Paul Gauguin, 'La Sente du Père Jean ' 1885

An Essay by Richard Nathanson

'Disparu' states the 1964 Wildenstein Gauguin Catalogue Raisonné beneath its black and white reproduction of this painting reproduced only once before, in 1929. And, until its recent reappearance, not publicly exhibited since 1928.

More importantly, the painting seems to record a very moving and particular moment in Gauguin's life. For there is good reason to believe that the small boy is Gauguin's second and favourite son Clovis.

Gauguin's earliest recorded painting is dated 1873. He continued to work as a stockbroker, leading an affluent life; and assembling a fine collection of impressionist paintings that included five Cézannes. With the financial crash of 1882, he became a full-time artist, having already produced work of considerable beauty and increasing individuality. His art however was unable to support a growing family. And in October 1884, his Danish wife Mette returned with their five children to her family in Copenhagen. Gauguin joined them a month later.

In June 1885, deeply frustrated by the hostility of Mette and her family to his art; by his continuing inability to support his family and his dislike of Copenhagen, Gauguin left his family and returned - extraordinarily with six year old Clovis - to Paris. Shortly afterwards he began La Sente du Père Jean.

This painting marks a turning point. It gives unprecedented expression to his artistic and spiritual goal. And joyously proclaims his freedom from a stifling, bourgeois existence. The dramatic change, both stylistic and visionary, is clearly seen when comparing it to his painting Ostervold Park, Copenhagen painted earlier that year.

Gauguin made fifteen recorded works of his children. Of these, five, aside from this painting, portray Clovis. All, except for Clovis Reading [1886], were done before his return to Paris.

In the magical Clovis Asleep [1883], the exotically patterned, richly coloured background seems to merge with the child's dreams and fill the whole painting with a dream-child sense of wonder. The gouache fan of Clovis in Profile with a Mandolin [1885], Clovis with Long Hair, Asleep and Clovis with Pola may each have germinated the seed for this painting.

The pastel of Clovis with Pola shows a similarity of profile that is still more pronounced in Clovis with Aline, and in Clovis Reading [1886].

Two photographs of Clovis with long hair taken in 1884; and two showing him re-united with his family in Copenhagen, point also to a discernible resemblance.

However, Gauguin has gone beyond literal portrayal. He paints the boy as a spirit and symbol of innocence. But with a poignant tenderness that movingly accords with his descriptions of Clovis in his letters to Mette.

It seems inconceivable that Gauguin would not have taken Clovis with him on the glorious day portrayed in this painting - and so soon after their traumatic break with the family. Gauguin painted no other known picture of a boy preparing to fish or indeed fishing. And it seems entirely possible that he would have given his son a rod, fashioned from a branch, with which to fish whilst he painted.

Despite occasionally expressing to Mette his hope of reunion, Gauguin must have realised that their separation, given her inability to comprehend his chosen path or the nature of his art, might well be final. Also that he could not indefinitely care for Clovis.

In this painting, Gauguin must have sensed he was recording an unbearably precious moment. The child's innocence and vulnerability seem heightened by the painting's exuberant, exotic beauty. And in setting the boy's solitary, still form, partly in shadow, against the dappled dancing shimmering light and blazing meadow, Gauguin seems to have symbolised the extreme fragility and transience of that sublime moment.

That winter, father and son were to suffer considerably.

To Mette November 1885

Clovis does not have a woollen jersey to wear, but apart from that he is well. I am still on tenterhooks about the sale of the pictures and it has been very difficult these past few days to feed ourselves adequately. I have received the stockings for Clovis; he now has something to put on his feet and they'll last him for some time. He's very good and plays all alone in his little corner without troubling me. He sometimes asks where his mother is and when she will come. You will find he has nothing but good memories of you. Let us hope the others will not be brought up in ignorance of their mother tongue and of their wretched father. It would take me until old age to come to terms with that.

To Mette Late November 1885

Don't worry about Clovis. He has everything he needs apart from the little woolly vests. It is extremely cold at the moment, and I could really do with mattresses and blankets. Who knows, perhaps I'll receive them one of these days. You only gave me three pairs of sheets which means I can't send them off alternately to the laundry, one pair for Clovis and one pair for me. And what about my canvas shirts?

