Cover image for Paul Gauguin : an erotic life
Paul Gauguin : an erotic life
Mathews, Nancy Mowll.
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Publication Information:
New Haven : Yale University Press, [2001]

Physical Description:
xi, 316 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 27 cm
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ND553.G27 M378 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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In this penetrating and daring biography of Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), Nancy Mowll Mathews traces the themes of sex and violence through the artist's life, from the near-murderous quarrels of his grandparents, to his abusive treatment of his wife, to his sexual encounters in French Polynesia in the 1890s. The book examines how Gauguin used these complex themes in his art and writings and how he carefully presented his erotic life in the autobiographical treatises Noa Noa (1893) and Avant et Apres (1903). The central drama of Gauguin's adulthood, his marriage to Mette Gad Gauguin, is assessed in detail, and with the inclusion of some of Mette's previously unpublished letters, both sides of the Gauguin marriage are presented for the first time. Mathews also provides fascinating new insights into understanding Gauguin's relationships with men and women and the roles that sexuality and aggression played in shaping his art. She also illuminates his homosocial, if not homoerotic, relationships with Vincent van Gogh, Emile Schuffenecker, and Charles Filiger. Gauguin's genius resided not only in his forging of new artistic paths, Mathews concludes, but in his ability to bring his sexual fan

Author Notes

Nancy Mowll Mathews is Eugenie Prendergast Curator at the Williams College Museum of Art. She is the author of numerous books and has organized several major exhibitions on Impressionist and post-Impressionist art.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Mathews (Mary Cassatt), curator of the Williams College Museum of Art, has organized notable exhibits of American painting. Given the plethora of titles about the 19th-century French painter Gauguin, a flashy subtitle may have been thought necessary for this new book. Yet Mathews has serious art historical chops and, through 14 chapters, constructs a well-researched narrative about the painter's trajectory, with titles like "Theo and Vincent: Flying Too Close to the Sun." Noting how "central" "sex and violence" were to Gauguin, the author gets a little hung up with her own self-definitions, terming her method "a mixture of pre-Freudian vernacular psychology and postmodern pluralism," adding that she has used "the same commonsense approach" as in her other books. Unable to draw specific conclusions about the painter's personal behavior in bed (gay, straight or otherwise), the author analyzes paintings confusingly, e.g., Young Bretons Bathing, an image of naked boys, is likened to Japanese prints of "courtesans," which it does not resemble. If the focus is fuzzy on some details, and descriptions of individual artworks imprecise, a strong grasp of the basic facts of the artist's life make this a worthwhile title even in a strongly competitive field. (Nov.) Forecast: For gender and erotic issues, Stephen Eisenman's pioneering Gauguin's Skirt (Thames & Hudson) is vastly preferable, but Mathews's book will appeal to readers in search of a serious narrative, apart from those roped in by the suggestive subtitle, who might feel suckered by the scant thrills inside. The book is not directly related to the Art Institute exhibit, but will certainly be on sale in the gift shop there. University libraries are a lock. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Examination of Gauguin's life has proven difficult, not for lack of documentation, but because so much information was provided by the artist in the form of self-aggrandizing exaggerations. Mathews (Williams College) has tried to sort through the fact and fiction of the artist's public and private writings to arrive at an analysis of Gauguin's motivations. She distinguishes her study from earlier biographies (David Sweetman, Paul Gauguin: A Complete Life, 1995) by applying to reconsidered facts of the artist's life Freud's theories of sexuality and aggressiveness in conjunction with creativity--an approach that will likely prove controversial despite similar patriarchal attitudes, which informed the writings of both Freud and Gauguin. By making sex and violence central to the study, the art has been marginalized; but Mathews has not sensationalized the artist's life, and all phases of his career are treated with equanimity. There is little new in terms of research conducted for this study (Mathews has relied heavily on the work of Merete Bodelsen), but scholars will appreciate the appendix, which reprints 17 of Mette Gauguin's letters. Recommended chiefly for collections specializing in methodological approaches to art history. General readers; upper-division undergraduates through faculty. E. K. Menon Purdue University



