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Letter from “Paul Gauguin” to “Daniel de Monfreid”

Paul Gauguin, Where Do We Come From- What Are We- Where Are We Going-, 1897, oil on canvas, 139 × 375 cm (55 × 148 in), Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
Paul Gauguin, Where Do We Come From- What Are We- Where Are We Going-, 1897, oil on canvas, 139 × 375 cm (55 × 148 in), Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA

I did not write to you last month, I had nothing new to tell you and could only have repeated myself, and besides I did not have the courage to do so. Then when the letter carrier came a little later, there was again nothing from Chaudet. Since my health is completely restored, and I therefore no longer have a chance of dying a natural death, I wanted to kill myself. I went to hide in the mountains, where my body would have been eaten by the ants. I had no revolver, but I still had arsenic, which I had saved when I was sick with eczema: but either I took too strong a dose or I vomited too much, I don’t know, in any case the effect of the poison was nullified. After a night of terrible agony I returned to my apartment. This whole month I have been plagued by a pressure on my temples, besides dizzy spells and attacks of nausea when I eat one of my small meals.

This month I receive 700 francs from Chaudet and 150 francs from Maufra: with these I can pay my most implacable creditors and go on living as usual until May, from suffering and scolding and disgrace. Then in May the bank will confiscate my belongings – including my paintings – and sell them for a ridiculous price. Then I will have to see how I can somehow go on again. I must tell you that I had a clear plan for December. I wanted to paint a large picture before I died, which I already had in my head, and I worked day and night all month in an unheard-of fever. But of course the picture is not painted in the manner of Puvis de Chavannes. First studies after nature, then a draft in chalk and so on. The whole picture is painted on rough canvas with knots and wrinkles with large strokes applied with the tip of a brush and has a terribly rough appearance.

One will say of it that it is carelessly worked…. not painted to the end. It is true that it is difficult to judge oneself, but I still believe not only that this painting surpasses all previous ones, but also that I will never again create a better one, or even a comparable one. In this painting, before I was going to die, I once again put all my energy and a painful passion, exacerbated by the terrible conditions, while creating such a clear painterly vision that did not need any corrections; everything that could seem careless disappears and, life rises in the painting. It does not reek of models, technique and so-called rules – I have always got rid of them, although sometimes under anxiety.

This canvas is 4.50 m long and 1.70 m high. The two upper corners are chrome yellow; in the left there is an inscription, in the right my signature, so that the picture looks like a fresco damaged at the corners, painted on a golden wall. On the lower right are a sleeping baby and three seated women. Two figures in purple robes confide their thoughts to each other. A huge seated figure, whose size deliberately violates the rules of perspective, raises an arm and looks in amazement at the two figures, who dare to ponder their fate. A figure in the center picks a fruit. Two cats next to a child. A white goat. An idol raises its hands to the sky in an enigmatic and rhythmic gesture and seems to point to the afterlife; a seated figure seems to listen to the idol; finally, an old woman near death, who is willing to accept everything, surrenders to her thoughts and concludes with life. At her feet a white strange bird holds a lizard in its claw. It symbolizes the superfluity of empty words. All this takes place on the bank of a forest stream. In the background, the sea and behind it the mountains of the neighboring island. The hue varies, but the landscape is painted from one end to the other in shades of blue and Verona green. From this, all the figures stand out in a bold orange. If the students at the Academy of Fine Arts for the Concours de Rome were given the task: „Paint a picture with the theme: Where do we come from, what are we, where are we going? I have written a philosophical work on this theme in the manner of a Gospel: I think it is good. If I have the strength to copy it again, I will send it to you.

Sources

Marla, Prather and Charles, Stucky F. (eds.) Paul Gauguin 1848-1903. Könemann, pp. 275-276.

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Letter from “Paul Gauguin” to “Daniel de Monfreid”

I did not write to you last month, I had nothing new to tell you and could only have repeated myself, and besides I did not have the courage to do so. Then when the letter carrier came a little later, there was again nothing from Chaudet. Since my health is completely restored, and I therefore no longer have a chance of dying a natural death, I wanted to kill myself.

read more »
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