Making the Familiar Strange Room 2

Paul Gauguin The Little One is Dreaming, Study 1881

Paul Gauguin
The Little One is Dreaming, Study 1881

Ordupgaard, Copenhagen Photo: Pernille Klemp

In Gauguin’s hands, the still life is rarely straightforward. He disrupts the viewer’s expectations or introduces a human presence – either directly, such as the girl peering at the edge of Still Life with Fruit 1888, or through a significant object – that alters our sense of what we are looking at.

Several of these interior scenes represent a guarded reflection on aspects of domestic life, with hidden dramas played out through detail and allusion. The works of art that appear in the background of some early works may have been intended to emphasise his artistic vocation – increasingly a source of tension between Mette and himself. Inside the Painter’s House, rue Carcel 1881 depicts their home in Montparnasse at the height of their family prosperity, not long before a stock market crash persuaded Gauguin to finally abandon his career in finance and become a full-time artist.

Another glimpse of domestic life is provided by the portraits of Clovis and Aline sleeping, in which Gauguin seems to enter his children’s imaginations. In The Little One is Dreaming, Study 1881 for example, the images of birds on the wallpaper, a jester doll and a musical inscription could allude to the dreams passing through the child’s sleep as much as they record naturalistic detail.

Gauguin's Wooden Shoes 1889-90

Gauguin's Wooden Shoes 1889–90

Photo © National Gallery of Art, Washington

A number of paintings include objects crafted by Gauguin himself, appearing like a token of his own presence. Wood-carving had been a pastime of Gauguin’s since childhood, and he continued to fashion objects or small sculptures throughout his life. He took up ceramics in the winter of 1886–7, working with the leading ceramicist Ernest Chaplet, and produced an inventive series of pots and clay sculptures. At a time when he was still struggling to develop his own distinctive style in painting, such works – influenced by pre-Colombian pottery – represented a significant assertion of his imaginative powers.

This room also includes a cluster of works relating to Gauguin’s friend Meijer de Haan. Gauguin became a mentor to the Dutch artist, and the two men shared studio and lodgings in Brittany. De Haan’s distinctive features went on to appear in several of Gauguin’s paintings, possibly functioning as a kind of alter ego.