Chapter One Ancestry The Moscosos and the Gauguins Gauguin was born to a family with a history of sexual violence and piquant cruelty. Because his father died when he was an infant, the young Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin naturally gravitated to his mother's side of the family, which was dominated by the Spanish-Peruvian Moscosos. In this branch were colorful figures whose passions led them to form irregular liaisons, to carry on feuds across two continents, and to threaten each other with physical and psychological violence. Not only may we assume that Gauguin inherited some of his ancestors' personality traits, but we may also deduce that this extraordinary family had a practical impact on his life.     Gauguin was one-eighth Peruvian. His great-grandfather Don Mariano de Tristan Moscoso was the scion of an old Spanish family that had been established in Arequipa, south of Lima, since the seventeenth century. Like many other Spanish-Peruvian upper-class children, Don Mariano was sent to Paris to be educated. He pursued a military career in Peru and, in the 1790s, was sent to Spain to command Peruvian troops there (Peru was still under Spanish rule). While in Spain he met and married a French woman, Anne-Pierre Laisnay, whose family had fled across the border during the Reign of Terror. The young couple had settled in Paris by 1800; there they led a fashionable life in the wealthy South American community, which included such figures as the future South American liberator, Simón Bolívar.     Because they had not filed the proper civil marriage forms, the union of Moscoso and Laisnay was deemed invalid in the eyes of both the French government and the Tristan Moscoso family in Peru, and upon the premature death of Don Mariano in 1807, the young widow and her two children were cut off from his considerable holdings in France and in South America. Laisnay spent the rest of her life in court trying to overturn this ruling.     When their daughter, Flora Célestine (Gauguin's grandmother), came of age, she took up the battle, journeying to Peru in 1833-34 to appeal to the family (fig. 2). This strategy was modestly successful in financial terms in spite of the resistance of her father's brother, the charming but wily Don Pio de Tristan Moscoso. The trip was even more fruitful socially: a connection was formed with the Peruvian relatives, many of whom had spent time in Paris as students, pleasure seekers, or merchants and investors. Flora brought up her daughter, Aline (Gauguin's mother), in these social circles in Paris, and Aline continued the connection while raising her own children, Paul and Marie. This fashionable group of wealthy and powerful South American expatriates was much like the better-known colony of international businessmen and pleasure seekers from the United States and Canada. Paul Gauguin's entrée into these rarefied circles bolstered his early successes on the stock exchange and in the art world. As important as Gauguin's Peruvian bloodline was, his later romantic claim to be descended from the Incas cannot be substantiated. The Spanish roots of the Tristan Moscosos could be traced back to the Borgias, and in Peru the family intermarried only with other Spanish ("Criole") families. Some prominent Peruvians did indeed have Inca ancestry, because the Inca nobility occasionally married Spanish colonists in the early days after the conquest; but these members of Peruvian society were known to be of mixed blood and were not related to Gauguin. An anecdote that Gauguin told about his mother playing a practical joke on an army officer of Indian descent, a guest in Lima, demonstrates that even as a child Gauguin was aware of the distinction.     Inca or not, Gauguin drew on his Peruvian blood to fashion an exotic identity for himself, which had an impact in artistic circles. In this he imitated his grandmother, who had obtained special permission to use her Peruvian father's name rather than her French married name and thus achieved fame under the name Flora Tristan. The book she published about her voyage to Peru in 1833-34, Peregrinations of a Pariah (1838), gave her a start in the French literary world and gained her friends like George Sand. She went on to publish other observations of life in England and France and had become one of France's best-known advocates for poor and working-class people by the time of her death in 1844. Fifty years later, in 1894, Flora Tristan's fame as a writer and social reformer had diminished but not disappeared; during her grandson's struggle for artistic recognition, it not only opened many doors for him but gave him something to live up to. He knew her books well and kept copies with him throughout his life. His use of the title "Avant et après" (Before and After) for his memoir curiously echoes that of her own unpublished manuscript, "Past and Future."     