Gauguin Still Life with Three Puppies

Cute or weird? Gauguin’s enigmatic Still Life with Three Puppies 1888

Collection Museum of Modern Art, New York

Everybody loves a puppy, right? How adorable (if a little odd) are the ones in this painting? Every time I was asked for ideas about merchandise for the Gauguin exhibition, I’d say:  ‘What about the puppies?’ And guess what, there are knitted versions on sale in the exhibition shop- cute! Mind you, when it comes to understanding what this still-life painting is all about, the jury is still out. Ok, we’re used to strange perspectives and viewpoints in Gauguin’s work, not to mention the lovely Cezanne-like fruit in the foreground. But why three puppies, three goblets and three apples? What is the significance? Gauguin himself didn’t offer any explanation, annoyingly. But one thought is that the repetition of three relates to a children’s counting song from the period, which seems plausible. Can anyone out there help us find the answer? All suggestions gratefully received…

Comments

deirdre mcardle

oh ,let me guess,you're an American right?

deirdre mcardle

I think C.R. if you are going to asking people for words you had better start by defining the word 'meaning' .I mean,you are the academic aren't you ?

polly

This 'puppy' piece reminds me of the painting where Gauguin is standing behind his son at the piano in the rear to the right, with the flowers on the table in the foreground... there's a clear division between the two parts of his life in that painting, and family life is somehow relegated to the rear of the canvas, where he is carrying out his paternal duty in the same weary way as the woman leaning on the mantelpiece in one of Sickert's paintings. The atmosphere is heavy, rather monochrome, and a sense that though he is with the child, his attention is elsewhere - but set out on the table in the front are some elements of his 'real' inner life as an artist, the still life, the flowers, the welcome relief of the colour albeit slightly muted by the oppression of the domestic setting. This 'puppies' painting suggests to me the same sort of dichotomy - it's a painting in two halves. It feels to me as if the puppies and the - eggcups, are they? - represent the domestic part of his life, three children, the chaos of a young family and the need to provide for and nurture them. Sweet as they are, food has to be put on the table for them. I think that in the forefront of the piece, the real obsession of his life, art, is represnted by the still life, the fruit. I think he is enjoying the thought of the children and the domestic scene, but very much as an observer on the outside....the joyful little puppy children soon morph into those three strange eggcups which stand as a barrier to the life and colour of the tumbling abundant fruit, his life as an artist. The eggcup also rather resemble egg-timers - so there's a suggestion that his time was running out while he lived with the children, because family time was just wasted painting time. He has had to harden his heart aginst the adorable puppies/children and see them as obstacles to his art. As I look at the overall form of the fruit from the side as it lays on the table, it looks like a mummified figure with bound arms and hands, and fruit it cannot grasp weighing across the chest and stomach; is that figure him? immobilised at some level by the pain of missing the children, but at the same time recognising that family life rendered him helpless. He is forever divided from them by his passion to paint.

deirdre mcardle

well,so much for modernism ,eh.

Prune

How can we decide what Gauguin meant? Christine says that the jury is still out, but really 'out' is the only place the jury can be. We can never know the verdict.

He felt something when he saw the scene that inspired the panting, but he chose not to tell the world what it was. So any interpretation we put on it cannot be Gauguin's, it can only be our own.

It's fun to speculate, providing we never make the mistake of imagining that our speculations are anything to do with what Gauguin was thinking (though I realise that a widely accepted speculation this century will be taken as a fact next century).

My own speculation is that he saw three puppies eating from a pan, he was charmed by the scene and wanted to paint it. If I had seen that scene I would have wanted to photograph it, and I'd have arranged some found objects in a pleasing way to complement the scene. Three wine glasses would be good, if they happened to be to hand. What my photograph would have meant would be that this scene pleased me, and I wanted to capture it somehow. Do we need more motivation than that for Gauguin? Let's remember Occam's wonderful razor.

polly Rockberger

Fair point Prune....but it's fun to speculate, if a bit presumptuous, and hey, Christine did put the question out there. I'm a painter myself and I love writing about what I'm doing and why I'm interested in it, but a painting has to communicate itself, and do its own work. I guess we can't help searching for an understanding of what exactly an artist is doing, and why, but yes, that's all secondary to the experience of looking at a painting and being moved by it....confronted with a Rothko, who cares what he thought or why he painted it? It's just - what it is.

deirdre mcardle

yeah who cares why Rothko cut his own throat and bled to death maybe Malborough Gallery really did do it to profit but I guess that was just a rumour.

polly

not the vibe I meant at all....Rothko has god-like status in my book and his personal pain and suicide was a tragedy. My point is that whatever the artist thinks or feels, the work speaks for itself. Leonardo is a case in point, speculation will go on for ever but in the end the only certainty for us is what's on the canvas.

deirdre mcardle

there is no god.

deirdre mcardle

oh sorry girlies that should of course read 'there is no dog' ( do you know what that 'means' ? )

Talitha Beck

Of course there is a God - He is the one who gave all these guys (and girls) the wonderful gift of being artistic and giving us all these wonderful works of art to discuss! Shame we don't give Him the credit more often though!!

Talitha Beck

No actually. A good old Brit!