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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Brown

40. Winter 1888

Gauguin was ill and the weather was bad. The winter of 1887-88 was cold, grey, and damp in Paris. The weather changed only to get worse. Inside the Schuffeneckers' house at 29, rue Boulard, the atmosphere was heavy. Gauguin, weak from dysentery and malaria, had come straight to them when he got home from Martinique in mid-November. By the end of January, the temperature hovered around freezing, and a cold fog had settled over the city. Emile was out all day teaching art at the Lycée Vanves and spending his days off painting en plein air...out of the house.

Louise, Madame Schuffenecker, was home with the children: Jeanne was turning six, and Paul, Gauguin's namesake, would be 4. Well over a century later, rumors still abound of something between Louise and her house guest. Gauguin worked on ceramics that winter, and one of the pieces that survives is a portrait vase of Louise. She casts her eyes down demurely, but the belt around her waist is in the shape of a snake--an echo of Eve and the snake in the Garden of Eden. And the sinuous handle of the vessel looks like a cat's tail--another symbol of female sexuality; the tail on Olympia's cat, in Manet's painting, has the same sort of swish.

Emile, when he was home, had friends stop in for drinks and chat. Louis Roy, his colleague at Vanves, might come by after work. Georges-Daniel de Monfreid, another painter in his twenties, was a regular visitor, better dressed: he had considerable family money. Young Emile Bernard, not yet 20, was around now and then, and probably brought others: Louis Anquetin, whom he had met at the Atelier Cormon, perhaps Charles Filiger, perhaps Léon Fauché--all artists that would, within the next year or so, join together for an exhibition adjacent to the 1889 Universal Exposition. Gauguin listened and smoked in the corner, sizing up when to speak for maximum impact, watching and waiting.

And then, there were cafés and galleries to visit: Gauguin went up to Montmartre to see the show that Vincent van Gogh had organized. Soon after, Theo and Vincent made their way to Schuff's, and Theo bought three of Gauguin's paintings on the spot. The 900 francs helped Gauguin's budget, as did the exhibition at Boussod et Valadon that Theo hosted. A few of the ceramic pieces made it into the show, and sold.

With the money from the sales in his pocket, Gauguin decided it was time to go back to Pont-Aven. The Breton village would be cheaper than Paris, even if he had to pay his own room and board at the Pension Gloanec. Fewer distractions, fewer temptations, cheaper models.

Towards the end of January Schuff helped his complicated friend schlep his trunks and canvases to the Gare de l'Ouest, an earlier incarnation of the Gare de Montparnasse. We can imagine the bustle of getting everything down the stairs to the sidewalk, the hailing of a cab or a wagon, loading everything on, Gauguin checking the straps, rearranging everything before darting back in for his scarf, causing maximum disruption and trouble. Schuff was the sort of friend who would have gone along to the train station, helped find a porter to take the luggage, stood by while Gauguin bought his one-way ticket or even paid for the ticket himself. The bags--up to 66 pounds of baggage was allowed--would have been checked all the way through, and Gauguin left with only what he would need for the journey: maybe a book, some newspapers, a sketchbook. An extra coat. Sandwiches, cheese, sausages. Wine, or something stronger.

Then there would have been the waiting around. Baedeker's 1899 Guide was unimpressed with the way the French managed their train stations:

When boarding was called, Schuff may have come onto the platform with Gauguin and helped him find his seat. Likely in the smoking section, likely heated either not at all or poorly. And then a final handshake, a nod, and Schuff could have stepped down from the train and back into his orderly life of teaching and trying to keep peace with his wife. We can imagine the small, slope-shouldered, sad-eyed man waving goodbye from the platform as the train pulled out of the station, standing there until the train was gone as much to make sure that it was well and truly on its way as to say goodbye.