To Mette December 1885

Clovis is in bed today with a bit of a temperature and a cold. But it won't come to anything. The only problem is that I am obliged to be out and leave him alone in the house. He is very reasonable and understands that his father is poor; and he no longer asks for the cakes he used to love so much. He is visibly growing; and this is perhaps what is tiring him. In any case, don't worry about him. He's always in good spirits and has become very talkative, astonishing everyone with his incessant questions which one is often embarrassed replying to.

To Mette February 1886

Clovis is heroic. When we sit together of an evening at our table before a bit of bread and a slice of ham, he never thinks of the dainties he used to be given. He says nothing, asks for nothing - not even leave to play. And then he goes to bed. That is his life, day by day. His heart and his brains are now those of a grown-up person. He is growing fast but is not very well, always headaches and a particular pallor which worries me.

To Mette April 1886

Necessity is law and at times drives a man to desperation. When the child came down with the smallpox, I had twenty centimes in my pocket. And for three days, we had been eating stale bread and that on credit. Wild with worry, I applied for a job at the station as a billboard paster. The director laughed when he saw my bourgeois appearance and I had to convince him that I had a very sick son and had to have work. So I have been posting notices at five francs a day. While I did so, Clovis lay sick with fever in his bed. And in the evening I would come home and look after him.

After his illness, Clovis remained delicate; and Gauguin left him in the care of a boarding house outside Paris. He again fell ill and spent a month in hospital.

To Mette September 1886

The other day I had news of Clovis. It seems that they are getting very fond of him at the boarding house and that he is as right as a trivet. I miss him very much and if I had had the money, I should have brought him here. Poor little chap, he won't have any holidays. But in this world, one can only do what one can. In a month's time, unfortunately I shall have to go back to Paris to look for business. Let us hope that the sculpture for ceramic production which I am going to undertake will bring in enough to feed me and Clovis.

To Mette December 1886

Since my arrival in Paris, the life I lead is far from gay. I live, one doesn't know how, on the three hundred and fifty francs proceeding from the sale of my small Jongkind.

Out of that, I had to pay the board of Clovis who I had with me, without shoes on his feet, and without a toy for his birthday. One gets used to anything. I have just spent twenty-seven days happily in hospital. Unfortunately I have left it.

Clovis Reading [1886] is Gauguin's last recorded portrait of his son. And perhaps it conveys a certain distance. A sense of inevitable parting.

To Mette April 1887

You seem to have misunderstood my letter about Clovis. You have to find someone to pay his fare. I have just enough to pay my fare and shall arrive in America penniless. What I shall do there I do not yet know myself.....but I want above all to leave Paris, which is a wasteland for a poor man....I am going to Panama to live the life of a native.

You are going to have Clovis. The child will not tolerate the meagre affection you and your family have for him. He is sensitive and intelligent. He will say nothing but he will suffer. With kindness you will be able to do everything you wish with him; otherwise you will antagonise him and make him behave badly. If people speak ill of his father, he will feel it cruelly. It is a delicate plant I am entrusting to you.....

Unable to pay Clovis's board, Gauguin could not even visit his son to say good-bye before leaving. Clovis died at the age of twenty-one, three years before his father. Gauguin was never to know.

No! A thousand times no! The artist is not born all in one piece. It is much if he adds a new link to the chain. Ideas are like dreams. A more or less formed assemblage of hinted things or thoughts. Indeed, does one know whence they come?

Gauguin 'Before and After' 

Gauguin expressed wonder at the mysterious working of his mind. And the mystical process by which past thoughts, ideas, and happenings would enter his work - seemingly of their own accord and without conscious knowledge.

I believe that the thought which has guided part of my work is mysteriously linked with a thousand other thoughts, some my own, some those of others. There are days of idle imagination from which I recall long studies, often sterile, more often troubling; a black cloud has just darkened the horizon; confusion overtakes my soul and I am unable to do anything. If in other hours of bright sunshine and a clear mind I attach myself to such and such a fact, or vision, or bit of reading, I feel I must make some brief record to perpetuate the memory of it.

Sometimes I have gone far back, farther back than the horses of the Parthenon…as far back as the dada of my childhood, the good rocking horse. I have lingered among the nymphs of Corot, dancing in the sacred wood of Ville d'Avray.

The Intimate Journals of Paul Gauguin 1903

In Copenhagen, only a few months before making this painting, Gauguin had copied, in gouache, Cézanne's Midi, L'Estaque [National Museum of Wales], one of five Cézanne paintings he owned. In January 1885, he wrote to his friend Emile Schuffenecker:

For a long time, philosophers have been rationalising the phenomena which seem supernatural to us and which we somehow 'sense'. Everything is in this word. The Raphaels and others were people in whom sensation was formulated long before thought, which allowed them in their studies never to destroy this sensation; and to remain artists.

