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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Brown

12. April 14, 1923: Tableaux, pastels & dessins

Updated: May 26, 2020

I knew from the Wildenstein catalogue entry for Flowers and Fruit that it had been sold at auction at the Hôtel Drouot on April 14, 1923. But how was I to find out who had brought the painting to auction? I had no idea. At moments like these I assume that if I had trained as an art historian, I would have learned where old auction catalogues are stored along with the meaning of the term sfumato. Who knows if that's true, or if it's a case of the academic training being greener on the other side of the fence. I went off to Paris to pore over the Kaganovitch files in the archives of the Musée d'Orsay, and hoped that more would be revealed.

At the end of a few days of research high up under the museum's eaves, I had read every clipping in the Kaganovitch files (about which, more in another post). I had covered the two files on Louis Roy and the boxes on Gauguin's still lifes. I had read other files, too, about artists associated with Gauguin and Roy. And there was not a hint of information about where Flowers and Fruit was before that day in April 1923.

A good thing about running into a research dead end in Paris is that you can take a long walk by the Seine. In the winter--and this was January--the Eiffel Tower begins its nightly twinkling at 5:00. I stood on the Pont des Arts and watched the lights and considered what should be my next step. I had exhausted what I could think of to look for at the Musée d'Orsay: I had looked in the files of every gallery and every artist that I knew to be associated with Flowers and Fruit. I had a little more than a week left to research before I went back to San Francisco to teach. Here I was in Paris: where else should I look?

The next morning I took the elevator back up to the museum archives and I asked for help. I explained that I was a curator researching the provenance of a painting; I had trained as a historian, and wondered if there were resources that I didn't know about for provenance research. The young archivist was patient with my French. She asked what kind of history I had studied, and I told her about my dissertation on the Terror during the French Revolution. She did that thing that French people do with their faces--eyebrows up, lips pursed--to indicate that if they weren't French they would be impressed. Then she said I should go to the national art history library--the Institut national d'histoire de l'art.

Of course France has a national library just for art history.

When I explained to the archivist that I had not known it existed, she said, Hé bien oui, I don't know anything about our Revolution and if I had not already had adult children, I might have named my firstborn after her.

She gestured across the river. It's just over there, she said, in the Rue Richelieu.

The Rue Richelieu? Where the Bibliothèque nationale used to be? I had spent a miserable few weeks researching there as a graduate student. The national library had moved into an enormous and universally abhorred brand new building in 1996, the year that my twin daughters turned one.

The archivist was surprised again. In 1996 she was probably in elementary school. C'est ça. In the former BN. You can use your reader's card from here to get in, and once you do, ask--they have all of the sale catalogues going back for over a century.

I made my first research trip to Paris as a graduate student in the summer of 1991. My French was school French, at best--academic at worst. I could read newspapers from the 1790s comfortably but buying a baguette was an ordeal. That summer, I rented a room in the Foyer des Soeurs Antonines. The Antonine Sisters--nuns, to be clear--rented spartan rooms to "jeunes filles," unmarried girls, mostly sheltered teenaged daughters of wealthy provincial families. I was the thing that was not like the others.

Every morning, I walked across the river to the BN. I paged books; I waited for the books to be delivered; I stumbled over my French. I arranged my questions for the librarians carefully in my head only to have them switch to English with a supercilious air. Then I went back and did it again the next day. I was lonely and anxious and miserable. My research went nowhere. It was the only time I ever hated Paris. But hate it I did. I hated it enough that I cut my trip short. That summer was the beginning of the loss of intellectual confidence that I felt in graduate school, and that followed me for years afterwards.

The day after my conversation with the young archivist at the Musée d'Orsay, I walked into the lobby of the Institut national d'histoire de l'art the next morning in a navy dress, heeled boots, a silk scarf, and with my hair twisted up into a chignon. The dragons who had minded the library access desks had metamorphosed into gracious, smiling fonctionnaires. No one switched to English. I had my reader's card for the INHA in no time. The reading room had not changed: a soaring domed ceiling, gilding everywhere, high windows flooding the room with natural light on even the greyest days. I asked the reference librarian--another former dragon, turned into an ordinary librarian by the passage of time--how to find a sale catalogue from 1923; she explained. I looked it up online and submitted my request.

Twenty minutes later, it was ready for me to see. The sale catalogues have been converted, for the most part, to microfilm. Printed cheaply and quickly and in small runs, these small booklets have become critical to researching the history of the art market--but they were created at a time when that possibility had not occurred to anyone. I unraveled the mystery of the microfilm reader and began scrolling through the screens.

Finding the sale catalogue would confirm for me that the Wildensteins had been right about Flowers and Fruit's 1923 sale. It might also give me more information--perhaps about the collection the painting had come from, perhaps about the other paintings in the sale. It might open up another avenue, many other avenues, for tracing the painting's history. And those other avenues could lead me to understanding how this painting, presumed now to be a forgery, had passed for a Gauguin.

There it was: no. 73, a still life; in French, a "nature morte." "Roses arranged in two vases at the foot of which are placed some apples. Signed at the lower right: P.G., and inscribed: à l'ami Roy."

It took nearly two hours and two librarians to print a copy of the microfilm. Only certain readers were attached to printers; I did not have an external usb key; no, the librarian did not have one to lend. I would have to buy a printing card. The printing card distributeur was on

the other side of the building. If there was not paper in the printer, it was because I had not explained I needed to print. When my French and my patience had stretched to its outer limits, the dragon librarians' shift ended. An older man, who may never have been a dragon even in the old days of dragon-librarians, took his place behind the desk. He was as mystified as I was by the microfilm printers and, together, we solved the problem. I keep my hard-won hard copy of the April 14, 1923, sale catalogue in a green folder on the bookshelf near my desk.

Now I knew that Flowers and Fruit had been sold in company with other paintings by Gauguin. I knew that other works in the sale had come from others in Gauguin's circle--Charles Filiger, for one. I had confirmed the Wildenstein auction date--and I had more context to put around the painting. I knew now that I was on the right track, that I was following the path that the 1962 catalogue raisonné had left--and I knew, too, that I was almost at the end of what I could follow, almost ready to forge ahead on my own.

Early that evening, I packed up my work bag and walked back across the river. I was staying on the Left Bank, a few blocks from where I had stayed with the nuns. The Eiffel Tower began to twinkle as I crossed the bridge. I stopped to watch it and then stopped again, on the other side, at a cafe. I chose a table on the sidewalk just under a heat lamp. The waiter came and I ordered a kir royale, a glass of champagne with a whiff of crème de cassis. There was plenty to celebrate.

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