Although Gauguin was an intensely ambitious man who desired material success, he flatly refused to compromise his artistic integrity. Gauguin did not prosper in Tahiti. Indeed he became seriously ill and returned to France in 1893. Although his Paris agent had sold many of the pictures shipped home from Tahiti, Gauguin had difficulty in collecting the money. Fortunately his uncle had left Gauguin a legacy which he promptly invested in a fashionable apartment and a public exhibition of his work.
Gauguin, welcomed as something of a celebrity by his fellow artists, was ridiculed by the critics. They dismissed his paintings as childish and condemned his simplified abstract forms as poorly drawn, sensational and self-indulgent. Gauguin’s art failed to satisfy the public appetite for a distant exotic paradise and his exhibition was a total failure.
It was against this background that Gauguin painted the “Cellist”, a portrait of an unknown musician, Upaupa Sckneklud, who is so similar in appearance to Gauguin that the picture may in fact be a self-portrait. Gauguin captures the alert intensity of an artist in mid-performance and implies a vigorous sense of movement though an ornamental background which emphasises the contrast between the static cello and the musician's tense posture.
In the “Cellist” Gauguin again explores the theory of synaesthesia by attempting to convey the idea of music through visual art. The picture was well received; indeed it was one of Gauguin’s most popular works to date. If Gauguin had stayed in Paris and produced more of the same then he would undoubtedly have prospered.
The “Cellist” is in many ways a typical Gauguin picture. A dominant cropped foreground figure is combined with an abstract background intended to provoke a pyschological reaction. The "Cellist" does not compromise Gauguin's professed artistic principles. It simply substitutes a sophisticated male musician in place of the usual "primitive" Tahitian model.
So why does Gauguin fail to capitalise on this success? It seems that he had a depressive side to his character which even his old "friend" Emile Schuffenecker was unable to understand. Despite having scored a considerable success, Gauguin once again drifts into relative poverty and isolation. Why would such a shrewd man act so foolishly?