haan and Van Gogh. The latter lived and worked with Gauguin in Arles for some weeks before, inevitably, they fell out; but in that time Van Gogh produced, along with sunflower paintings, two unusual works: one of his own chair, one of Gauguin’s.

The notion seems to have stuck with Gauguin because years later he had some seeds sent out from France and painted the resulting sunflowers. However, you may need to tell yourself firmly that this is, as the curators claim, a “surrogate portrait” of Van Gogh, and not a still-life of flowers.

De Haan is forgotten today, but Gauguin drew him many times (some of the results displayed here are near-caricatures) but also carved a likeness of him in oak. And after his death, he reappears in “Barbarian Tales”, arguably Gauguin’s final masterpiece and his last comment on two ways of life, civilised and savage – he meant “savage” as praise. Two near-naked Polynesian women sit together, one in a Buddha-like pose and one more relaxed, with flowers in her long, red hair. Next to them sits a crabbed figure in blue, with clawlike feet and De Haan’s face.

Why Gauguin depicted his old comrade as a sort of devil priest evidently representing European hypocrisy in the face of foreign faiths, who can say? He wasn’t free of double standards himself. He may not have been a nice man or a good friend, but he was a great painter.

Gauguin Portraits runs at the National Gallery, London, until 26 January 2020. Tickets from £22, more at weekends, with discounts online; children free with adults.