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Paul Gauguin 3pp ALS to Friend & Mentor Camille Pissarro, Discussing Fellow Artists & Considering his Future as a Full-Time Artist: "I have it in my head that I would become a painter"

A spectacular 3pp autograph letter in French signed by French Post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) as "Gauguin" on the bottom of the third page. N.p., n.d. but likely Paris, France sometime in late May or early June 1882. 

The 3pp letter is written in Gauguin's tiny and delicate handwriting. He has made four edits throughout in the form of two cross-outs and two additions; the uniform script is otherwise immaculate. The first page is inscribed on the reverse of a blank sheet of stationery pre-printed with company letterhead and a salutation, reading in part: "Agence Financière / Des Assurances / Société Anonyme au Capital de 1.200.000 / 93, Rue de Richelieu / entrée Rue d'Amboise.] / Paris / A. Thomereau Directeur" (the name of an insurance agency, possibly the brokerage firm where Gauguin worked?) The second and third pages are inscribed on either side of a leaf of plain cream-colored paper. With expected paper folds and two minor closed tears located along horizontal folds near the right edges. Isolated minor stains and stray pencil marks, with light edge darkening. The first page has been pencil-inscribed in another hand as "1882" along the top. Else near fine. 5.25" x 8.25." The letter is housed in a sumptuous custom clamshell case with marbled covers, chocolate morocco quarter binding, and a gilt-stamped spine, which opens to reveal a portrait of Gauguin within. Overall size of case: 9" x 11.25" x .75."

Paul Gauguin addressed this letter loaded with significant artistic content to his friend and mentor, fellow Danish-French artist Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) in the spring of 1882. Gauguin had worked at a Parisian stock brokerage firm since 1871, but also catered to his own artistic inclinations. His high-paying job in finance enabled him to create art on the side; he had exhibited paintings and sculpture at the 1879, 1881, and 1882 Impressionist Exhibitions. Gauguin's intense desire to become a full-time artist, coupled with the loss of his job following the crash of the Paris Bourse in January 1882, forced Gauguin to commit to his art once and for all. The rest is history!

Gauguin was living and working in Paris in 1882. Though the letter is undated, we have accepted the chronology proposed by the Société Paul Cézanne, which dates the letter to late May or early June 1882. (The Société Paul Cézanne has organized and excerpted correspondence exchanged between Paul Gauguin, Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, Berthe Morisot, Paul Durand-Ruel and other major participants of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movements to reconstruct major themes and events of the historical period. https://www.societe-cezanne.fr).

In this phenomenal letter, Gauguin questions fundamental ideas about art, artists, and artistic methodology. He extensively discusses meta concepts, such as what makes "masters" great, the ideal artist's education, and the state of the late-nineteenth-century art world (which he judged to be a particularly "difficult era" for artists like himself.) Gauguin refers to seven famous artists in the letter, including seventeenth-century Dutch Old Master Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640); influential French Romantic and Realist painters Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875), Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), Jean-François Millet (1814-1875), and Gustave Courbet (1819-1877); and Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) and Armand Guillaumin (1841-1927), Gauguin and Pissarro's own contemporaries.

Gauguin argues that painting can be separated into two schools: that of "les maîtres ou les grands" ("the masters or greats [artists]"), and that of modern artists like Pissarro and himself. Artwork from one or two generations earlier, such as that produced by Eugène Delacroix, is firmly situated in the "grand tradition" of academic painting: highly wrought and emotive paintings, often monumental in scale, depicting allegorical figures, mythological scenes, or historical events. Art critics maintained that such artwork appealed to higher realms of thinking, and thus enriched the viewer. It was considered canon.

The Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, on the other hand, rejected such codified themes and tropes. "There remains for us genre or landscape," Gauguin writes in the letter. These artists depicted ordinary landscapes, people, and objects, to the horror of the general public and the art world. This meant that the best living artists of Gauguin's generation could be--and often were--rejected from the Salon and relegated to the Salon des Refusés. There was even in-fighting and criticism among modern artists themselves. In 1882, Renoir wrote off Pissarro's latest work as "revolutionary." This slight might have been what Gauguin is referring to in the letter when he urges Pissarro to ignore the comments of "Renoir & Cie (Company)."

