Paul Gauguin (French, 1848-1903) Bouquet de roses
Lot 12*
Paul Gauguin
(French, 1848-1903)
Bouquet de roses
Sold for £902,500 (US$ 1,536,692) inc. premium
Lot Details
Paul Gauguin (French, 1848-1903)
Bouquet de roses
signed and dated 'p Gauguin 84' (lower right)
oil on canvas
46.4 x 55.4cm (18 1/4 x 21 13/16in).
Painted in 1884

Footnotes

  • This work will be included in the critical catalogue of the work of Paul Gauguin being prepared by the Wildenstein Institute.

    Provenance
    Private collection, Switzerland.

    Belinda Thomson
    Honorary Professor, History of Art, University of Edinburgh
    Guest Curator of the 2010 Tate exhibition, Gauguin: Maker of Myth

    Gauguin is an artist full of surprises. Who would have associated the enigmatic painter of Tahitians with this delightfully fresh and uncomplicated Bouquet de roses? Previously unknown even to Gauguin scholars, it is a most welcome discovery.[i] But of course, Gauguin painted still lifes throughout his career. Some of these, from his debut in the mid-1870s, look like demonstrations of his talent and follow the conventions of realist painting. For instance he painted oysters, glasses and bottles for their reflective surfaces, fruits of assorted shapes and tints that cast shadows onto crisply folded white linen tablecloths, the classic trompe l'oeil device of the foreshortened knife. Indeed an early example, painted on a rough wooden support, depicts roses in a glass (W. 25, now lost). Soon Gauguin began to devise more idiosyncratic compositions. Flowers arranged in distinctive containers were sometimes coupled with a mandolin or sheet music or set against a "tapis" (rug or table cloth) of quite complex pattern. Gauguin regularly included still lifes in his submissions to the Impressionist exhibitions. The strikingly unusual, moderately sized painting Les Deux pots (W. 60, Art Institute of Chicago) may well have been the Nature morte he exhibited at the 5th Impressionist exhibition in 1880 and he showed floral still lifes in 1881, 1882 and 1886 as well.

    Bouquet de Roses, however, makes no attempt to intrigue by juxtposing disparate objects. It is painted on a standard size 10 portrait canvas, probably prepared and stretched by the artist himself.[ii] This was a practice he had begun in 1879.[iii] We are presented with a simple, relatively conventional arrangement of yellow roses in a straight-sided blue-grey ceramic receptacle, which seems to have a curved handle placed on a slant: possibly a pottery tankard, possibly a two-handled vase, its oblique position prevents our knowing. Unlike other such receptacles it does not occur in more than one of the artist's compositions. The six visible roses are shown at different stages of maturity: one is still a bud, two are half open, two fully so. As though they have only just been arranged, the sixth rose lies on a table or sideboard partially covered with a rumpled piece of blue material, whose main purpose is surely to provide a colour contrast. A distinction can be made between Gauguin's careful handling of the flowers themselves and his freer treatment of the background where the brushstrokes form visible vertical striations. Nevertheless there are some quite emphatic and bold red and blue dabs used in the rose to the far left, and to emphasise the contours of the vase handle and the rose to lower right Gauguin has used the end of his brush to score into the paint surface. The particular variety of rose, with its delicate creamy yellow petals tinged with apricot (the colour used for the signature), is probably identifiable to a rose fancier: in colour resembling the 'Peace' rose, its flowers are perhaps too small, suggesting instead a climbing rose such as 'Easlea's Golden Rambler'.[iv] The blooms are palpable and totally convincing and one notices the precise tone chosen for the slightly limp serrated leaves - a dull blue green.

    Although Edouard Manet painted many casual and spontaneous-looking floral still-lifes - and several had been recently displayed in the artist's posthumous exhibition[v] - the artist most closely associated with still-lifes of roses at this period was Henri Fantin-Latour. Gauguin, like other artists, would have been aware that this aspect of Fantin's work had been enjoying success on the British market for decades (witness the presence, today, of Fantin-Latour still lifes in many British public collections). This was thanks in no small part to the active promotion of his friends and dealers Edwin and Ruth Edwards, but right into the 1880s, after they had fallen out, Fantin's steady income from flower painting left him free to explore other more personal and imaginative, but less marketable, subject matter. So did Fantin-Latour perhaps serve as a practical example for Gauguin at this critical juncture in his career, leading him briefly to explore the popular genre of floral still life? In 1884, after all, Gauguin had only recently decided to "work night and day and take the bull by the horns" to prove that he could earn a living through his brush.[vi] Previously he had been a shrewd player of the Paris money markets and, as his mentor Camille Pissarro was persuaded, his determination and business acumen would ensure that he succeeded in his mid-career change of vocation, come what may. Although one does not readily associate the two artists' names, Gauguin mentions Fantin-Latour respectfully in Racontars de rapin, the essay he sent to André Fontainas in Paris from the Marquesas Islands in 1902.[vii] In his roll-call of the significant French artists of the second half of the nineteenth century, he placed Fantin-Latour after Degas and Puvis de Chavannes (both of whom he revered) and before Cazin. Gauguin departs from Fantin-Latour's practice of using a warm neutral brown background however: in Bouquet de roses, he selects, instead, varying tints of quite bold blue, stronger for the fabric on the table top, paler for the wall behind the flowers.

