Paul Gauguin, 'Sailing Vessel - Moonlight' 1878

An Essay by Richard Nathanson

The provenance is stated in Knoedler’s invoice dated 15th January 1924. Gauguin dedicated his Fruit [Wildenstein No. 240] to M. Reynier. And this painting may have been a gift to Madame Reynier for looking after his son Clovis during his illness in early 1886 whilst Gauguin was at work. His 1888-1890 sketchbook records Madame Reynier also receiving a Rouen landscape.

This autobiographical, prophetically allegorical work expresses inner forces that were to drive Gauguin from his family and France in search of his artistic, spiritual dream-vision. It is the first painting in which his spirit literally soars as he embarks, inwardly and irrevocably, upon his artistic journey; and it is all the more mysterious given he was to remain in commerce another six years.

The painting is Gauguin’s only recorded work of 1878. And more importantly, his only known painting of a lone sailing vessel forging its solitary course amid threatening winds and turbulent seas beneath a starless moonlit sky. No other early painting conveys so palpable a feeling of menace and solitude; nor expresses more vividly and powerfully Gauguin’s inner thinking and sense of unwavering artistic purpose. Its surging movement and pervading restlessness are the antithesis of the almost hesitatingly painted wintry stillness of La Seine, Pont d’Iéna of three years earlier in the Musée d’Orsay.

There is no record of Gauguin visiting the coast in 1878; and the painting depicts no recognisable coastline. It is thus almost certainly an imaginary scene which may be considered, psychologically and symbolically, the first self-portrait to reveal something of his innermost artistic thoughts and feelings.

Only a painting to which Gauguin attached particular importance would, in relation to the 46 recorded and tentative by comparison paintings predating it, account for its complex rhythms and dynamic movement. Its broad vista. Painstaking fine-tuning evident in the numerous alterations. And all-pervading moonlight determining, in even the smallest areas, the painting’s mood and tonality. All make it a crucial bridge between the earlier works and those of his maturing vision; and offer the most likely explanation for this being Gauguin’s only known painting of 1878; and one very possibly intended for the Paris Salon.

In this single work, Gauguin comes artistically of age, showing himself in full command of his medium as he portrays, for the first time, his evolving destiny.

X-rays show this to be painted over a landscape of small fields with a peasant woman which relates directly to Gauguin’s 1873 painting Working on The Land in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge [inspired by Pissarro’s over-door decoration for Gauguin’s guardians the Arosa brothers]. That he chose, when he could still afford good quality materials, to paint this bold, sweeping, turbulent seascape over a tranquil, pastoral scene that reflected Pissarro’s influence indicates his determination to distance himself from his earlier work and its influences; also his deepening artistic assurance and growing imaginative, spiritual thinking. 

Gauguin is one of the forces of Nature’ remarked Degas. And this powerfully emotional painting is testament to that profound observation.

The eminent Gauguin scholar Richard Brettell, writing below on Landscape with Poplars [Indianapolis Museum of Art; Wildenstein 13] painted three years earlier, might, in part, have been commenting on this painting:

This fascinating, brooding landscape is among Gauguin’s first outright masterpieces. Although its dark tonality and relatively conservative, pre-modern landscape motif might suggest otherwise, it could never be mistaken for a work by any of the earlier painters who were its inspiration…..The Indianapolis painting conveys a remarkable sense of isolation…..For Gauguin, even as an amateur trying to prove his mastery, paintings raised questions of the viewer. Where are we? Why are we here? What is being painted? How are we to find meaning in this landscape? How do we escape? As we look at it and reflect on its relationship to its sources, what seems at first to be an utterly ‘typical’ mid-nineteenth century landscape by a young amateur emerges as a work that uses landscape to set up a physic distance between painter and viewer.

Gauguin revered Delacroix; and would have studied, from his earliest painting days, the sixteen Delacroix in the Arosa collection. This seascape has something of the intensity and menace he saw in Delacroix’s The Shipwreck of Don Juan about which he wrote, in 1885, to Schuffenecker:  

Have you noticed how this man had the temperament of a wild beast that’s why he painted them so well…..his Don Juan’s boat is the hot breath of a full-blooded monster and I should love to feast on that spectacle.

More pertinent still is Delacroix’s Christ Asleep on the Sea of Galilee [Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore]. A protective halo of golden light cushions Christ’s head amid thrashing seas and the brooding intensity of a storm-ridden night sky. Gauguin would, very possibly, have known this and/or other versions in the original or in reproduction.

To André Fontainas 1899:

I act consciously according to my intellectual nature. I act a little like the bible, of which the doctrines [particularly regarding Christ] are expressed in symbolic form presenting a double aspect; a form which first materialises the pure ‘Idea’ to render it more palpable, affecting the guise of supernaturalism which is the literal, allegorical and mysterious meaning of a parable; and then the second aspect which gives it its spirit. And this is the meaning, no longer allegorical but figurative and explicit of that parable.

These words and Gauguin’s later self-portraits as Christ, suggest that whilst painting this, he might well have been thinking about ‘Christ on the Sea of Galilee’. The vessel’s similarity to traditional fishing craft brings to mind ‘The Miracle of Fishes’ and Christ boarding Peter’s boat, after his night of fruitless fishing; and telling him to recast his net in deeper waters. Also the second boat needed to contain the ensuing catch, explaining perhaps, the small boat in tow. And for Gauguin, would that holy harvesting of fish not also have been a metaphor for the riches he saw all about him, whose beauty and mystery he longed to paint for eternity?

In 1864, aged 17, Gauguin joined the merchant navy remaining at sea for eight years. No other great contemporary artist had a deeper experience and understanding of the ocean’s awesome beauty and extreme dangers.

Although Gauguin was in salaried employment until 1884, he has, in portraying himself as the lone sailor-vessel, inwardly already embarked upon his artistic, spiritual journey. The vessel is set upon an, as yet, only subconsciously perceived course, as Gauguin senses himself increasingly swept up by creative forces he feels powerless to resist, regardless of cost to himself and those he most loved. Three years later he wrote to Pissarro of his unshakeable commitment to his art:

Business is at a very low ebb, and the future isn’t looking too great…..My mind is completely taken up with dreams, observing nature and the desire to work; and little by little I just forget about business or at least how to do business. As for giving up painting even for a moment. Never.

To Emile Schuffenecker 1885:

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.

Before departing for Tahiti in 1888, he wrote to Schuffenecker of his growing sense of solitude, already movingly apparent in this painting:

I can expect fewer and fewer people to understand me, I know. What does it matter if I isolate myself from others? The legend says that the Inca came directly from the sun and to the sun I shall return.

Gauguin’s self-identification with the unswerving thrust of this solitary vessel and its single occupant is eerily echoed in his 1892 letter to Mette:

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 along the way. It is true that every year there are changes, but they follow the same path.

To Daniel de Monfried 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.

Gauguin expressed wonder at the mysterious workings of his mind. And the mystical process by which thoughts and happenings, past and future, would enter his work, seemingly of their own accord and without prior 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.

The Intimate Journals of Paul Gauguin 1903

Given Gauguin’s creative, mystical mind and deeply-felt affinity with Christ, this unique and prophetic portrayal of his sensed solitary artistic-spiritual path is especially moving. Its gleam of light in the tilting lantern threatened, in an instant, with extinction. A single inspired ray of hope and belief amid myriad forces of destruction.