From 1883, when he stopped working as a stockbroker, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) lived by his wits for a long while, relying on financial support from friends like Émile Schuffenecker. But when he was seized with a strange desire to go to Tahiti, he had to find the means to do so. This dream was inspired by reading a tourist magazine after his return from Brittany in the winter of 1889, when he spent his time with his Symbolist friends in smoke-wreathed cafés, endlessly drinking bad cognac and sleeping in little hotels. In his biography published three years after Gauguin's death, Jean de Rotonchamp wrote that "he had high hopes of selling the pictures piled up in his studio, as well as ones he was planning to paint – but these hopes were dashed." However, he managed to make several sales through his dealer, Theo Van Gogh. In 1889, he staged an exhibition of the "Impressionist and Synthetist group" on the fringe of the Universal Exhibition, at the Café des Arts on the Champ-de-Mars, with eight artists including Schuffenecker, Émile Bernard and Louis Anquetin. But the show apparently led to no sales.
To pay for his journey, continues his first biographer, "he picked out some thirty paintings dating from the last few years – mainly size 30 canvases – and decided to auction them at the Hôtel Drouot." The sale, preceded by an exhibition the day before in the Boussod & Valadon gallery (where Theo had worked) took place on 23 February 1891. Octave Mirbeau announced it the week before in the L’Écho de Paris: "I hear that Mr P. Gauguin is going to Tahiti. His idea is to live there for several years on his own, to build himself a hut, and completely rework all the themes that haunt him (…) Paul Gauguin is a very remarkable and disturbing artist, who hardly ever shows himself in public, and of whom the public consequently knows little." An excerpt was published in the catalogue, followed by a bare list of thirty works with only their titles: no descriptions. While No. 2 mentions "Martinique", most of the landscapes were of Brittany. The sale sparked off an incident with Madeleine, the sister of Émile Bernard, who accused him of ingratitude. Her brother had taken it very badly that Gauguin was credited with the invention of Synthetism during their stay at Pont-Aven, considering himself its originator. But the auctioneer's main task was to control the outbursts of merriment in a room filled with the artist's supporters. Applause erupted when "La Vision après le Sermon" was knocked down to Henry Meilheurat des Prureaux for FF900. Bought for FF6,000 in 1910 by Ambroise Vollard, who sold it for FF15,000 two years later to Sir Michael Sadler, this manifesto of Symbolism was acquired for £1,150 in 1925 by the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, where it is now a jewel in its crown. Through Durand-Ruel, Edgar Degas paid FF450 for "La Belle Angèle", a portrait that had been refused by its model, the landlady at Pont-Aven. "Allées et Venues", the Martinique landscape, obtained FF505. "Course de chiens" FF400; "La Baignade" and "Les Baigneurs" FF360 each – FF10 more than for "Dans les foins", "Les Alyscamps", "Coin de rivière" and a landscape of Arles. The other lots went for between FF240 and FF280. With only one painting unsold, the total came to FF9,860: "The lion's share of the money Gauguin took with him to Tahiti," wrote Rotonchamp. On 23 March, a banquet celebrating the event was held at the Café Voltaire, attended by Eugène Carrière, Odilon Redon, Jean Dolent, Charles Morice, Jean Moréas and others. We know more about the menu (soup, brill, pheasant and leg of lamb washed down with a simple Beaujolais) than we do about the auctioneer's catalogue. Adolphe Retté recited some verse by Mallarmé, who had orchestrated the festivities. On 4 April 1891, a few friends accompanied Gauguin to the Gare de Lyon railway station to see him off on his great journey.
"Supporting him in solitude"
In Polynesia, the nest egg soon disappeared, particularly as the artist spent freely. He sent various paintings to Copenhagen, where a nude study sold for FF900. But he refused to part with "Manao Tupapau" ("Spirit of the Dead Watching"), "unless it fetches FF2,000." "I left Paris after a victory," but "I'm in the soup now," he wrote in May 1892, saying that he had "not made a sou in 18 months" from his painting. On 30 August 1893, he landed in Marseille with four francs in his pocket. In November, he exhibited 44 paintings at the Durand-Ruel gallery – only eleven were sold – and two sculptures. By now eager to leave again, he decided to repeat the Drouot experience. This sale, conducted by François Sarrus, took place on 28 February 1895. The preface, requested from August Strindberg, was paradoxical because in it the writer explains that he cannot meet this request: " “I cannot grasp your art and I cannot like it. Your art, now exclusively Tahitian, has no purchase on me." Nonetheless, he wished the painter "bon voyage". This time, an expert was called in – Alexandre Bernheim –, but the catalogue, consisting of 49 listed numbers (two-thirds of them pieces unsold at Durand-Ruel), as well as "drawings and engravings", with no further details, was just as terse. Nor can the titles in Tahitian have helped. This decision could well have been Gauguin's: it certainly reflects his character. The press struggled to understand his attraction to these indigenous women with their copper skins and incomprehensible jargon. A journalist even accused him of trying to impress the "Paris bourgeoisie"… Accounts of the event have always implied that the painter only sold nine pictures, but a document we have discovered sheds a different light on the matter. According to the report published by La Gazette, 21 were sold, totalling a little over FF8,000.
However, this report contains mistakes in the results, even announcing a total of FF17,000, which is hard to justify, even if the unlisted drawings are included. Specialist Belinda Thomson thinks that the artist, whose price index was far below that of the Impressionists, "undoubtedly felt bitter about what he saw as a failure, even though he must have been comforted by the lavish support shown by several close friends like Degas." However, the latter spent less than FF1,000 on "Vahine no te vi" (Woman with a mango) (FF480), a copy of "Olympia" (FF230) and a few drawings and prints, while Schuffenecker paid FF360 for "Parahi te marae" (There is the Temple" and FF430 for "Nave nave moe" (Delicious Water). Nonetheless, the most sought-after paintings were the ones from this period apparently so difficult to understand, even for Strindberg. "Manao tupapau" (Spirit of the Dead Watching) was knocked down for FF900; "Aha oe Feii?" (Are You Jealous?) and "Nafea faa ipoipo?" (When will you marry?) went for FF500. Among his previous works, "Bonjour monsieur Gauguin" fetched FF410, but "Les Batteuses" and "Jeune chrétienne" only FF100 and FF110. Gauguin tried in vain to assemble a circle of art lovers who could provide him with regular funds. On 9 December 1898, now back in the islands again, he complained that Vollard, for whom he intended nine paintings, was the only one still prepared to "support him in his solitude." The following year, he sent his masterpiece "D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous?" to the artist Daniel de Monfreid. This was later sold to the Bordeaux collector Gabriel Frizeau for FF2,000 in 1901, thirty-five years before going to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It is worth remembering that at the end of the 19th century, paintings by Meissonier easily sold for over FF100,000.