    If the canvas surely dates to the early summer, in keeping with the season for these roses, the date, 1884, clearly inscribed alongside his signature in the typical way he had of signing that year, may hold the clue to the work's surprisingly sweet and gentle character.[viii] 1884 was a lean year in France, when a major financial crisis was affecting the whole French economy, including the Impressionists' dealer Paul Durand-Ruel. Devising schemes to circumvent the dealer of whom he was vehemently critical, Gauguin was actively cultivating patrons in Paris, Rouen and Scandinavia. Gauguin had brought his family to Rouen from Paris in order to reduce their living costs. Initially, he had believed he could find buyers in this city of rich merchants, planning to build up contacts notably among the Scandinavian traders.[ix] With this end in sight Gauguin painted a number of still lifes, mainly of flowers, as well as landscapes of the locality. Gauguin was in the habit of classifying his style and subject matter according to the "douce/raide" opposition, where "douce" meant pleasing and "raide" meant difficult, uncompromising. Thus, when sending works to be included in the Christiania Kunstudstilling in Norway that autumn, Gauguin chose "eight canvases, the largest of which is size 30 and the smallest size 10, all painted here and in my most uncompromising manner. I wanted to present myself there violently rather than in a half-hearted way."[x] Among his still lifes, one would undoubtedly put a work such as Bouquet de roses or indeed Sorbier (Rowan) (fig.) on the "douce" side, while on the more "raide" side one might place a still life such as Capucines et dahlias dans une corbeille, 1884 (W. 150, Oslo National Gallery), which is thought to be one of the eight canvases Gauguin sent to Norway. This identification has been made on the basis of its provenance, for Capucines et dahlias and two other exhibited works all passed through the collection of Pauline Horst, née Gad, Gauguin's sister-in-law who was briefly married to Hermann, the brother of Fritz Thaulow the Norwegian painter. Another work thought to have been exhibited in Oslo was Clovis endormi, 1884, (W. 151, Private Collection) whose dimensions are identical to those of Bouquet de Roses. By November 1884, however, giving up the struggle in Rouen, the Gauguins moved on to Copenhagen where Mette could earn money from translation work and had her family for support, while Gauguin would seek to earn a living as representative of the Dillies tarpaulin firm from Roubaix.

    We have little information about the early history of Bouquet de Roses. It was apparently given by the artist to its first owner, and may have been painted specifically for that individual. Several of the 1884 works are dedicated to friends who had supported Gauguin - for instance, Emile Schuffenecker - or to acquaintances made in Rouen such as the Manthey family whose name appears on two works, a landscape and a portrait. A still life is dedicated to Theodor Gad, his brother-in-law (W. 145, National Gallery of Art, Washington); a landscape of Rouen and the Seine valley is dedicated, perhaps retrospectively, to "mon ami William Lund" (W. 123).

    Given the elaborate meanings that could be attached to the composition of a bouquet in the nineteenth century, one wonders whether these yellow roses carried any symbolic meaning in Gauguin's mind. It seems doubtful. At any event such symbolic meanings could be contradictory. According to the Nouveau langage des fleurs, 1871, yellow roses signified "amour conjugal".[xi] According to the popular Le Petit Langage des fleurs, which went through many editions, yellow roses had a less positive meaning: they represented "infidélité". [xii]

    [i] Bouquet de roses will be included in a future supplement of the Wildenstein catalogue raisonné. See Daniel Wildenstein (ed.), Gauguin: premier itinéraire d'un sauvage, catalogue de l'oeuvre peint (1873-1888), compiled by Sylvie Crussard and Martine Heudron, 2 vols. Paris and Milan, 2001. References to this catalogue are henceforth given as "W." followed by the relevant catalogue number.
    [ii] For the standard sizes of stretchers and canvases, see Anthea Callen, The Art of Impressionism, Painting technique & the making of modernity, Yale 2000, p. 15.
    [iii] Gauguin told Camille Pissarro, in a letter of 26 September 1879, that he had started to stretch his own canvases and had a carpenter to make the stretchers for him, pleased to be saving money in this way. cf. Victor Merlhès (ed.), Correspondance de Paul Gauguin, vol. 1, 1873-1888, Paris, 1984, 11, p. 16.
    [iv] cf. Roy Hay and Patrick M. Synge, The Dictionary of Garden Plants, 1969, Rosa 'Easlea's Golden Rambler,' 1989, pp. 249, 353.
    [v] This took place at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in January 1884.
    [vi] "je veux travailler jour et nuit prendre le taureau par les cornes", Letter to Camille Pissarro, 11 October 1883, in Merlhès, op. cit. 1984, 41, p. 55.
    [vii] Victor Merlhès, ed., Gauguin, Racontars de rapin, fac-similé du manuscrit, Taravao, Tahiti, 1994.
    [viii] I am grateful to Sylvie Crussard for confirming these points about technique and signature. Communication with the author, 14 May 2014.
    [ix] Gauguin's plan to "exploiter les Scandinaves de Rouen" was mentioned by the artist Federico Zandomeneghi in a letter to Camille Pissarro of 22 November 1883, cited in Merlhès, op. cit. 1984, p. 58.
    [x] "Mon envoi se compose de huit toiles dont la plus grande est de 30 et la plus petite de 10, toutes faites ici et les plus raides. J'ai voulu aller là-bas violemment plutôt qu'à moitié." Letter from Gauguin to Camille Pissarro of late September 1884, in Merlhès, op. cit. 1984, 53, p. 68.
    [xi] Le Nouveau Langage des fleurs avec introduction de Pierre Zaccone, Hachette, Paris, 1871.
    [xii] Le Petit langage des Fleurs, éditions de l'aube, 2004, probably a reprint of T. Lefèvre, Petit langage des fleurs, Paris, 1883.
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