Gauguin: Where he lived and loved
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56, rue Notre-Dame-de-Lorette (Birthplace of Paul Gauguin)
5, rue Henri-Monnier (House of Gauguin’s guardian, Gustave Arosa)
15, rue La Bruyère (Gauguin’s bachelor apartment)
28, place St-Georges (Gauguin and Mette’s first home)
30, rue de Chaillot (The couple’s second apartment)
10, rue Cail (Gauguin and Clovis’ apartment)
Directions: We begin this walk at métro place Blanche. Looking away from the butte of Montmartre, locate rue Fontaine, traveling downhill. Stay on rue Fontaine two blocks until you reach the crossroad of rue Pigalle. Cross rue Pigalle and the street now becomes rue Notre-Dame-de-Lorette. As you walk along, on your left, at number 56, is Paul Gauguin’s birthplace. Look for the plaque tucked almost imperceptibly between two decorative entablatures that announces “Paul Gauguin, French painter, sculptor, and writer, died at Atuana (Marquesas) on 8 May 1903 and was born in this house on 7 June 1848.”
Paris placed this biographical plaque on the facade during the 1948 centenary of his birth. At that time few people in the neighborhood knew the building’s history and during the ceremony many were confused about exactly who was being honored. One of the speakers recalled a former critic who’d remarked that Gauguin’s art had “everything against it—women, collectors, museums,” and then noted “Today, museums and collectors are proud to possess even the smallest of Gauguin’s works.” He pointed out that women, to be fashionable, had “begun to powder their faces with the ochre with which Gauguin painted the flesh of his Tahitians.” Gauguin was the second child, after a daughter Marie, born to Clovis Gauguin, a journalist, and Aline, daughter of the renowned feminist and activist, Flora Tristan. On 8 August 1849, drowning in an unfavorable political climate, the young family set sail for Peru to live with Aline’s somewhat wealthy relatives in Lima. Sadly, en route, Clovis died of an aneurysm, and was buried at Port-Famine in the Straits of Magellan. The anguished family continued to Peru and eventually returned to France in 1855, settling first in Orléans, again living with relatives. After a few silent moments, take time to look at the building to the immediate left. I love this next factoid. When Gauguin was born here, Delacroix, the great French painter, lived and maintained a studio right next-door, #58. Delacroix, on one of his many outings, probably passed by the baby Gauguin, unaware he was to become one of France’s future celebrated artists. This is what makes Paris so fascinating to me: uncovering these scintillating and obscure connections among its great personages and sharing this information with readers like you.
Few people know about Gustave Arosa and the impact he made on Gauguin’s life. A wealthy Spaniard, he befriended Gauguin’s mother, a seamstress, who’d moved to 33, rue de la Chaussée d’Antin and became Gauguin’s legal guardian in 1865, a year before his mother died. Arosa was wealthy, had a collection of Peruvian art, and even began collecting works by newer artists such as Pissarro. Gauguin, therefore, grew up around an affluent, cultured man, interested in the arts. Interestingly, in light of Gauguin’s future travels, the Arosa’s would vacation in Brittany and Gustave’s brother took a trip around the world, stopping at Tahiti and Hivaoa to sketch the sites. They even played a part in introducing Gauguin to his future wife, Mette Gad, from Copenhagen, who’d been staying at a pension owned by a friend of Arosa’s wife. And later, while dating, the Arosa’s hosted a Mardi Gras ball and Gauguin designed crepe-paper costumes–he was a soldier, Mette, a little girl. Others arrived festively dressed as fans, chandeliers, and bottles of champagne. When Arosa lived on this street, he was known to have had a comfortable, “charming old house.”
Directions: Turn around, and retrace your steps to rue Notre-Dame-de-Lorette. Turn left, and then take the very first right onto rue La Bruyère. Walk along this street, again not that far, and on your left, look for #15, with ultra-decorative balconies. It is here Gauguin lived as a bachelor.
