top of page
  • Writer's pictureStephanie Brown

23. Le roy et la royne

How well did Gauguin and Roy know each other? How often did their paths cross? Solving the mystery of Flowers and Fruit hinges in part on what these two men thought of each other, how and when and where they interacted. There are no letters between them. The evidence has to be teased out in other ways, from other kinds of documents. One of those documents is in the collection of the Louvre's Cabinet des dessins, the department of drawings.

Cabinet des dessins, Louvre, 2018, Personal Photo

In 1938, a man named Jean-Albert Schmit donated a scrapbook of letters, photographs, and sketches to the Louvre. The oblong album was bound brown sheepskin with leather and metal decorations on the covers. A sticker on the fly leaf read: "Album ayant appartenu à Paul Gauguin, contenant des dessins de Paul Gauguin, Emile Bernard et Louis Roy." // "This album, that belonged to Paul Gauguin, contains drawings made by Paul Gauguin, Emile Bernard, and Louis Roy." Who was Schmit, and how did he acquire this album?

Finding Jean Schmit was only slightly less challenging than finding Louis Roy. John Smith, after all, is a common name in every language. But eventually I remembered that the Archives nationales keep the records of works offered to the Louvre. Trust French archivists: the finding aids for these donations are all online. I learned that Jean Schmit had offered art works to the Louvre before; between April 1937 and November 1938, he corresponded with museum staff about a host of donations. His letterhead, which gave his address as 22, rue de Charonne, said that Schmit was "was an expert in customs law and an advisor to the French Council on Foreign Trade," and while he may certainly have been that, he was also owner of a family interior design and furniture business.

Once I had Schmit's address, I was able to find out more. Schmit and Company was founded in 1818 and is still in business. Its cabinetry won gold medals at the Expositions universelles in 1878 and 1889; beginning in 1900, the company worked with Paris' elegant grands magasins, department stores. Jean and his brother Jacques inherited the business in 1919.

Schmit regularly offered art to the Louvre--everything from Goya to Breughel to Renoir. My best guess is that, in addition to providing the firm's clients the finest furnishings, Schmit & Company also helped dispose of estates. Maybe you wanted to get rid of your maman's dresser with the gilt feet of a griffon that frightened you as a child. Maybe you were starting your second marriage and wanted to trade out your first wife's taste for your second's. Call up M. Jean at Roquette 06-72 and he could haul away your old bits and bring in the latest. If the old bits were interesting, he might offer them to his friends at the Louvre. Sometime in 1938, Schmit made an appointment on the rue de Rivoli, went in a side door and up the stairs, and presented this scrapbook to the Louvre's curators of modern art. Someday, when the airports reopen, I may be able to tell you how Schmit came by this album--but not today. When I talked my way into the Cabinet des dessins two years ago, this album was hors de communication. I couldn't look at it because it was part of the exhibition at the Grand Palais that week, Gauguin l'alchimiste. I have only seen it as it exists online.

Wherever it came from, Schmit gave it to the Louvre, and the Louvre digitized it. It's a complicated document, filled with sketches that have sketchy attributions, with letters stuck in here and there. The letters were generally addressed to Emile Schuffenecker--some from Gauguin, some from other people--which suggests that...well, it could suggest a lot of things. It could suggest that Gauguin gave the album to Schuff for safekeeping in the early 1890s, and that over the years--Schuff died in 1934--he stuffed various letters and bits and bobs into it, without ever considering that you and I would want to know when and why. Or it could suggest that Schuff, or Schmit, assembled the album out of loose ends and put in a sticker--to give it more credence. (Nothing like a label to make something real.) For the most part, the sketches are neither dated nor signed. The Louvre curators have done their level best to identify the sketchers.

We will have occasion to visit this album again. But for today our interest lies in one particular sketch that the Louvre's experts have attributed to Paul Gauguin. Here it is:

The sketch is captioned "Le roy et la royne." (La royne was an antiquated, charming spelling of la reine.) The king and the queen. The queen is--as the penciled note reads--a version of a sketch Gauguin had made of Marie Ginoux, an innkeeper in Arles. The existence of other paintings of Mme Ginoux help us to date this sketch--and dating this sketch can, in turn, help us fill in some details about Gauguin's relationship with Louis Roy.

Van Gogh painted Madame Ginoux while Gauguin sketched. He wrote to his brother Theo in Paris on November 3, 1888 about the sitting: "...I have an Arlésienne at last, a figure (no. 30 canvas) knocked off in one hour, background pale lemon — the face grey — the clothing dark dark dark, just unmixed Prussian blue. She’s leaning on a green table and is sitting in a wooden armchair — coloured orange." And that's how we know that Gauguin's Madame Ginoux comes from the fall of 1888. Gauguin's cartoonish sketch in the Schmit album came after his nuanced portrait of Madame Ginoux.

And who is la royne's king? The penciled note tells us it is a portrait of Louis Roy. The king in his cardboard crown looks a little baffled; the tilted-up lines under his eyes suggest perplexity at least, sorrow at worst. He's behind his queen, who looks just as pleased with herself as he looks dejected. But it's a cartoon dejection, just like the queen is a cartoon queen, with her own cardboard crown and her minimally drawn features. How can we be certain that this Roy is our Roy?

We can compare this sketch with Gauguin's painting of Louis Roy. Beard, moustache, receding hairline. Hair falling forward over his brow. A prominent nose. The drawing and the painting show us the same man in different attitudes.

And all of this, this journey around the internet, takes us a little closer to the friendship between Paul Gauguin and Louis Roy. Gauguin's teasing sketch of Roy as le roi, and his inscription of the two paintings to le seigneur Roy, seem to come out of the same conversation, the same tone of amusement. So now we know more about the jokey back and forth that Gauguin had, at least on his side, with Louis Roy. And we know that sometime after Gauguin left van Gogh to his nervous breakdown in Arles on Christmas Eve, 1888, and returned to Paris, he took pencil in hand and sketched out this teasing cartoon of a henpecked king, diminished and perplexed over the shoulder of a smug, confident queen.

Someone, we don't know who, kept the sketch and put it in a leather-bound scrapbook--a scrapbook that, fifty years later, found its way to the Louvre. Curators were still cataloguing it when, thousands of miles away in New York City, movers packed Flowers and Fruit into a crate and shipped it off to Stockton, California.

January 12, 1939 Paintings Shipment Inventory, Haggin Museum Archives

Recent Posts

See All

July 15


bottom of page