Gauguin's probe into the "grand tradition" of painting also begs the question of what makes art objectively great. To Gauguin--though he would first admit the question as relative--he might argue that the best art is great because of the artists' technical brilliance or "genius" as opposed to other conventional criteria. The stuffy pronouncements of art critics of the day might examine the following aspects, for example: Is its subject matter socially respectable? Is its style traditional or modern? This of course was anathema to the Impressionist raison d'être: to convey the spirit of the art.

Also in the letter, Paul Gauguin mentions the famous Sunday painting sessions which he regularly enjoyed in Camille Pissarro's garden at Pontoise, about 36 km northwest of Paris. Pissarro, who was slightly older than the other leading Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, had established an artists' collective group in 1873. Pissarro served as a role model to many rising artists including Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, and Georges Seurat.

Considering Pissarro's avuncular role, then, it is a little unexpected that Gauguin offers painting advice to his mentor in the letter. Pissarro preferred to paint en plein air in one feverish sitting, prioritizing his first "impression" of the scene as the best. Surprisingly, Gauguin counsels Pissarro to do less work in the field and more in the studio. By preparing beforehand, Pissarro "would not have to search for a new vision of nature" every time he painted, liberating him, and allowing him to "improve at once." Gauguin's advice is essentially anti-Impressionist, as the Impressionists wanted to spontaneously and simultaneously paint the essence of what they saw, in the real environment. Gauguin thought differently. This perhaps anticipates his shift towards Post-Impressionism, and his later embrace of more stylized artwork.

Translated in part, and with a full French transcript provided below. Punctuation or usage errors have been silently corrected to ensure clarity.

"My dear Pissarro,

I received from you yesterday a letter which did not shine with clarity. I vow that I didn't understand much of your lamentations, which did not really have much reason to be [have much legitimacy.] In general, man complains of finding what he is searching for and then it is without noticing it.

The masters or the greats, as you call them, painted pictures; in that statement there are two things to be examined: the first depends on what one understands by picture (exactly like beauty) it is relative -- the second, and what I want to discuss, is how did the masters do their pictures.

They began their education young for the most part. I mean by that that they learned all the ways of returning to a formula (a formula which at certain periods tends to transform itself) -- they thus reach a certain age with a sure hand [and] a precise memory [ready] to make pictures. Some, like Delacroix, searched a lot for themselves, but you should be aware nonetheless that, apart from methods, color, etc… Delacroix after all remained the painter as before [i.e. in the grand tradition] of his compositions. He undoubtedly has a certain style of his own (he is a man of genius) which makes itself felt, but there remains always the same manner of composing.

Certain things, like the decorations for the Chambre de Députés, can be found in the paintings of Rubens [Here, Gauguin may be referring to Delacroix's commission to paint the Salon du Roi in the Chambre des Députés at the Palais Bourbon in Paris between 1833-1837.] In sum, the picture belongs to painting in the grand manner, which is also of literature. Our era becomes very difficult for us: painting in the grand manner no longer has a reason to exist, or else it becomes episodic, as in battle paintings. There remains for us genre or landscape -- and indeed it is in this latter direction that all the painting of the last masters has been moving – look at Courbet, Corot, Millet --

As for what concerns you, I believe it is time (if it accords with your temperament) to do more in the studio, but with ideas matured in advance from the point of view of the composition and of the subject. In this way of thinking, you have only to devote all you have learned before to what you will do, and not to look for a new vision of nature, and you will improve at once. Otherwise, continue to look for other things; but in that case you will need a dose of youth and determination which might weary you, particularly through dissatisfaction. Do not worry about what Renoir & Co. may say. I know why they talk like that (we will chat about it next time).

I would do well to see you at Pontoise, but I become jealous of my Sundays. I have so little time to lose… I must use my day, otherwise I will reproach myself during the week for the lost time.

I can't decide whether to remain all my life in finance and as an amateur painter. I have got it into my head that I would become a painter. As soon as I can discern a less obscured horizon, and that I shall be able to earn my living by it, I will put it into effect straight away…

One should do that at the current hour, hands down. You other old ones and Guillaumin and me [are] sufficiently equipped to live while he and me, we count less than the least damsel. Above all, we must put one foot in the stirrup 

Try to come next Sunday. I have many things which I've started to show you. I hope that it will interest you… Good wishes to Madame Pissarro; your little daughter is well, I hope. Why doesn't Madame Pissarro come one day to Paris with the baby.

