Paul Gaugin’s biographer David Sweetman calls him ‘the temporary Impressionist’.
Although the Impressionist chapter of Gauguin’s early artistic career was very productive and prolific, it is often overlooked, since it was his later ground-breaking experimentations with colour, contours, and contrasts, that would inspire multiple movements of 20th century modern art.
Gauguin had no formal artistic training and started painting as an amateur relatively late, at age 25. His first recorded work dates from 1873 and is a portrait of Marie Heegard, a Danish friend, who commented in a letter to her sister: “Paul fills his spare moments by painting; he has made great progress. Last Sunday he painted for ten hours.”
What Gauguin lacked in formal artistic education, he made up for in talent and life experience: by 1873 he had spent part of his childhood in Peru, sailed the world oceans in the merchant navy, fought as a soldier in the Franco-Prussian war, started a career as a stockbroker in Paris, and was about to marry the Danish woman Mette Gad. Through the family of his guardian Gustave Arosa and his brother Achille, wealthy Parisian businessmen of Spanish-Jewish ancestry, who were both well-known art collectors, Gauguin had been exposed to modern French painting, which he studied with keen interest. The Arosas inspired Gauguin to start his own art collection by the late 1870s, which would include works by Pissarro, Cézanne, Renoir, Sisley, Manet, Degas, Guillaumin, and Boudin. Through the brothers Gauguin also befriended Camille Pissarro, who, along with Edgar Degas, was the one, who invited him to show his paintings in the 4th Impressionist exhibition in 1879, and encouraged him to embark on a career as a professional artist. This dream finally became a reality for Gauguin by 1885, when he returned to Paris from Copenhagen, penniless after a miserably failed marriage and business career.
The present still-life dates into the summer of 1876 and is a wonderful example of Gauguin’s Impressionist style. A brown wide-brimmed hat, a book with a light blue cover and a handful of blue, pink and white china-asters are casually strewn on an undefinable greenish-yellow surface, which blurs into the background. The painting is executed with verve, in fast flowing, energetic brushstrokes. These ‘dynamic flux effects’ as Daniel Wildenstein calls them, are found in several of Gauguin’s flower paintings of the same year. He points out that during the mid-1870s Gauguin produced paintings in this experimental style parallel to works of a more static, traditional kind. According to Wildenstein, ‘Gauguin was unwilling to confine himself to a single style, and had an inner compulsion to explore difficult terrain. His pronounced experimentalism was a temperamental necessity that revealed itself very early in his career.’
- D. Wildenstein, Gauguin, A Savage in the Making, Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings (1873-1888). vol. I, Paris 2001, p. 37