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Text by Deanna MacDonald


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Paul Gauguin: La Belle Angèle – 1889

Paris, Musée d’Orsay

Marie-Angélique Satre, an innkeeper in Pont-Aven, Brittany, was considered a great beauty. So it was not surprising that Gauguin – noted for his love of beautiful women – asked to paint her portrait. ‘Gauguin was very sweet and very miserable… ,’ Madame Satre recalled around 1920. ‘He kept telling my husband he wanted to paint my portrait, so one day he started’. but when he showed it to me, I said ‘How horrible!’ and told him to take it away… . Gauguin was crestfallen, and said that he had never painted such a good portrait…’.

Mme Satre’s reaction was understandable: Gauguin’s stylised, avant-garde image is far from the idealized, academic styles popular at the time. Yet Gauguin was right to think it an exceptional portrait. His friend Degas thought La Belle Angèle was a masterpiece and bought it in 1891. The legendary art dealer, Ambroise Vollard, later presented it as a gift to the Louvre in 1927.

In the portrait Gauguin combined his myriad artistic influences from Impressionism to South American culture, creating a startling break with traditional approaches to perspective and space. Gauguin wrote that he set his subject, Mme Satre, in a circle ‘like a Japanese print’. She wears a traditional Breton costume, which Gauguin treats as a decorative pattern, and sits motionless, as if she were a portrait within a portrait. Her face is impassive and she holds herself with solemn rigidity like some sort of Breton idol. Gauguin even places an anthropomorphic, pre-Colombian style vessel beside her, as if drawing a contrast between the two figures. Playing on the sitter’s name, her reputation as a beauty and the religious overtones of the word ‘angel’, he called the canvas LA BELLE ANGÈLE and for the first time inscribed his title on a painting.

His robust, freehanded brushstrokes reflect his early association with the Impressionists, yet, the portrait also shows Gauguin’s move towards a more analytical, symbolic approach. He rejected what he called the ‘mindless imitation’ of the Impressionists in favour of a quest for meaning. For years, Gauguin had been fascinated by what he called ‘primitive’, exotic cultures, where he believed he would find a deeper, more profound truth than in cosmopolitan Paris. To this end, in the 1880s Gauguin began to visit Pont-Aven in Brittany, which had attracted artists for years with its traditional culture and low cost of living. ‘I love Brittany’, Gauguin wrote; ‘There is something wild and primitive here. When my clogs strike the granite soil, I hear the muffled, deadened, powerful sound I strive for in my paintings’. Gauguin created works like this one, inspired by local customs and folklore and painted with bold, flattened forms and intense saturated colours. Mme Satre may not have liked her novel portrait but it was just this kind of unconventional symbolism and technique that would make Gauguin amongst the most innovative painters of the 19th century.

Gauguin’s unconventional approach to portraiture was in keeping with his unconventional past. After an early childhood in Peru and adventurous years in the merchant marine, Gauguin settled into the bourgeois life of a Parisian stockbroker, complete with suburban home, wife and five children. A hobby painter, he soon found himself involved with the Impressionists. Pissarro became his mentor and after successfully exhibiting with the group and the 1882 stock market crash that left him unemployed, Gauguin became a full-time painter (his Danish wife left for Copenhagen with their children soon after). Brittany would eventually prove too tame for Gauguin and in the later 1880s he began to travel in the tropics where he would continue his quest for truth in art.

Image: Wikimedia Commons


Contemporary Works

1889 Childe Hassam: Peach Blossom, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

1889 Vincent van Gogh: Bedroom at Arles, Chicago, Art Institute

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Pierre Puvis de Chavannes