Flora Tristan's husband (Paul Gauguin's grandfather) was the artist and printmaker André Chazal. Tristan met him when she was apprenticed in his lithography shop in Paris around 1819, and showed artistic ability herself. Although Gauguin may not have known this grandfather personally, he certainly was aware of the artistic legacy of the Chazal family. The print shop had been founded by André Chazal's mother. André's brother, Antoine, and Antoine's son Charles Camille Chazal both had modestly successful careers as painters, forming a minor artistic dynasty that lasted in Paris until 1875. Even after the marriage between André Chazal and Flora Tristan ended, Tristan's interest in art continued, and in addition to publishing some articles on art topics, she was active in a Parisian art circle that included avant-garde painters like Eugène Delacroix. When Paul Gauguin was born in 1848, his family lived only two doors from Delacroix on rue Notre-Dame-de-Lorette.     Such an exotic and artistic ancestry shaped Gauguin's view of himself and eased his entry into the Parisian artistic and intellectual world of the late nineteenth century. It is also possible to detect in Gauguin some of the personality traits of his flamboyant forebears. Flora Tristan is often held up as the source of Gauguin's wanderlust and creativity, and there are indeed parallels between the passionate, crusading temperaments of grandmother and grandson. Both wrote and published in a highly personal manner that allows us to measure the pulse of their intense feelings and beliefs. But reading the diatribes of Tristan and Gauguin side by side reveals great differences in their approach to life and society. Tristan's writings show a profound empathy for the poor and the disadvantaged, particularly women. Her evocations of the degradation of prostitutes in London and the cruel working conditions of laundresses in Nîmes are vivid and moving. Her grandson's writings, in contrast, tend to be short-tempered and sarcastic rather than philanthropic, even when he assumes the guise of a social reformer, as he later did in regard to the treatment of the Marquesan natives. His carping criticisms of women also contrast strongly with the gentle feminism of his grandmother.     Gauguin's personality may actually have been closer to his grandfather's. The artist André Chazal and his beautiful young assistant Flora Tristan were passionately in love when they married, but Chazal's hot temper soon eclipsed his love for her, and his bullying caused Tristan to leave him after only four years of marriage. She took her son and daughter along and gave birth to their third child at the home of her mother, with whom she sought refuge. Because French law recognized only the father's rights to children, Chazal fought Tristan for custody of all of them, eventually taking their older son, Ernest, from her. He was also awarded custody of their daughter Aline (the younger died in infancy). When Tristan discovered that he had abused Aline sexually, she brought charges of incest and was able to resume custody. At this point Chazal's anger toward Tristan became obsessive. For several years he harassed and stalked her until he finally shot her in 1838 in a murderous rage. She survived the attack; he received a life sentence in prison.     The public nature of the struggle between the angry husband and the wife who worked to support her children alone prefigures Gauguin's later marital situation, about which he spoke and wrote at length. Although as far as we know he did not try to kill his wife, Gauguin physically and often verbally abused her with shocking hostility. He took one of their children from her and threatened to take them all. It is also well known that, like his grandfather, he was sexually attracted to girls in their early teens and possibly even to his own daughter.     Paul Gauguin was not the only one to inherit the Chazal temperament. Both his mother and his sister were capable of sharp remarks and cruel practical jokes (fig. 3). In later life, Gauguin still chuckled over the joke his mother had played on the army officer of Indian descent who was part of their circle in Lima. Knowing the officer loved a dish made of peppers, she served him a specially prepared plateful of hot peppers; everyone else at the table was served sweet peppers. Playing the role of solicitous hostess, she forced the polite man to down the whole portion of the inedible dish. Gauguin would always think of the practical joke as the highest form of humor.     Paul's sister, Marie, only a year older, was his childhood companion (fig. 4). As they grew up, Marie maintained ties to the Spanish-American community in Paris, and, a beauty in the dark, Latin style of both her mother and her grandmother, she was courted by many of the young men in this group. After their mother died and until their respective marriages, Paul and Marie shared an apartment on the rue de la Bruyère in the same fashionable neighborhood where they were born. The mocking humor of both brother and sister shocked those who did not know them well, and in later years they never hesitated to turn their verbal knives on each other. As the only son and the youngest child in a close-knit but combative household, Gauguin developed a high opinion of himself; and his wife later claimed that he had not been sufficiently disciplined as a child. Since hot tempers ran in his family, an orderly, disciplined household must have been hard to achieve.     