"Woman in Front of a Still Life by Cézanne" by Paul Gauguin
Paul Gauguin, French, 1848-1903
Woman in Front of a Still Life by Cézanne, 1890
Oil on canvas
25 11/16 x 21 5/8 in. (65.3 x 54.9 cm)
Inscribed 6" above right corner: P. Go. / 90
In this work, an unidentified woman sits in front of Paul Cézanne’s 1879–80 Still Life with Fruit Dish, now at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The painting was part of Paul Gauguin’s own collection, and here he proprietarily signed his name over its white frame. Of the five or six Cézannes that he acquired while still a banker, this was the one he claimed he would never part with, “except in a case of direst necessity.” (He would eventually sell it to pay for medical treatment in Tahiti.) Although the version in this painting is nearly to scale with the original, it is more a translation than a copy, with rhythmical arabesques that are characteristic of Gauguin’s painting style rather than Cézanne’s.
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The Art Institute of Chicago, Museum Studies, 20, 2 (1994), p. 128.
Paul Gauguin’s life rivals that of Vincent van Gogh as the stuff of legend. In 1883, he left his job as a stockbroker and, eventually, his wife and five children to take up a nomadic, often impoverished, existence as a full-time painter. His "escape" from civilization included increasingly prolonged stays in such exotic places as Martinique, Tahiti, and finally the Marquesas Islands, where he died in 1903. While still a stockbroker, Gauguin had assembled a pioneering collection of Impressionist paintings, among them five or six canvases by Paul Cézanne. His favorite was apparently the still life partly visible in this picture, known as Fruit Bowl, Glass, and Apple of 1879/80.
In this densely composed painting, Gauguin pays tribute to Cézanne not only by including one of his works in the background but also by emulating Cézanne’s manner throughout the picture. In many areas of the portrait, especially the dress and hand, Gauguin adopts the rhythmic, parallel, patchy brushstrokes typical of the older artist. Cezanne’s influence also seems apparent in the laborious, tightly woven construction of the composition, in which the woman’s head seems almost embedded in the still life. An X-ray examination of this painting has revealed that Gauguin did indeed labor over many of its details, from the position of the woman in the chair—she was originally seated further back—to the relationship of her hands, which were at one point clasped in her lap, somewhat in the manner of existing portraits by Cézanne of his wife.
Gauguin’s own personality is most evident here in the emphasis on rich harmonies of closely related colors (the picture is dominated by blue and its derivatives, purple and violet) and on the fluid outlines of the forms of the chair and woman’s dress. This self-conscious orchestration of colors and forms became even more evident in Gauguin’s later works, in accordance with his belief that lines and colors, in a manner closely akin to music, carry intrinsic expressive qualities, independent of naturalistic objectives. Gauguin was also one of the first to turn to a wide variety of non-Western sources for inspiration in his effort to imbue painting with renewed mystery and to forge alternatives to naturalism. Some of the flatness and linear emphasis in this portrait reflects Gauguin’s interest in Japanese prints. Ironically, it is because of this quality that Cézanne once disparagingly referred to Gauguin’s works as "Chinese images."
The identity of the sitter of this portrait has long been debated and still remains uncertain. The picture was once thought to have been completed in Brittany, but it has since been suggested that it may instead have been painted after Gauguin’s return to Paris in November of 1890 during his stay with Emile Schuffenecker, a close friend and supporter. This hypothesis finds support in the characteristics of the woman portrayed. With her elongated, refined hands and cinched waist, she seems more like a city dweller than one of the earthy peasant women found in Gauguin’s Breton canvases.