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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Brown

56. Looking closely

In the Morozov Collection exhibition at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paul Gauguin’s 1888 Café at Arles/Night Café, Arles has a wall to itself. We’ve encountered the painting's central figure, Marie Julien Ginoux, before: here, the Arles aubergiste is in the bar of her of the Café de la Gare, which she ran with her husband. Dressed in a dark gown with a white shirt front and cuffs, she leans her head on her left elbow and gazes towards us. The arch of her eyebrows and glimmer in her eyes implies that we have caught her mid-conversation. She is skeptical, keeping her thoughts to herself, but curious to see what we are going to say next.

Installation, The Morozov Collection,

Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, Personal Photo

I spent some time with Madame Ginoux when I wandered through the Morozov exhibition a few weeks ago. Installed in a gallery with a dozen other Gauguins, the Café at Arles is the only painting not from the artist’s years in Tahiti. (It is also the only painting that shows a woman who looks like a person instead of an idea about sexuality rendered in oil paint.) When I see Gauguin paintings I look at details, at the way he put the paint on the canvas. I’m always searching for echoes of Flowers and Fruit: are the brushstrokes similar? How about the perspective? The way the canvas is divided between foreground, middle ground, and background? I compare them in my memory; with luck and enough looking, I guess I think that someday I will see something I’ve not seen before.

Details, Café at Arles (left); Flowers and Fruit (right)

Madame Ginoux brought to mind another innkeeper, of course, our own Marie Henry. When Gauguin painted this in November 1888, he had not yet met Marie Henry. A year later, though, he would be staying in her inn and working on another painting, his Breton Girl Spinning. We’ve encountered this painting before, too, and we’ve paid particular attention to her feet.

Detail, Breton Girl Spinning

Now, buckle up, because we’re heading into some curves. Gauguin sketched a cartoonish version of Madame Ginoux alongside an even more cartoonish Louis Roy; he called the sketch Le Roy et la royne, and it found its way into an album that was donated to the Louvre in 1938. Also in that album? This sketch attributed to Louis Roy, with some strikingly similar feet and a handwritten inscription, “Tu feras pas ça.”

At the Institut national de l’histoire de l’art, there is a collection of Gauguin’s correspondence with the Van Gogh family that includes some images of the original letters. They show us Gauguin’s handwriting in the late 1880s, and that handwriting is strikingly similar to the hand that inscribed Roy’s sketch. Look, for instance, at the shape of the “p” in "pas" and "près," and the tail of the capital “T” in "Tu" and "Toujours:"

They are awfully close.

And so we have three works that put Gauguin and Roy in sketching proximity to each other in 1888 and 1889: Gauguin's Le Roy et le royne, Breton Girl Spinning, and Roy's Eve. Where and when were they made? We know that he sent his Café in Arles to his dealer Theo van Gogh on November 22, 1888. There's no evidence that Roy was anywhere near Arles then. Gauguin’s time in Arles is well-documented by both his letters and Vincent’s, and scholars have sifted the evidence of who was there doing what when until it is a fine powder. What's also well-documented is Gauguin's frequent re-use of motifs and figures. The same objects and sometimes the same faces turn up in multiple sketches and paintings across years. Madame Ginoux could have remained a subject for his sketchbook months after the painting had dried.

Gauguin’s time in Le Pouldu still needs additional sifting: the updated catalogue raisonné for 1889-1891 is still in process, and sources for those years remain to be definitively compiled. Gauguin and Roy both exhibited in an off-Exposition Universelle show at the Café Volpini in the summer of 1889: we know they were in touch then. But in the fall of 1889, when Gauguin was producing his Breton girl? Was Roy nearby then?

Roy’s movements matter to our inquiry because presumably he was nearby when Gauguin—if Gauguin—inscribed Flowers and Fruit to him. Let’s imagine that he did inscribe the painting; let’s imagine that Flowers and Fruit is the genuine article. What does the painting tell us about when and where it was created?

Two mismatched vases sit on a table covered in a yellow cloth. The table is pushed against a wall covered in paper that has a blue floral striped pattern. On the table are a few bumpy apples and a couple of nasturtium blossoms. In the vases—one reddish purple, one blue, neither with any distinctive patterns or markings that we can see—are some blowsy pink roses.

Formerly attributed to Paul Gauguin, Flowers and Fruit, oil on canvas, Haggin Museum

The painting is set in a room that has wallpaper. Wallpaper was popular across social classes in France in the late 1800s; new technologies allowed factories to produce it cheaply, so almost anyone could afford it. And it was a sign of taste and respectability. Nasturtiums and roses bloom in Brittany from May through October; the earliest apples ripen in August. So: someone laid out Flowers and Fruit between August and October, and they did so in a place well-appointed enough to include wallpaper. The vases tell us least: they are not a recognizable type of porcelain; they are not oddly shaped. They are ordinary objects that you might look past in a shop or a flea market.

We know that Gauguin was in Brittany in the late summer and early autumn of 1889, and he was based at La Buvette de la Plage from early October. Likely then he was already messing around with the idea for his Breton girl. Was Louis Roy there then, too? Did he stop by one day? Perhaps he did; perhaps the two sketched their standing women together, perhaps they messed about with what they could do with feet.

And perhaps, that day, a friend had brought Marie Henry a basket of roses from their garden. The buvette was too new to have a thriving garden, but there were plenty of houses and farms nearby. Perhaps Madame Capitaine had cut some late roses that morning and brought them over from the farm at Kersellec; perhaps she’d brought over the vases, too, knowing that her younger friend was still setting up house. Marie Henry may have been house-proud of her smart blue wallpaper and set the vases so that the flowers would show up against the patterns. She would have had apples in the kitchen for cooking and baking, and as for nasturtiums, if they’re planted in one spot they’ll pop up in others. Needing no attention, they will thrive. A moment of everyday life at the buvette captured first in a sketch and later worked up into a painting. By someone. Perhaps Gauguin. Perhaps.


Here at The Disappearing Gauguin we will be pausing for the holidays. We hope the end of year festivities find you all safe and healthy and with plenty of chocolate and champagne to enjoy with people you love. We'll see you in 2022. Til then, bonne année et bonne santé!

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