Gauguin's willful personality was not improved by living, until he was six, with his mother and sister amid the huge extended family of the Tristan Moscosos in Lima. In 1846, Aline Chazal had married Clovis Gauguin, a man associated with Republican politics and the newspaper Le National in Paris. Three years and two children later, the family set off for Lima, perhaps at the urging of the Moscosos, who may have persuaded Clovis to start a Republican newspaper there. The political power of the Moscosos had recently been strengthened, and, in 1851, the husband of one of Aline's cousins, Don José Rufino Echenique, was elected president of Peru. Sadly, Clovis Gauguin died of a stroke during the sea voyage, leaving his family to continue on to Lima alone.     They were welcomed warmly by Aline's great-uncle Don Pio de Tristan Moscoso, who was still head of the extended family; Aline and the children lived with the Moscosos in Lima for the next four years. Since her mother had died in 1844 and her father was still in prison, Aline had no closer relatives. She did not record her experiences there, but judging from the prickly relationships between factions of the family, described by her mother in Peregrinations of a Pariah , the situation was probably not entirely comfortable. Political, social, and sexual intrigue abounded in the city and country homes where the many branches of the family congregated. When the Gauguins were in Lima, they lived at the center of the intrigue: in the presidential palace, where, according to Gauguin's account, the displaced Parisians had been assigned quarters.     Thus it happened that Paul Gauguin's earliest memories were of the exotic city of Lima, where his family received all the privileges of being cousins by marriage to the president of the Republic, including living in the most luxurious setting in a wildly extravagant city. For centuries, wealth in Peru had been concentrated in the hands of those, like the Moscosos, who controlled the silver mines. The conspicuous display of wealth was a tradition in Lima, whose residents' stylish clothes and fine palaces were the envy of all South Americans. In the 1840s a new source of wealth had opened up with the systematic marketing of guano, the ancient deposits of bird droppings found on islands off the coast of Peru. This rich fertilizer was suddenly in demand all over the world. Peruvians with money, including Gauguin's family, invested in guano futures and prospered greatly from the 1840s to the 1860s. It was in this extraordinary environment that the young Paul Gauguin spent the early years of life.     The stories of Lima that Gauguin recounts in his memoirs include the many-hued servants of Asian and African descent, walls covered with portraits of ancestors that shook ominously during earthquakes, and lunatics chained to the rooftops who occasionally got free and wandered into children's rooms in the dark of night. He also wrote of the distinctive costume of Lima women, which was associated with the remarkable sexual freedom they claimed for themselves, when he described his mother dressed in the traditional Lima veil, which eerily revealed only one of her soft, beautiful eyes. The whole costume, which consisted of the saya , a long, tight, pleated skirt, and the manto , a veil with one eyehole cut into it, had been written about by visitors to Lima for more than a hundred years.     Gauguin's grandmother Flora Tristan had been especially taken by the sensuousness of the skirt and the freedom that the women gained by hiding their features under the veil. She wrote of the amorous adventures that perfectly respectable women could pursue in this disguise: "Her husband doesn't ask where she has been for he knows perfectly well that if she wants to hide the truth, she will lie, and since there is no way to keep her from it, he takes the wisest course of not asking her. Thus these ladies go alone to the theater, to bull fights, to public meetings, balls, promenades, churches, go visiting, and are much seen everywhere ... [unlike] their European sisters who from childhood are slaves to laws, values, customs, prejudices, styles, and everything else." When Paul Gauguin wrote his own reminiscence of the Lima costume in 1903, he may have had vague memories of the sexual freedom of his own mother, a beautiful young widow. The boy, in Latin fashion, would have been spoiled by his relatives (if not by his mother) and encouraged by the amused adults to develop a precocious interest in sexual matters.     