The Courtauld Gallery in London boasts a collection of works by Gauguin, said to be the largest in England, amassed by collector Samuel Courtauld now on view.
Exhibit examples are vintage Gauguin: flat planes of color that describe mostly Tahitian women, who he said he admired for their simplicity and deep faith. “I wished to describe by means of a simple nude a certain long lost barbarian luxury.”
But that wasn’t all he said that he liked. “Barbaric” is the operative word.
Gauguin, who left his wife and five children, kept journals of his thoughts while living in the South Seas recounting his sexual conquests: “I saw plenty of calm-eyed women. I wanted them to be taken without a word, brutally. In a way longing to rape.”
But talking to a French journalist he talked art: “I was captivated by that virgin land and its primitive and simple race; I went back there, and I’m going to go back there again. In order to produce something new, you have to return to the original source, to the childhood of mankind.”
Even so, when he was in Tahiti, Gauguin was known more for his sexual excesses than for his painting.
Of course, Gauguin wasn’t the first artist whose private life was unseemly. And to hear William Faulkner tell it, a tortured soul is a requirement for art making: “An artist is a creature driven by demons.” History seems to agree with him.
Fra Fillipo Lippi, a monk painted of religious subject with worshipful faces, abducted a fully pledged nun from a church of which he was chaplain and impregnated her. Agostino Tassi, a landscape painter with a knack for rendering serene and illusionist architecture settings, savagely raped his 17-year-old student, Artemisia Gentileschi. Caravaggio, master painter of devoutly religious work, was a malcontent with an uninterrupted record of crimes, including murder. Alfonso Cano, known as the Spanish Michelangelo, was often expelled from a city – on one occasion for the suspected killing of his wife.
That said, not all artists have been so troubled, Peter Paul Rubens, A loving husband and father of eight, he used his children as models for the cherubs he painted. He not only debunks the myth that great artists are tortured souls, he makes mincemeat of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words: “Art is a jealous mistress and if a man has a genius for painting, poetry, music, architecture or philosophy, he makes a bad husband and provider.”
Speak for yourself, Ralph. It’s clear that this otherwise well-educated philosopher, essayist and poet knew nothing of Rubens.