While walking here, you’ll begin to sense how Gauguin–who most of the world knows as the classic nomad, deserting his wife and five children, and traveling alone to the South Seas following incessant dreams–as a young man did not stray more than a few blocks from his birthplace nor his childhood guardian. That guardian, Arosa, was also instrumental in securing Gauguin a job in the financial sector near the Bourse while he lived here, #15. Recent scholarship has revealed he worked as an ordinary liquidator of an agent de change and not a bona fide stockbroker or banker as most presume. During this period, he was able to do some sketching, something he’d done off and on before. It was while living here, and attending a party elsewhere, on November 22,1872, he met Mette–blond, boisterous, and fun. She dressed as a man and smoked cigars as did Georges Sands, his own mother’s guardian. He fell in love. They became engaged that February and before their fall wedding, Paul wrote a friend of hers, Mme Heegaard, how he knew he’d carried off the “pearl of Denmark” and promised to do everything “possible and impossible” so she would not regret marrying him.
Directions: Backtrack to rue Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, and turning right, still going downhill, you run into place St-Georges, with its intriguing sculpture of the caricaturist Gavarni in the center. Our next stop is #28, the lavishly decorated building, on your left, with sculpture after sculpture on the façade, once home to Madame Pavia. It was also the first home of Mr. And Mrs. Paul Gauguin.
They married one year to the day of their first meeting and moved here in what Gauguin continually described as a “petit appartement.” Complications arose during the marriage ceremony at the mairie of the 9th arrondissement when Gauguin was to present death certificates for both parents. He produced his mother’s, but didn’t have his father’s because all the family papers had been burned during the Prussian war at his mother’s home in St-Cloud. After much, much haggling, and since his mother’s documents cited her as the widow of Clovis Gauguin, the ceremony was eventually allowed to continue. Once married, inside the flat, not interested in decorating in the current styles, Gauguin honored his Peruvian ancestors with wall hangings, folk weavings, and handmade pottery of the most unusual shapes. He’s now earning a good salary of 200 francs a month and in 1874 received a bonus of 3,000 francs. With this new earning power, Mette concerned herself with wanting the latest in fashions. This prompted Gauguin to write her friend again that he didn’t understand all this nonsense (my paraphrasing) of hats and expensive dresses which “enrichiront les couturiers en ruinant les maris…” It is here on 31 August 1874, the first of five children, Emil, is born. Gauguin, a proud father, lyrically describes him as “white as a swan, and strong as Hercules”. Registering the child proved to have its moments. Gauguin recalled how he dictated his name to the official as “Emil, sans ‘e’” who mistakenly wrote the name as “Emile Sanze.” And Gauguin remembered how frustratingly long it took to have the name finally corrected in the register.
Directions: We now leave the 9th arrondissement and take two separate jaunts–each worth it to gain a still more intimate knowledge of Gauguin’s life in Paris. After the birth of Emil, the Gauguin’s rented an apartment in the 16th (near today’s Palais Galleria), a move reflecting and symbolizing a new respectability for the couple. Starting at métro Iléna, locate the smaller avenue Pierre de Serbie between avenue d’ Iléna and avenue du Président Wilson. As you walk along Serbie you’ll notice it soon branches to the left, turning into rue de Chaillot. Continue on Chaillot a short way, and on your right, #30, appears near the end of the block. This is the second home for Paul and Mette Gauguin and their growing family.