Look into Nature's immense creation and see if there aren't any laws to create all human feeling in all its varying and yet similar aspects. Look at a big spider or a tree trunk in a forest. Without your realising it, both of them produce an awesome sensation in you. All our five senses reach the brain directly imprinted with an infinity of things no education can destroy.

Look at Cézanne, who is not understood, an essentially mystical, oriental nature. His face looks like that of an old man from the Levant. In form, he is fond of the mystery and the heavy tranquillity of a man lying down to dream. His colour is solemn, like the oriental personality. A man of the Midi, he spends entire days on mountain summits reading Virgil and looking at the sky. Thus his horizons are very high, his blues very intense; and his red is stunningly vibrant. Like Virgil, who has several meanings that can be interpreted to our liking, the literature of his paintings has a two-sided parabolic meaning. Its depths are imaginary as well as real.

Gauguin might have been describing the very elements towards which he was striving in his own work. Cézanne's Midi L'Estaque had a special importance for him; and he tried unsuccessfully to re-purchase it after Mette had sold it. Karl Marsden, a Danish friend, recorded Gauguin's feeling for this picture…'The path winding above the broken ground through the young trees, reminded a French painter - the owner of the picture - of the lonely path along which Christ wandered in sombre thought towards the Mount of Olives'.

Gauguin identified with Christ and the suffering he underwent to realise his vision of and for mankind. In three of his paintings of Christ, he portrays himself as Christ. 'C'est mon portrait que je fais', he wrote of Christ at the Mount of Olives.

It is indicative of Gauguin's mystical, creative thinking that within months of copying the Cézanne, he should, in La Sente du Père Jean, paint his own symbolic pathway.

To André Fontainas 1899

I act not at random but deliberately as my intellectual nature dictates, somewhat in the manner of the bible in which doctrine [especially in connection with Christ] expresses itself in a symbolic form presenting a double aspect, a form which on the one hand, materialises the pure idea so as to make it more perceptible, and assumes the guise of the supernatural. This is the literal, superficial, figurative, mysterious meaning of the parable. And on the other hand, there is the spirit of the parable; not its figurative but its representational explicit meaning.

Gauguin knew his bible. He understood its timeless, universal message; and the poetry and power of its imagery. Is it coincidental that this painting should be imbued with the spirit and poetry of the Twenty-Third psalm, with its premonition and acceptance of the struggle ahead.

In 1893, at the end of Gauguin's first stay in Tahiti, he wrote 'I have escaped everything that is artificial and conventional. Here I enter into truth, become one with nature'. That first stay inspired Noa Noa [Fragrance], his imaginative, autobiographical essay. It contains a passage that harks back to the very spirit of this painting.

One day I wished to have for a sculpture a tree of rosewood. We left in the early morning. The Indian paths in Tahiti are quite difficult for a European. Between two unscaleable mountains there is a cleft where the water purifies itself. On either side of the stream there cascades the semblance of a path. Trees pell-mell, monster ferns, all sorts of vegetation growing wilder, more and more impenetrable as you climb towards the centre of the island.

Complete silence, only the noise of water crying against the rock, monotonous as the silence. And two we certainly were, two friends, he a quite young man and I almost an old man in body and soul, in civilised vices, in lost illusions. From all this youth, from this perfect harmony with nature which surrounded us, there emanated a beauty, a fragrance 'Noa Noa' that enchanted my heart.

The path had come to an end. We had to cross the river. My companion turned at that moment, his innocent eyes resembled the limpidity of the water. Calm suddenly came back into my soul, and this time I enjoyed the cool of the stream, deliciously plunging into it with delight. We got back in the afternoon, tired. I was definitely at peace from then on. I gave not a single blow of the chisel to that piece of wood without having memories of a sweet quietude, a fragrance, a victory and a rejuvenation.

Without his Peruvian ancestry and early childhood in Lima, would Gauguin have sacrificed everything to search for and give expression to the natural beauty and innocence of an undefiled world? Would he have proclaimed it so wonderfully in his art? And defended it so fearlessly and passionately in his actions?