Gauguin was still recovering from the amoebic dysentery he had come down with in Martinique the previous July. He had written to his wife, Mette, in August:

Now, I believe that I am on record that Gauguin was not a nice man. I think he has gotten, historically, a free pass regarding what my daughters would doubtless characterize as his toxic masculinity. But. But. Even allowing for a certain amount of self-pity, Gauguin sounds miserable enough in this August, 1887, letter to inspire some sympathy. He's out of money. He's laid up in a village in Martinique eating fresh fruit that, although he doesn't know it, keeps re-infecting him. And in case you have not thought this all the way through, consider the absence of indoor plumbing. That's right: no running water. And dysentery is a gastrointestinal illness.

I believe I have made my point.

Gauguin traveled back to Paris thanks to a loan from Schuff. From heat and humidity to cold and damp. Just over two months later, he has boarded this train to Brittany. It shakes and rattles. Fine coal dust covers everything inside and out. It's cold and as the train heads west it begins to rain. He's sitting on a wooden bench with his coat pulled around him. He's about to turn 40. He's alienated his family, spent what money he had, and given over the last several years to chasing a dream of ideas and clay, arguments and oil paints. He stares out the window first at the laundry lines across the back yards, then at the market gardens, then the fields. Each station brings him closer to something. He steps off the train when it pulls into stations now and then to stretch his legs. Paris recedes in his mind: Fénéon's review begins to fade. He wonders what will happen in the Schuffenecker household now that he's left. Will they be any happier? He watches a family board the train and thinks of his own children, his own wife, and their lives in Copenhagen.

At Rennes he changes trains for the local that will take him to Quimper. The new train is smaller, smokier, colder, if possible. Now the passengers look different. They're local people traveling back from doing business or seeing to family matters. Some are bourgeois, dressed in their stiff dark clothes, but others are peasants, laborers, making their way to the next day job or going home to rest. Gauguin begins to be aware of curious stares. He doesn't fit. He didn't fit in Paris, either--it's his habit--but many people don't fit in Paris. Here, on this rattling train, he stands out. He looks like what he has dressed himself to be: an artist. And so he begins to turn his mind to the next stop: to the diligence, the stagecoach, that he will board in Quimper for the 10 mile, two hour, jostle to Pont-Aven. He wonders what Madame Gloanec, Mère Gloanec, will have on hand for dinner, whether he'll get the room that he asked for. Whether anyone will have lit a fire. He is going back to Pont-Aven and forward into the next part of our story, forward towards the moment when someone, somewhere, will stretch a canvas across a wooden frame and begin to paint Flowers and Fruit.


A note on the sources:

I have at last discovered David Sweetman's 1995 biography of Paul Gauguin. He did not include footnotes, and his bibliography is a little fuzzy, although adequate. It's enormously helpful to me that Sweetman put together the narrative puzzle of Gauguin's comings and goings.

I have not been able to discover a digitized copy of the French train timetables from 1888, or indeed from any other 19th century year. A publishing house founded by a man named Napoléon Chaix printed an almanac of train schedules for France annually for years. You could pick up a complete copy at bookstores, and you could buy regional and local versions at news stands. What you cannot do in 2021 is find a copy of one online. Why did I search for hours? I wanted to be able to tell you which train Gauguin took to Rennes, and which train from Rennes to Quimper. I wanted to tell you how long that journey took and how many stops it made. That's the kind of texture that helps me remember that these characters were people who felt the draft on the back of their neck, and who eavesdropped on the people in the next row.

Does anyone remember Charlotte Bartlett and Lucy Honeychurch going around Florence with their Baedeker in A Room with a View? I had forgotten, but in my quest for train schedules I remembered the all-importance of that travel guide for the English tourists in that novel and film. You can find all sorts of travel guides from our time frame online, and they are big fun. They'll complain about how uncomfortable the French trains are and tell you what hotels to stay in. Some of the hotels are still there, and many of the walking itineraries have not changed much in the last 140 years. If you want to spend an afternoon in the Latin Quarter, you can do that here. Make sure to stop in someplace for a coffee.

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