As you walk here you’ll spot plaques honoring literary and political figures on grand facades and it becomes instantly clear Gauguin moved into an area ripe with intellect with few traces of the bohemian lifestyles he’d grown used to in Paris. Their increased financial standing enabled them to move to this emerging prestigious area and in keeping with this new status, Mette hired a maid, Julie, a former model of Delacroix’s. Family members also lived nearby: Mette’s sister, Ingeborg, moved into the neighborhood, and Gauguin’s sister, Marie, and her husband, lived in a luxurious three-story apartment on avenue d’ Iléna. At this time, Gauguin was becoming more and more interested in creating art, not just collecting it. He made friends with Pissarro, the resident anarchist of the Impressionists. And Gauguin, in a similar vein, years later, cryptically, involved himself in the Spanish cause, and not only took a secret trip to London, but also later admitted to his friend, Schuffenecker, he’d smuggled the revolutionary leader, Zorilla, under a cartload of hay, from Cerbere across the Spanish border. But, I digress. Back to his life here in 1876. That year he received a larger bonus of 3,600 francs, but records of his employment are less clear and soon it appears he was working for a new boss, Léon Galichon, who seems to have paid him a salary that did not cover all his new expenses. Financial rifts between the couple erupted and escalated. Yet, while here, his life as a painter progressed to the point that he submitted a landscape to the all-powerful Salon and it was accepted out of a daunting 3,500 entries. He also painted the nearby Pont d’Iléna and it’s view of the Seine. But, it soon became apparent they could no longer afford to live here, prompting them to move in 1877 to the left bank, 74, rue Falguière, then named rue des Fourneaux.
Directions: I now take you to another apartment where Gauguin lived years later with his young son, Clovis. This is after he and Mette have grown apart, lived apart, and cannot comprehend the other. Gauguin has now forfeited his lucrative job, and is devoting himself to art. He’s fresh from trying to live in Copenhagen with Mette’s family, who drove him reluctantly back to Paris, alone, with Clovis. He lives off friends, off selling some of the artwork he’d bought years before, off menial jobs here and there. He never waivers, he never returns to the bourgeois life again. To locate this poignant address between Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est, I like to start at métro Gare du Nord, and walk to the east side, turning north onto rue du Faubourg St-Denis. Walk the two longish blocks until Rue Cail appears to your right. Turn onto Cail, and on the left, near the end of this very flat block, is #10. We come here not seeking a picturesque walk, but we come seeking to understand Gauguin and his young son more clearly.
Gauguin and his six-year old son, Clovis, moved here June 1885. Evidently a lot has happened since the last address–basically, Gauguin had recently been thrown out of Mette’s family house in Copenhagen, seemingly a failure in everyone’s eyes. He returns to Paris, with his young son, destitute. He writes Mette to send them bedding, covers, sheets, but no bed because he’s been able to find wooden ones here for almost “rien.” He ends up renting a bed for Clovis and he sleeps on the floor. He lets Mette know Clovis is in school, and not to worry, but their son could use a sweater. In another letter, he again tells her not to worry about Clovis, at his age he’s able to survive any suffering if he has a little love and nourishment. Nourishment meaning “an oeuf et un peu de riz…une pomme pour dessert.” He reveals that Clovis plays quietly and sadly often asks when she is coming. The numerous letters Gauguin writes from here to Mette are heart wrenching, especially concerning sweet Clovis. He eventually contracts small pox. They are still destitute and Gauguin desperately seeks work at nearby Gare de l’Est, applying to plaster advertising posters on walls. He describes how the director laughed at first because of his obvious innate bourgeois appearance, but after Gauguin told him how ill his son was, and how poor they were, he hired him for 5 francs a day. The job lasted three months and Gauguin tells Mette on April 25, 1886 he was offered a steady, fairly lucrative position in Madrid, which he later does not take.
Thanks for taking these walks with me. They took you to places well off the tourist track, but hopefully you now know Paul Gauguin, his family and Paris in a more intimate, detailed manner. Until next time, Priscilla.
Priscilla Bain-Smith, author of Van Gogh Walks…Paris!—the first in a series of artists and the cities in which they lived and worked—has published articles on Vincent Van Gogh and medieval illuminated French manuscripts. Recently her poetry has been published internationally. A former college professor, she holds two masters degrees (Cornell University and University of Kentucky) in art history. She is also a painter and photographer who exhibits frequently. Currently working on her next book Gauguin Walks…France, Bain-Smith is available for lectures and tours. Documenting photos included in this article were taken by the author.