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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Brown

43. Summer afternoons

Updated: Aug 23, 2021

There's a story that Zola used to walk the streets of Paris copying shop proprietors' names into his cahier. When your novels had as many characters as Zola's did, you would have always been in need of a few more names. This story--I can't remember where I read it--was told as evidence of the writer's creative genius. I wonder if Emile wasn't just out for a walk to postpone the inevitable moment when he would sit down, again, in front of a blank page. His notebook of scribbled names may have been a passable excuse.

On a summer afternoon in 1888, Gauguin whiled away a few hours at an estate sale. Maybe that day a blank canvas was too much to face. The sale took place at the Château du Hénant, a few miles outside of Pont-Aven, overlooking the river. Parts of the castle were built in the 1400s; it had, and still does, a tower worthy of Rapunzel's hair. We can imagine long tables set up in the partially enclosed courtyard, covered in mismatched silver and tools and chipped plates. The auction would have been supervised by a local notary. Often similar auctions were advertised in the local newspaper, like this one:

"On Monday June 11 1888...a sale of furnishings and movable objects will take place...

The objects for sale include:

Tables, chairs, armchairs, a sofa, 14 large mirrors, side tables, sofa tables, clocks, a piano, beds and linens, chests of drawers, glassware, 14 silver place settings, a ladle and silver serving spoon, books, napkins, tablecloths, coverlets, quilts, a carriage, a wagon, a fishing boat, and other things."

Was Gauguin considering investing in some place settings? Maybe he wanted an armchair. Or a mirror. Maybe--maybe--some of those "other things" included canvases that he could repurpose, or a not-too-well-used portable easel. What seems more likely than any of those reasons was that Gauguin was whiling away a summer afternoon people watching and window shopping.

We know he was there because a younger man, Ernest Ponthier de Chamaillard, wrote about meeting Gauguin that day. De Chamaillard recalled:

Carved clogs, a beret, a Breton jersey: it's safe to imagine that de Chamaillard was not the only person who noticed Gauguin's getup. The younger man was 24 or 25, the son of a Quimper lawyer. That summer he was in the process of dithering away a legal apprenticeship and living on his allowance. To hear him tell it, from that day Ernest de Chamaillard took up his easel and followed Gauguin.

De Chamaillard joined a circle of young men around Gauguin that summer, most of them in their twenties, happy to follow a charismatic, opinionated, worldly prophet. He courted Louise, the daughter of the Pont-Aven postmistress; they would elope to the Channel Islands that October. Louise lived with her family in the apartment above the post office around the corner from the Pension Gloanec. Soon the attic floor became a clubhouse of sorts, with Gauguin and his coterie meeting there at all hours to smoke, drink, debate, and paint. Charles Laval, back from the Martinique misadventure, joined them. Henry Moret came; so did Bernard, Filiger, du Puigaudeau, Delavallée, and Emile Jourdan.

Was Louis Roy among the group? His name doesn't come up. Maybe because he was not there. Or maybe because in some provincial archive there's an unopened (and undigitized) box of letters. What we know of Gauguin's band of followers that summer we know because of a few letters from the time and because of memoirs that the young men wrote years later, when they were old men themselves, recounting their afternoons with a celebrity. We have no letters from Roy. He died too young to contemplate a memoir. Secondary sources on Gauguin and his group--exhibition catalogues, group biographies--tend to focus on Gauguin and his work. His followers are supporting characters; try to find out more about them, and you will while away hours in digital archives following threads that drop loose if you pull on them.

Take Ernest de Chamaillard, for instance: a few online sources recount that he welcomed other painters to his family home in the 1890s, that he moved to Paris in 1906 and exhibited a few times with Galerie Bernheim-Jeune. His two sons died in World War I. He exhibited twice more in the 1920s, at Galerie Georges Petit. And then he died. Sources say he died in the Paris suburb of Eaubonne, in the department of the Val d'Oise. The archives of the Val d'Oise do not list him in the tables of the état civile. Even de Chamaillard's recollection of meeting Gauguin at the estate sale comes to us without a citation, without a source. David Sweetman gives it a block quote in his 1995 biography of Gauguin, but skips a primary source citation. De Chamaillard is not the point of his story: Gauguin is.

For us, though, here at The Disappearing Gauguin, Gauguin himself is not the point of the story. Gauguin is not the big idea. The big idea is where this mystery painting came from: who could have made it, and when, and where. How it found its way into an auction in 1923. Why it was a Gauguin in 1923 but is not a Gauguin a century later. We are following le maître around Brittany and Paris, eavesdropping on his conversations, not because we are interested in him--but because he may lead us to our painting. These long summer afternoons of 1888, as he experimented with color and shape, directed younger painters how to capture light and translate images, are railway stations that we glimpse from a train taking us somewhere else. The stations tell us how to find our way. But they are not places to stop for long. Getting off the train to explore these stations is not so different from Gauguin exploring an estate sale, or Zola wandering Paris in search of catchy names. Interesting, useful even, but not the destination.

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