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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Brown

41. Strong opinions about cow paintings

This watercolor by the now forgotten artist Gustave de Maupassant sold at auction in 2014. It does not represent, as the auction catalogue suggests, a "Mediterranean seaside villa." The roof is all wrong, for one thing: it's steep, the way that roofs are built in climates where snow needs to be able to slide off. The outbuilding on the left is half-timbered (not typical for Mediterranean buildings), and the building on the right has a roof line reminiscent of a chalet. In fact, the whole landscape suggests more of an mountain farm than it does a Mediterranean villa. You might be able, from a villa on the Med, to see both the sea and distant mountains, but it's more likely that this view is of another body of water, perhaps the lac d'Allier in Vichy, or the Sardon river in Château-Guyon, looking towards the foothills of the massif central. The auction house that sold this watercolor seven years ago sought to associate it with the artist's home in Sainte-Maxime, on the Mediterranean coast. Nestled amongst cedars, palms, and olive trees, de Maupassant's house there is a different kind of building altogether.

It is a quintessential Mediterranean seaside villa: red tile roofs, stucco, balconies, large windows to let in the sunshine and smell of orange trees. Why the association? Because the obscure Gustave de Maupassant was the father of the famous Guy de Maupassant. Although father and son were estranged for decades, that relationship was still Gustave's only claim to fame; that was the hook that the auction specialists used to lure customers to purchase this ordinary watercolor. Gustave separated from his wife, Guy's mother, in 1862, when Guy was 12. He worked on the Paris stock exchange until the early 1880s, and painted now and then. By the mid-1880s, he began to show his work here and there in small exhibitions. Père de Maupassant seems to have had just enough money to keep up appearances as he divided his time between spa towns and artist colonies. Reviews of his work in exhibitions were brief and polite. Trained by Paris-educated professional artists in his hometown of Rouen when he was a boy, he continued to work in the academic style: pleasant enough, predictable, but I have not found one of his works in the French national collections. My hunch is that they are hanging in the attics of dusty chateaux, or stacked in the back of flea market stalls.

But why this digression? Bear with me.

Gauguin arrived in Pont-Aven in late January 1888 travel weary, sick, cold, and hungry. He used a few precious sous to hire a cart to carry his trunks from where the stagecoach dropped him to the Pension Gloanec. It was low season at the pension, and Gauguin was one of few guests. He wrote to his wife that he spent most of February sick in bed, hardly going out, hardly painting. But work outside he did: there is a steady progression of over a dozen paintings that take us through Pont-Aven under snow to the first shoots of green to flowering hedgerows.

With warmer weather came more painters, and more guests for the pension. Madame Gloanec decorated her front room with paintings made by her guests; if they couldn't pay their bills, at least they could contribute something for the walls. Customers might stop in to see the latest, and every pichet of hard cider they drank helped her bottom line. Early in the summer of 1888, Gauguin contributed a landscape showing laborers' cottages, fields, and the rear three-quarters of a cow.

The missing head isn't alarming to our eyes. If I hadn't drawn your attention to it, you might not even have noticed it. But in 1888 leaving Jacinthe or Jonquille's tête out of the image was un scandale. Astonishing at best and immoral at worst. It went against all received teaching about art and representation. There were artists, like Rosa Bonheur and Constant Troyon, who specialized in cattle: carefully detailed renderings of specific breeds. These paintings were meant to inform, to present an idyllic vision of French rural life, and to remind bourgeois collectors of the charms of the villages they had left behind. Troyon's cow is the sort of cow that Gustave de Maupassant's teachers

would have admired: an identifiable Charolaise, spattered in mud, ready to be milked, looking over her shoulder, perhaps, at the farmer come to herd her back to the barn. Troyon shows us cattle in the background, trees, clouds. We know exactly where we stand and what we're supposed to take in. Gauguin's cottages, his hilltop, his partial cow, create a very different sort of painting, a very different sort of affect. Where are we standing? What are we supposed to focus on? If what you're used to is Troyon's loyal milch cow, then it's not hard to imagine finding Gauguin's anonymous beast in its day-glo setting, unsettling.

Gustave de Maupassant had been trained by artists who were Troyon's contemporaries, and he continued to follow their maxims. He exhibited his work regularly in regional exhibitions around France, and in Paris, with the Groupe des artistes indépendants. (Not to be confused with the more avant-garde Société des artistes indépendants.) Some critics suggested that his work, mostly in watercolors, was old-fashioned. It reminded them not of the hip, downtown Emile Zola but of the dusty, bridge-and-tunnel crowd favorite Victor Hugo. Even his son Guy made fun, writing to a friend that his father had traveled to Châtel-Guyon to "take the cure with watercolors. All he sees in this countryside are roof lines and courtyards..." much like the painting above.

In the spring of 1888 Gustave de Maupassant came to Pont-Aven and stayed at the Pension Gloanec. Years later, when he was an old man himself, the artist Paul Sérusier would recall that each time Madame Gloanec brought Gauguin's paintings out to hang on the wall in the front room of the inn, M. de Maupassant would raise a fuss. Hang that painting where he could see it and he would take his custom elsewhere. A little more than a year earlier, a large group of respected artists, writers, and intellectuals in Paris had published a letter warning of the dangers of building M. Eiffel's tower. Such a structure would denigrate the glory of France. It would bring ridicule, they swore, on a nation known for its artistic and cultural heritage; it would make France the laughing stock of Europe. The design for the tower, destined to loom over the grounds of the upcoming 1889 Universal Exposition, was even too absurd and commercial for the Americans. One of the co-signors of the letter was Gustave's son Guy. This painting with its partial cow and unexpected perspective was just as monstrous, in its way, as the Eiffel Tower. It was an affront to the old ways, to the old styles. The 65-year-old painter, staying in the cheapest hotel in town, still had his standards. And as more and more young artists moved their chairs over to Gauguin's table, Gustave refused to back down. Either the painting went, or he would.

The next summer, another young painter came to Pont-Aven and took a room with Mme Gloanec. Paul-Emile Colin met Gauguin. Back in the village, Gauguin showed off the paintings that he had given Madame in place of paying his bills. They were hanging in the main reception room. One of them was "a landscape with a cow. Only three-quarters of the back could be seen; the rest was cut off by the frame. He showed me [it] himself and savored my astonishment in silence with a broad grin."

Gustave de Maupassant did not return to Pont-Aven.

A note on the sources:

I learned about Gustave de Maupassant and Gauguin's encounter from David Sweetman's Gauguin biography. Sweetman holds his sources close to his chest, so it took a little time for me to work out that the story seems to have originated in the 1920s with Paul Sérusier. The serendipitous and no doubt cranky interaction between the two at Marie-Jeanne Gloanec's pension in 1888 is a fabulously specific moment of context.

What we don't know about Gustave de Maupassant is a lot. Thanks to BNF Gallica I tracked down a handful of references to his art, before finding Maupassant specialist Marlo Johnston's 1999 article on him in the Bulletin Flaubert-Maupassant.

Gauguin depicted another portion of a cow, this time the front part, in a painting that he gave or sold to Louis Roy. Roy sold it to the dealer Ambroise Vollard in 1904, along with five other Gauguins, for the whopping price of 400 francs. That painting, like the Cottages on Mount Sainte-Marguerite, is held now by a private collection.

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