Despite the exclusive lifestyle of the Moscosos in Lima, when an opportunity arose to return home to France in 1854, Aline seized it. Aware that her presidential cousin Echenique was losing political power and that Don Pio's promises to leave her a comfortable legacy might not materialize, Aline decided that her best chances for an independent life lay in Europe. She had received word that her husband's father was near death and that he wanted to make Paul and Marie, his only grandchildren, his heirs. It was time for her Peruvian children to become French once again.     Up to this point, the six-year-old Paul had not attached much importance to his last name. He had always been surrounded by the more powerful Tristan Moscosos, Echeniques, and other Peruvian relatives. But when he arrived at his grandfather's home in Orléans, he quickly learned that being a Gauguin was very useful indeed. They were not a socially prominent or powerful family in Orléans, but in the quarter of Saint-Marceau, they were numerous and influential. Saint-Marceau, across the Loire River from downtown Orléans, was famous for its small-scale gardening. For generations the Gauguins and their neighbors had raised produce and flowers, which were exported by river and by road (and later railroad) to Paris, about one hundred miles to the north.     Paul Gauguin's grandparents Guillaume Gauguin and Elizabeth Juranville had started an épicerie , a general store that specialized in imported goods. They gradually relocated closer to the river, eventually obtaining property on the Quai Neuf (now Quai de Prague), a prime spot above the commercial boat landings of the Loire and very near the crossing of the new railroad. Trade in that section of Saint-Marceau was brisk. In a typical week in February 1844, the number of boats that docked there was 197, unloading cargo at an estimated value of 12 to 13 million francs. By that time, however, the Gauguin-Juranvilles had retired from the épicerie and were able to live off their investments. Other Gauguin and Juranville cousins also bought property along the Quai, and they formed a powerful family compound. Trade by riverboat succumbed to the quickly encroaching railroads after midcentury, but the family had invested well in land and stocks and remained in their fine houses overlooking the river for generations.     The successful Guillaume and Elizabeth Gauguin-Juranville had two sons, Clovis (born in 1814) and Isidore (born in 1819). Although the boys' education is not on record, they were apparently given good starts in their chosen careers, both of them leaving the more mundane family pursuits of gardening and shopkeeping behind. By the 1840s, Clovis had made his way into newspaper publishing in Paris. He frequented literary and artistic circles, where he met his future wife, Aline Chazal. They married when he was thirty-two and she was twenty-three. Clovis's younger brother, Isidore, established himself as a fine jeweler--an orfèvre joaillier , or specialist in gold jewelry. He lived with his parents and commuted across the river to his shop downtown on the old commercial rue de Petits-Souliers.     The families of Saint-Marceau were traditionally republican (antiroyalist and anti-Napoleon), and the two Gauguin sons proved to be no exception when revolution broke out in France in 1848. In Paris, Clovis and Le National were at the center of the new republican government that was set up and then taken over by Louis-Napoléon in less than a year. The rise of Napoléon (soon to call himself Napoléon III) and the start of the Second Empire sealed Clovis and Aline's decision to move to Peru. In Orléans, Isidore was also active in the local rebellion, which was quashed rather violently, leaving many young men wounded and at least one fellow jeweler dead. Isidore was arrested at a demonstration in front of the town hall and sentenced to be deported to Africa. After spending some time in prison, however, he was allowed to return to Saint-Marceau, where he quietly spent the rest of his life, surrounded by his family and old friends.     When Paul Gauguin arrived at his grandfather's house at the end of 1854, he began a new life as a comfortable middle-class French boy with republican sentiments. His grandfather died a few months after seeing his "Peruvian" grandchildren once more. Enough of Guillaume Ganguin's estate was left to Isidore that he would never have to work again, and the property on Quai Neuf and the remainder of the assets were left to Clovis's children under the guardianship of their mother and uncle until they came of age. The Gauguin property had two houses back to back, one facing on Quai Neuf and the other facing the next street, rue Tudelle, with a large shared garden in between. Aline and her two children moved into the house looking out over the river, while Isidore continued to live in the smaller house, on rue Tudelle. For the next five years they enjoyed the peace and plenty of French small town life. Gentle Uncle Isidore, who remained unmarried and childless, adopted the two fatherless children in his heart.     