Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Schuffenecker Family (1889)

Gauguin left Arles immediately after Van Gogh had mutilated himself. He didn’t feel under any further obligation towards his “friend”. Gauguin later exaggerated Van Gogh’s propensity to violence in an attempt to excuse his own cold-heartedness. He also claimed that Van Gogh had made an implicit death threat by referring to a newspaper story about a murder.

After leaving Arles, Gauguin imposed himself on the Schuffenecker family, arriving at their Paris home in time for Christmas 1888. Schuffenecker, also a talented painter, had been a stockbroker acquaintance of Gauguin prior to the crash of 1882.

Gauguin condescendingly referred to Schuffenecker as “le bon Schuff”. However, Schuffenecker was a decent man. He had continued to maintain his wife and family by earning a reasonable living as a drawing master. Gauguin, who had abandoned his own family, despised Schuffenecker and developed a close relationship with his wife.

In “Schuffenecker Family (1889)” Gauguin places Madame Schuffenecker in the foreground with her children by her side. Schuffenecker stands isolated in the background, next to an easel, wringing his hands in a timid pose.

Gauguin uses harshly contrasting colours, heavily outlining the dominant figure of Madame Schuffenecker, which looms so large in the foreground that it has to be cropped in order to fit the frame. By contrast, Schuffenecker, like Van Gogh in “Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers”, is drawn at an awkward angle and made to look even smaller by the deliberately inaccurate perspective.

Instead of the horizontal strips of colour which he used for the background of "Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers", Gauguin inserts a wall on which two pictures hang: a Japanese print and a still life with a rat’s tail next to a bowl of fruit. By doing so he markedly fails to make any reference to Schuffenecker’s own artistic accomplishments, a compliment which he paid to Van Gogh. He also inserts an open window whose vertical bars accentuate Madame Schuffenecker’s stiff pose. Everything outside is cloudy save where an unnatural break in the weather reveals a sunny neighbour's house.

Gauguin may have been attracted to Madame Schuffenecker, but it is unlikely that he would have considered any serious committment. Indeed, the most striking aspect of Gauguin's character is his total dedication to his art.

Image Source: the Yorck Project

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