La Sente du Père Jean - stylistically, philosophically and symbolically - marks a profound departure. In Gauguin's previous landscapes, the figures have an almost decorative presence. They occupy no central compositional role, nor convey a principal idea or individual characteristics. This is the first landscape in which the figure takes centre stage - determining both the picture's balance and inner meaning.

The stream, a symbol of purification and life's inexorable movement. The pathway, an allusion to man's journey. The mysterious intimacy of a forest glade. Luxuriant vegetation painted in colours of vibrant beauty and richness that verge upon the exotic. The harmonious, exuberant, dancing interplay of colour, form, light and shade. The bold, densely packed composition. The verticals of trees, upright and leaning, against the diagonal of river and golden meadow. Light on water. An otherworldly figure of innocence. Each brushstroke pulsating and charged. Reverberating stillness. Undulating all pervasive music. All are elements to be found in various of his greatest paintings. For the first time, they come together in this, his first portrayal of an idyllic biblical paradise.

Painting is the most beautiful of all the arts. It is the summation of all our sensations, and contemplating it, we can each, according to our imagination, create the story. In a single glance, our souls can be flooded with the most profound reflections. No effort of memory, everything summed up in a single instant. A complex art which contains and completes all the others. Like music, it works on the soul through the intermediary of the senses. Harmonies of tones correspond to harmonies of sound…

'Notes Synthètiques' 1885 

The Shepherdess [1886]; La Mare, Martinique [1887]; Tropical Vegetation [1887]; Mango Pickers [1887]; The Big Tree [1891]; Homme et Cheval [1891]; Eau Mystèrieuse [1893]; Gathering Fruit [1896]; The White Horse [1898]; Tu Attends une Lettre [1899]; and The Flight [1901].

Were just these eleven paintings - and there are others - to be placed beside La Sente du Père Jean, a direct and profound link would be apparent. Irrespective of the individual elements each painting shares with this picture, they have a common chord - a harmony echoing the same inner vibration.

To Fontainas February 1899 [mentioning Te Pape Nave Nave]

Are they not analogous to oriental chants sung in a thrill voice, to the accompaniment of pulsating notes which intensify them by contrast? Beethoven uses them frequently [as I understand it] in the 'Sonata Pathètique' for example. Delacroix too, with his repeated harmonies of brown and dull violets, a sombre cloak suggesting drama. You go often to the Louvre! Think of what I said, look attentively at Cimabue. Think also of the musical role colour will henceforth play in modern painting. Colour which is vibration, just as music is, is able to attain what is most universal yet at the same time most elusive in nature. Its inner force.

Gauguin considered Where Have We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? [1897] to be his supreme allegory and tribute to the poetry, mystery and beauty of 'The Creation'.

Beyond its stream and pathway. Beyond scattered patterns of sunlight transmuted into bodies of honeyed gold. Beyond short, swift brushstrokes that calm to areas of even flowing colour. Beyond even the otherworldly stillness of the boy - and all but two of the figures grouped together but alone. This and La Sente du Père Jeanboth belong to the same vibrant heartbeat. The same spirit and vision permeate each. Would it be so hard to imagine that small boy become the seated child eating fruit; or watch that first 'Paradise Picture' dissolve slowly into the later, more mystical picture?

Had Gauguin not painted the first picture, he would not have created the later work. They are inextricably linked. A vital part of the same path.

To Mette 1892

You say that I am wrong in staying away for so long from the centre of the art world. The centre of my art world is in my head, not anywhere else. And I am strong because I am never side-tracked by others and I do what is inside me

Beethoven was deaf. He was isolated from everything, and so his works reflect the living artist who lives in the world within him. I have only one goal, and I pursue it, collecting pieces of evidence on the way. It is true that every year there are changes, but they follow the same path.

To Fontainas [in a letter accompanying the manuscript 'Intimate Journals'] 1903

All this, all that, moved by an unconscious sentiment borne of solitude and savagery - idle tales of a naughty child who sometimes reflects and who is always a lover of the beautiful. The beauty that is present. The only beauty that is human.

In painting La Sente du Père Jean, Gauguin found his vision. He painted no other single intimate location three times. Was he, perhaps subconsciously, holding onto, preserving - at a critical juncture in his life - the stillness and magic of a place of great beauty. And the extreme poignancy of a moment of untold peace and joy. 

To Daniel de Monfried November 1901

In my solitude here, I have what is needed to re-charge my forces. Here, poetry exudes from everywhere, and when one is painting one has only to drift away in a dream to find inspiration.