By the time Paul Gauguin lived on the Quai Neuf, it had lost much of the commercial bustle of only ten years before. The natural beauty of the wide river interrupted at intervals by grassy islands and sandbars was enhanced by the view of old Orléans across the heavy, arched bridge (fig. 5). As Paul and Marie grew up, they had their carefully tended garden to play in, and, in the summer, could race around in their rowboats and try their luck in the many fishing holes formed in the shifting recesses of the islands. The children were healthy and athletic and would have had no trouble fitting in with their many Gauguin cousins from the neighborhood once their native tongue changed from Spanish to French. While Paul and Marie were still young, Aline sent them to local boarding schools as day students so that they could remain at home with her as long as possible.     Gauguin's memories of Orléans, where he spent the formative years of his life (from six to sixteen), were not nearly as colorful as his memories of Lima. He was an aloof and indifferent student who frustrated teachers into making remarks like "That child will be either an idiot or a man of genius." In general he felt that he received an excellent French classical education and was indeed so typical a student that none of his classmates came forward in later years to tell of any early indications of artistic greatness. A few incidents occurred to Gauguin when he wrote his memoirs: being inspired to run away from home by a picture of a pilgrim with his belongings slung across his back; a neighbor complimenting him on a cane that he had carved with a knife. Given the artistic leanings of his mother and his uncle, these would not be unusual experiences for an imaginative boy.     Some other incidents are more curious: Paul's uncle finds him in the garden stamping his feet and flinging sand in a self-destructive tantrum. Why, asks his uncle? "Baby is naughty," he declared. Gauguin says: "As a child I was already judging myself and feeling the need of making it known." He also remembers an incident with a cousin, "a child of about my own age, whom it appears I tried to violate; at the time I was six years old." Although both masochistic behavior and sexual experimentation are common among children, it is significant that these episodes were among the few that Gauguin recorded.     When Paul was eleven, Aline sent him to the prestigious boarding school at La Chapelle-Saint-Mesmin, just a few miles outside Orléans. It had been founded in 1816 to provide an alternative to the cathedral school of Sainte-Croix in the center of town. Attached to the ancient Chapelle-Saint-Mesmin, which dates back to 530 A.D., the new "Petit Séminaire" gave the sons of local upper-class and professional-class citizens of Orléans a healthy rural spot by the river at which to gain an education. But after 1849, the new bishop of Orléans, Monsignor Félix-Antoine-Philibert Dupanloup, took an interest in the school and, through his own reputation as a scholar, catapulted it into national prominence. For the three years that Pard Gauguin was in residence, it was at the height of its fame and drew students from all over France. No records have survived to shed light on his performance as a student, but later he believed that he emerged a well-educated man, and felt free to drop the name of the school whenever it was useful.     With her younger child in boarding school, Aline decided it was time to leave the protective but provincial Gauguin family home in Orléans and return to her hometown of Paris. In 1861 she opened a dressmaking business on the rue de la Chaussée in the heart of the fashionable shopping district. Thanks to her mother's crusading ideals about the nobility of labor, Aline had been apprenticed to and had subsequently practiced as a dressmaker in Paris in her late teens and early twenties. It is unlikely that she could have returned to this employment on such a scale if she had not practiced it in some small way since her marriage in 1846, and it is probable that she kept her hand in by working for private clients during the years she spent in Lima and Orléans. Both Paul and Marie both seem to have acquired their lifelong interest in clothes, fabrics, and decorative design at their mother's knee. Paul's experience of his mother as a businesswoman and single mother no doubt affected his ready acceptance of his own wife's ability to do the same. (Continues...) Excerpted from Paul Gauguin by Nancy Mowll Mathews. Copyright © 2001 by Nancy Mowll Mathews. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. vii
Introductionp. 1
1 Ancestry: The Moscosos and the Gauguinsp. 5
2 Young Man in Parisp. 18
3 Impressionismp. 34
4 The Crashp. 48
5 PGo Emergesp. 63
6 The Lost Continent of Atlantisp. 78
7 The Sun Godp. 91
8 Theo and Vincent: Flying Too Close to the Sunp. 106
9 The Martyrp. 126
10 Desperate Measuresp. 145
11 Tahitian Touristp. 168
12 Return to Parisp. 190
13 Tahitian Residentp. 211
14 Final Retreatp. 235
Appendix Mette Gauguin Lettersp. 259
Notesp. 271
Acknowledgmentsp. 309
Indexp. 311