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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Brown

21. Still Lifes

In May 1886, after he took Clovis out to Antony and before he decamped to Pont-Aven, Gauguin exhibited works in the Eighth Impressionist Exhibition. There had been strife in the group over who was to be invited to show in the exhibition; when the others insisted on Seurat and Signac joining, Monet and Renoir withdrew. Over 200 paintings were exhibited in rooms

over a popular restaurant near the Opéra. Admission was 1 franc. The Eighth Impressionist Exhibition introduced pointillism--painting in disconnected dots of color--to the shocked and appalled (and perhaps vastly entertained) Parisian gallery-going public. Seurat's Sunday on La Grande Jatte, at 6 x 10 feet, drew descriptions of "bedlam" and "scandal." It is perhaps the best-known "pointilliste experiment," today reproduced on countless puzzles and postcards. In 1886, one critic called the painting a joke, and Seurat a delinquent.

Gauguin joined the exhibition with 18 paintings, among them a still life of oranges that several critics listed as a must-see. No printed catalogue of the exhibition survives. We know what was exhibited from the incomplete evidence of press reviews, the artists' letters, and later recollections.

Gauguin had, by 1886, made several paintings of oranges. He had shown Interior with Aline at the 7th Impressionist Exhibition in 1882; it shows his four year old daughter peeling an orange that she has presumably chosen from those on the table before her. Tate Modern defines as still life as taking for its subject "anything that does not move or is dead." Gauguin's painting of Aline and her orange could be the still life that he exhibited in 1886. But it's not technically a still life. Or maybe, it's a modified still life: there's the arrangement of objects on a table, but there's also a child wearing a pinafore who is unquestionably alive and concentrating on her orange.

Or Gauguin could have shown this painting of oranges in 1886:

The editors of the Catalogue raisonné are hesitant to stake their claim on Fruit in a Bowl because it is rough, sketchy, unfinished. But it is, unquestionably, a still life. And the Catalogue editors have this to say about it:

Gauguin's much smaller canvas--about 12 x 17 inches--shows the artist experimenting with the same sort of abrupt brushwork as Seurat: the paint is applied in short, jagged, unconnected strokes. Stand too close, and all you see is color. The image only resolves itself into meaning when taken as a whole; a detail of the painting conveys the way it was made, but not the subject.

Gauguin knew Seurat through his sometime-mentor Pissarro; it's likely that he would have seen La Grande Jatte as Seurat was working on it, and it appears that Fruit in a Bowl shows him in conversation with Seurat's style. Exhibiting it in the May-June show seems like a logical next step.

Though there's a question as to whether Fruit in a Bowl was the still life Gauguin showed at the 8th Impressionist Exhibition, there's no question about its authenticity as a Gauguin: the editors of the Catalogue raisonné included it in the 2002 edition. Here's the entry from the catalogue:

The dedication is "undeniably in Gauguin's hand." We know he signed it, and we know to whom he inscribed it: our old suspect Louis Roy. It is the first of three still lifes inscribed to Roy: another, of peaches (or oranges), has been lost. And the third is our mystery painting, Flowers and Fruit.

The lost Six Peaches is inscribed in the same way as Fruit in a Bowl, although in the only surviving black and white reproduction it's difficult to see: Au Seigneur Roy, P.G.

Other paintings by Gauguin passed through Roy's hands. One carries the inscription "Collection Roy" on the back of the frame; another was Gauguin's portrait of Roy; still another featured a cow ruminating next to a tree. All of these works testify to a relationship--friendly? professional?--between the two men. If Flowers and Fruit were the only painting that tied Roy and Gauguin together, it would be easy to dismiss. But it's one of several. If it is a fake, as the experts have judged it to be, then what does that mean for the other paintings inscribed to Roy, or in his collection?

The provenance, the history of ownership, of Fruit in a Bowl, is worth examining in this regard. The editors of the Catalogue raisonné list Louis Roy as the painting's first owner. Then it went to Sir Matthew Smith--remember Sir Matthew? We met him on the Villa Brune, where he lived across the street from Francis Norgelet, the writer and occasional dealer in Gauguin's Pon-Aven paintings. According to the Catalogue, Sir Matthew bought Fruit in a Bowl in Pont-Aven in the early 20th century--and it then stayed in his family.

For this to be the case, Gauguin had to have given Roy Fruit in a Bowl sometime between about 1886, when he was experimenting with pointillism, and 1894, when Gauguin left France for Tahiti for the last time. Gauguin and Roy were back and forth in each others' studios during those years, and we know that Roy had other paintings from Gauguin in his possession. Roy lived in Paris and summered either in Poligny or near his wife's family in Estissac: those are the landscapes that appear in his paintings. The evidence that he was in Pont-Aven during Gauguin's years there is circumstantial; the evidence that he was in Pont-Aven after 1894 is absent. Which is not to say that it does not exist at the back of some archival file.

For Sir Matthew to have bought the painting in Pont-Aven, the painting had to have been in Pont-Aven. How did the painting get from Roy's studio to Pont-Aven after 1894, for Sir Matthew to buy it?

Sir Matthew Smith's first visit to Pont-Aven came in 1908. That's the first time that he could have purchased Fruit in a Bowl. Louis Roy died in Paris in 1907. Sir Matthew could not have acquired the painting from Louis Roy in 1908 because Roy was already dead.

What happened to Fruit in a Bowl between the time that Gauguin handed it over to Louis Roy--and the time that Sir Matthew hung it in his dining room?

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