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Gauguin’s Still Life with Profile of Laval: A Modern Freundschaftsbild

Paul Gauguin, "Still Life with Profile of Laval," (1886). Samuel Josefowitz Collection of the School of Pont-Aven, through the generosity of Lilly Endowment Inc., the Josefowitz Family, Mr. and Mrs. James M. Cornelius, Mr. and Mrs. Leonard J. Betley, Lori and Dan Efroymson, and other Friends of the Museum. 1998.167

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) presented a painting to his friend and colleague Charles Laval (1862-1894) in 1887. The work, Still Life with Profile of Laval (1886), reinvigorates the longstanding European tradition of painters exchanging Freundschaftsbilder – pictures that demonstrate friendship and, often, artistic allegiance. Yet, in the article “Japan as Primitivistic Utopia: Van Gogh’s Japonisme Portraits” (1984), Tsukasa Kōdera credited van Gogh (1853-1890) with resuscitating this practice in 1888, a year after Gauguin’s gift to Laval. Van Gogh imagined Japanese artists living and working in a fraternal community, which he sought to emulate. He envisioned developing a similar artists’ cooperative in Arles, his new home and a place he called the “atelier du Midi.” Kōdera cites correspondence between Gauguin and the Dutch artist (specifically, a letter [now lost] dated September 1888) as evidence that van Gogh proposed a portrait exchange to foster the Gemeinschaft (sense of community) between himself and fellow artists Gauguin, Laval, and Émile Bernard (1868-1941). However, Van Gogh’s role as progenitor of the modern Freundschaftsbild is debatable. His inspiration to exchange portraits was derived from a false impression that Japanese artists participated in the same activity. According to Kōdera, Self-Portrait: Les Misérables (1888; Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam) represents Gauguin’s first contribution to the genre. Van Gogh reciprocated the gesture with his Self-Portrait as Bonze (1888; Fogg Art Museum, Harvard, Cambridge, MA).

Paul Gauguin, "Self-Portrait with Portrait of Bernard (Self-Portrait: Les Misérables)," 1888. Oil on canvas, 45 x 55 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Vincent van Gogh, "Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin (Self-Portrait as Bonze)," 1888. Oil on canvas, 59.5 x 48.3 cm. Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, MA.

These portraits, which are rendered in new artistic idioms, announce the painters’ collective denial of naturalism and simultaneous entrée into the international Symbolist movement. Interestingly, Still Life with Profile of Laval (1886), which predates van Gogh’s request to swap portraits and Gauguin’s rejection of Impressionism, has not yet been discussed in these terms.

Gauguin and Laval cultivated their friendship at another artists’ colony – Pont-Aven, in northwest France – during the summer of 1886. Still Life with Profile of Laval probably dates to Gauguin’s residency in Paris the following winter. Here, he worked in close proximity to Laval in an intimate studio on rue Lecourbe. (Laval’s own studio was located at 150 boulevard Pereire.) Through his work with Gauguin, Laval shed the practices of his formal instruction under Léon Bonnat (1833-1922) and Fernand Cormon (1845-1924), and took up Impressionism. Still Life with Profile of Laval depicts the eponymous figure examining an amorphous vase. The stoneware vase (now lost), fired by Ernest Chaplet (1835-1909), is the handiwork of Gauguin. He may have even conceived of the vase as a symbolic self-portrait. Gauguin’s Self-Portrait Vase with a Severed Head (1889; Designmuseum Danmark, Copenhagen) would create a literal association between creator and object some three years later. If read in this way, Still Life with Profile of Laval functions as a double portrait.

Paul Gauguin, "Self-Portrait Vase in the Form of a Severed Head," 1889. Stoneware ceramic. Designmuseum Danmark, Copenhagen. (via http://blog.tate.org.uk/?attachment_id=1955)

In Gauguin’s painting, the bespectacled figure also scrutinizes an assortment of produce, which may allude to the Impressionists’ regard for visual perception. Still Life with Profile of Laval does not endorse the mere transcription of nature; in fact, the work subverts the established emphasis on verisimilitude in art. Portraits of artists in their studios, such as Christen Købke’s (1810-1848) Portrait of Landscape Painter Frederik Sødring (1832; Hirschsprung Collection, Copenhagen), traditionally include a mirror – a reference to the Platonic conception of art as a reflection of nature. (A point underscored in the viewer’s glimpse of one of Sødring’s landscapes, hanging opposite the mirror.)

Christen Købke, "Portrait of Landscape Painter Frederik Sødring," 1832. Oil on canvas, 42.2 x 37.9 cm. The Hirschsprung Collection, Copenhagen. (via http://www.hirschsprung.dk/Image.aspx?id=24&col=5)

In contrast, Gauguin purposely obscures a form (the mysterious blue rectangle at center) that might be read as a mirror. He was particularly inspired by Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), who employed new compositional strategies to interpret his subject matter. The brushstrokes and mottled fruit in Still Life with Profile of Laval reference Cézanne’s still lifes. Gauguin’s Landscape near Arles (1888; IMA), executed upon his arrival at van Gogh’s atelier du Midi, exhibits a lingering debt to Cézanne. Edgar Degas (1834-1917), another artist he admired immensely, is honored in the unusual cropping of Still Life with Profile of Laval. This painting, as a Freundschaftsbild, demonstrates shared artistic ideology, derived from the experiments of Cézanne and Degas. Two years later, Gauguin would dispense with naturalism altogether, concentrating on interior vision instead. It is at this time that he formulated the artistic language of Synthetism with Bernard in Fall 1888. At the request of van Gogh, he painted another Freundschaftsbild – Self-Portrait: Les Misérables – to commemorate this shift in their artistic aims.

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