||Gauguin, Eugène Henri Paul
On a simple plank table, common objects from Gauguin’ s daily life in Tahiti are carefully laid out on a white napkin: a Japanese teapot (decorated with reeds and a crane in blue underglaze), a wooden spoon, a turned earthenware jug, seven mangoes in varying degrees of ripeness, and an eighth, smaller fruit, perhaps another mango. The backdrop is deep blue; on it are two brilliant, yellow, stenciled flowers. The right side of this wall is pierced by an opening through which is seen a half length nude figure, some distance back, in profile silhouetted against a sun-dappled landscape. While all the elements are completely of the place, nothing could be more different from the three other Tahitian pictures in this exhibition, or from the great majority of pictures done during the last decade of Gauguin’s life. As brilliant as the colours are here—in the sensuous pulpiness of the fruit and the exotic patterns of the background—it is a still life realized completely within the manner of his French contemporaries. It is arguably the closest he ever drew, in his mature works, to Cezanne. Camille Pissarro’s skepticism at Gauguin’s notion that he young would find salvation by replenishing themselves at remote and savage sources seems perfectly justified. It is as if the great distance from Paris intensified Gauguin’s memory of his French sources.
Cézanne, among all the older figures of the Impressionist movement, most impressed Gauguin. They seem to have first met, through the intercession of Pissarro, at Pontoise in the late 1870s. Although their relationship was far from intimate—Cézanne referred to Gauguin’s paintings as “Chinese images” and later in his life warned younger painters away from the decorative influence of Gauguin and his circle—Gauguin’s devotion to Cézanne’ paintings was immense. While still a well-to-do stockbroker, following his marriage in 1873 and just after becoming aware of this group of progressive painters, Gauguin started to form a collection of their work, to which he would carefully add until the disastrous stock-market collapse in 1882, which hastened his abandonment of his own bourgeois life and provided his final liberation as an independent painter. In his collection were five or six works by Cézanne. He took the collection with him in 1884 to Copenhagen, where he briefly joined his wife and family. While he was slowly forced to sell off the paintings over the next several years of severe hardship, there was one work by Cézanne with which he was most reluctant to part: Still Life with Apples in a Compote. This picture, used by Maurice Denis in his Hommage to Cézanne in 1900, nurtured Gauguin through his remaining years in France: its elements recur in at least three paintings from the Bretagne period, and Gauguin copied it exactly in the background of his Portrait of a Woman, with Still Life by Cézanne of 1890. At the time of his return trip to Paris in 1893, it seems to have been the one important possession he still retained from his earlier life—his dealer Ambroise Vollard noted that the Cézanne was the featured object in Gauguin’s meager studio on the rue Vercingétorix. And even in this still life, painted three years later and far away from the Cézanne picture itself, the densely worked surface of hot, contrasting colours (Cézanne accused Gauguin of stealing “my little sensations”) the spatial manipulation of the gathered, white cloth and the angled eating implements (Gauguin substituted a spoon for Cézanne’ ivory-handled knife); and, above all else, the monumental realization of these forms within a box of space show that for Gauguin, “his” Cézanne was still vivid in his mind. Even the floral ornaments in the background, often taken to be Gauguin’s imaginative departure from the type of flat designs he saw in Tahiti, are now proved to be drawn from the pattern on the printed or stenciled cloth he used to bind his own copy of his satirical newspaper, Le Sourire, and are Gauguin’s “Tahitian” response to the blue-grey wallpaper with emerging floral patterns in Cézanne’s still life. As Richard Brettell has noted, “Gauguin ‘translates’ Cézanne into Tahitian.
The haunting figure seen through the opening is Gauguin’s one complete departure from the model of the Cézanne still life: while Cézanne would often break the continuous background of his pictures with shifting architectural elements that recede into deeper, terminating planes, he never allowed such a dramatic release from his contained, illusionistic space. However, such a device—particularly with a figure in profile—was often used by Degas, and early on Gauguin took it up as one of his favoured means of enlivening his own still lifes while introducing a turn of narrative suggestion. As early as 1886, in his portrait of Charles Laval, the two elements of still life and portrait complement one another playfully, if enigmatically. The same relationship occurs frequently in the Tahitian stull lifes—note particularly the girl, seen almost as a framed portrait, in the 1901 Sunflowers on a Chair'—while the introduction of a detached, enframed figure brings toa theatrical climax such pictures as The Spirit of the Dead Watching. Here, however, the seemingly benign figure has less dramatic import—as if the powerful reality of the still-life elements dispel any mystical intrusion—and one suspects that its inclusion is Gauguin’ attempt to distance himself from Cézanne and the Western tradition.
It is ironic that in 1897, the year following the execution of this picture, Gauguin wrote to the Paris dealer Chaudet requesting that he sell the Cézanne for the low price of six hundred francs, so hopeless were the artist's finances. Chaudet did so, although only half the money reached Gauguin before his death. Still Life with Teapot and Fruit marks the peak of Gauguin’s absorption with the artist who governed so much of his development; thereafter Cezanne’s influence on Gauguin ebbed and that of Degas and Puvis de Chavannes reemerged to partially soften his spatial imagery. However, even near the end of his life, in his journal Avant et apres, he wrote about works by Cézanne: “It is better to go and see them. The bowl and ripe grapes exceed the border, on the napkin the apples, green and those which are prunish red blend. The whites are blue and the blues are white. What a painter Cézanne was!”