Best to you,

Gauguin."

Complete French transcript, as reproduced as Letter VM 23 on the Société Paul Cézanne website.

"Mon cher Pissarro,

J’ai reçu de vous hier une lettre qui ne brille pas par la clarté. J’avoue que je n’ai pas compris grand-chose à vos lamentations, qui n’ont pas tout à fait leur raison d’être. En général, l’homme se plaint de trouver ce qu’il cherche et c’est sans s’en apercevoir.

Les maîtres ou les grands comme vous les appelez ont fait des tableaux; sur ce fait il y a deux choses à examiner, la première comporte sur ce qu’on entend par tableau (tout comme la beauté), c’est relatif — la deuxième et c’est ce que je veux discuter, comment les maîtres ont-ils fait des tableaux.

Ils ont commencé jeunes pour la plupart leur éducation. J’entends par là qu’ils ont appris toutes les manières de retourner une formule (formule qui à certaines époques tend à se transformer) — Ils arrivent donc à un certain âge avec une main sûre, une mémoire précise, faire des tableaux. Quelques-uns comme Delacroix ont cependant beaucoup cherché d’eux-mêmes mais vous devez cependant vous apercevoir que sauf les moyens, la coloration, etc… Delacroix après tout est resté le peintre d’avant dans ses compositions. Il y a bien une allure à lui c’est un homme de génie alors celà se ressent mais c’est toujours la même façon de composer.

Certaines choses comme les décorations de la Chambre des Députés se retrouvent dans des tableaux de Rubens. En somme, le tableau appartient à la grande peinture qui est de la littérature. Notre époque devient très difficile pour nous, la grande peinture n’a plus sa raison d’être ou alors on fait de l’épisode comme dans les tableaux militaires. Il nous reste le genre ou le paysage, — c’est du reste dans ce dernier sens que toute la peinture des derniers maîtres découle. Voyez Courbet Corot Millet —

Quant à ce qui est de vous, je crois qu’il est temps (si toutefois c’est votre tempérament) de faire plus à l’atelier mais alors des choses mûries à l’avance au point de vue de l’arrangement et de la scène. Dans cet ordre d’idées vous n’avez plus qu’à consacrer tout ce que vous avez appris avant à ce qu vous ferez et non chercher une vision nouvelle de la nature et vous perfectionnerez tout de suite. Sinon continuez à chercher d’autres choses mais alors il faut une dose de jeunesse et d’entêtement qui pourrait vous lasser surtout par le mécontentement.

Vous n’avez pas à vous préoccuper de ce que peuvent dire Renoir & Cie je sais pourquoi ils parlent ainsi. Nous causerons de celà la prochaine fois.

Je serais bien venu vous voir à Pontoise mais je deviens friand de mes dimanches, j’ai si peu de temps à perdre et malgré le temps que je ne peux choisir et qui varie exprès le dimanche il faut que j’emploie ma journée sinon je me reproche toute la semaine le temps perdu.

Je ne puis me décider à rester toute ma vie dans la finance et peintre amateur; j’ai mis dans ma tête que je deviendrais peintre. Aussitôt que j’apercevrai l’horizon moins obscur que je pourrai gagner ma vie avec celà je m’y mettrai carrément, aussi j’enrage quand je vois que c’est la désunion qui est cause de celà —

On devrait à l’heure actuelle l’emporter haut la main. Vous autres anciens en haut et Guillaumin et moi suffisamment équipés pour vivre tandis que lui et moi nous comptons moins que la moindre demoiselle. Le tout c’est de mettre le pied à l’étrier —

Tâchez de venir dimanche prochain. J’ai bien des choses commencées à vous faire voir j’espère que celà vous intéressera. Ce ne sont pas des résultats que je cherche ce sont des documents que je range pour plus tard.

Bien des choses à Madame Pissarro; votre petite fille va bien j’espère. Pourquoi Madame Pissarro ne vient-elle pas un jour à Paris avec le bébé.

Tout à vous,

Gauguin."

This same letter sold for $110,700 at the December 18, 2012 sale "The Property of a Distinguished American Private Collector, Part 1" at Profiles in History.

This item comes with a Certificate from John Reznikoff, a premier authenticator for both major 3rd party authentication services, PSA and JSA (James Spence Authentications), as well as numerous auction houses.

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