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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Brown

22. To the manor born

When I first looked into Flowers and Fruit, one of my partners in crime and I speculated that "l'ami Roy" was one of Gauguin's patrons. Gauguin was, and sit down for this one, the sort to adopt patrons. Patrons who would have the privilege of supporting his art and, also, incidental expenses like laundry. Gustave Arosa, a family friend of Gauguin's mother, was the first; Arosa placed the young Paul with a stockbroking firm and introduced him around town.

Then came the artist Pissarro, who gave the successful young stockbroker painting lessons until the younger man decided he had learned what the older man had to teach, and leveraged their relationship in to a place in the Impressionist Exhibitions. Then came Schuffenecker: a fellow stockbroker and painter who had a little more family money with which to underwrite Gauguin's career. And so, since all we could learn about Louis Roy was that he was 1. a painter and 2. a friend of Gauguin's, we thought that perhaps Roy, too, was one of the men who supported the artist in his search for renown and rent money.

Then one day my accomplice emailed me with the news that she had found a painting inscribed "au seigneur Roy / PG." Aha! Additional evidence: this Roy was someone whose status earned him the honorific of "seigneur," a lord of the manor who was happy to pay Gauguin for his paintings, kick in a little extra, and perhaps be grateful for some tips on his own painting.

I labored under this theory for several months. Finding out anything about Louis Roy was, for the first year I worked on the project, almost impossible. There were moments when I thought he might have been a historical figment, a joke that someone had made up and dropped into a few outdated and forgotten catalogues. There was no cache of letters. There was no one-man exhibition. There was no biography, no catalogue raisonné. His name was mentioned in passing in dozens of books, with nothing more than the same information repeated: He taught with Schuffenecker. He showed work at the Volpini Exhibition in 1889. He worked with Gauguin on some woodcuts in the early 1890s. He died in 1907.

And that was all. He had almost disappeared from history.

My working theory was that Louis Roy had been an artist with independent means, a teacher who taught because he wanted to teach, not because he needed the salary. He was small gentry, perhaps from a well to do country family with a little land and the leisure to send their son off to art school and to live la vie bohème in Paris. In this scenario, Roy picked up the tab at the end of the night. He looked fondly on Gauguin, supported him here and there, and, as a debt of gratitude, Gauguin inscribed grateful canvases to his friend, his seigneur.

If you tap at the archives for long enough, a few cracks start to show. Follow the cracks and you can begin to pick off the layers, to fumble towards some sort of meaning. The meaning for me began to emerge the day I received in my email a copy of the only article ever published about Louis Roy: a 1978 summary of what was known about his life, written by a French art historian and researcher called Elisabeth Walter. She called her article "Le Seigneur Roy." Walter reassured me in her first line that I was not the first to wonder if Roy had ever actually existed: "The figure of Louis Roy, who exhibited at the Café Volpini in 1889, has been so much forgotten that, in 1955, scholars suggested that his name was actually a pseudonym" adopted by another artist. My predecessor's digging, though, revealed that he was more than a pseudonym. She worked out that Louis Roy came from the village of Poligny, in the foothills of the Alps. To prove it, she tracked down his birth certificate.

Elisabeth Walter, "Le Seigneur Roy," Bulletin des Amis du Musée de Rennes 2: 1978, p. 61-72.

Elisabeth Walter was based in Paris. She worked at the Louvre; in time, she became the chief curator of the Painting Department. But when she wrote this article about Louis Roy for the Bulletin des Amis du Musée de Rennes, she did not take the train out to Poligny to look up the information herself. She wrote to the mayor of the village on the Louvre's letterhead; the mayor read the letter; the mayor sent a junior staff member into the attic of the mairie and, a few hours or days later, the staff member came downstairs, washed the dust of the ages off of his hands, and typed up his notes. Then the mayor's secretary took out their best letterhead and composed a letter to Madame Walter. The mayor signed it with a flourish and off it went to Paris. Madame Walter found it in her cubbyhole mailbox in the hallway outside her office deep in the labyrinthine hallways of the Louvre and typed the information into her footnote. I am certain that she opened her ClaireFontaine research notebook to her list of documents to find and made a neat check next to Louis Roy / Acte de naissance.

The Archives of the Jura, Louis Roy's home region, are now digitized. For me to find his birth certificate--once I knew that it was in the Poligny archives--required a few clicks, an afternoon, and patience. I traced his ancestry:

Jean-Eléonor went to Paris as a young man and found work as a domestic servant. In Paris he met Anne-Baptiste Boissenin, who had been born in Villersexel, a small town about 60 miles north of Poligny. Anne-Baptiste also worked as a domestic servant; perhaps they met working in the same household, perhaps they met through friends. Anne-Baptiste’s parents were also farmers. Roy and Boissenin, whenever they met, married late: he was 41, she was 35. They waited to marry until they had saved enough money to purchase a building on one of the main streets of Poligny. Number 15, Grande Rue, had an apartment above and a storefront at the street level—a store that the couple made into a grocery. Louis Roy was born when his mother was 38 and his father, 44. He was their only child.

Louis Roy was not a seigneur. He was the second generation in his family to have left the farm, the first generation to receive enough education to become a teacher himself.

Why, then, did Gauguin inscribe paintings to Roy as a seigneur, as a lord of the manor?

The inscription is jocular: Au seigneur Roy / PG. He addresses the young schoolmaster, a provincial grocer's son, as though he is the lord of the manor. Gauguin himself was closer to the rank of seigneur than this younger man: descended from solid French merchants and men of letters, the grandson of the feminist socialist Flora Tristan, with murmurs of nobility across the seas in Peru. Gauguin was 38, married, a father, an exhibiting (if currently penniless) artist, beginning to be known in the avant-garde art world of Paris. Roy was 24, unmarried, a beginning teacher who likely lived at school to help supervise the boarders. Gauguin had traveled the world as a sailor. He spoke multiple languages. He had made and lost fortunes. Why address this young provincial as though he is Somebody? Is it a joke on his name? Roy means king, after all, and being named Louis King, when there had been 18 kings of France called Louis, could have made our young man an easy mark for teasing.

Gauguin mentioned Roy in two letters to Schuffenecker, one in 1889 and one in 1890. Both are as an aside. We have no letters from Gauguin to Roy, or Roy to Gauguin. That doesn't mean they didn't write to each other: it means no one kept them. I have found no published or archival photographs of Roy: which doesn't mean they didn't exist, only that no one kept them. The evidence of their friendship that survives is sketched and painted. The archival record of la famille Roy tells us enough to know that Roy was not one in a series of Gauguin's patrons and supporters. He was a young provincial making his way in the big city. He met Gauguin through his teaching colleague, and Gauguin called the younger man Seigneur: they knew each other well enough for nicknames.

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