Thursday, March 1, 2007

La Belle Angele (1889)

Gauguin became an enthusiastic member of the symbolist movement while living in Paris. The symbolists were the artistic rebels of their day, challenging conventional beliefs through their dress and behaviour. They naturally attracted attention and thrived on their notoriety. By attaching himself to this movement, Gauguin got himself noticed and received critical acclaim.

A fellow symbolist Albert Aurier, an art journalist for the Mercure de France, stated that Gauguin’s paintings possessed the five principal characteristics required by a work of art since they were ideative, symbolic, synthetic, subjective and decorative. Gauguin felt vindicated. He decided to capitalise on his success by travelling to the French colony of Tahiti. He believed that he could better develop his primitivist style there and win more admirers by despatching exotic canvasses to a fascinated public.

Gauguin was flattered by the praise he received from symbolist writers such as Mallarmé and Verlaine. However, they did not genuinely share his passion for a primitive and visionary style of art. Indeed many symbolists were merely dandies seeking attention. Gauguin later implied that symbolism was an inadequate response to the harshness of life. A few symbolists had promised to accompany Gauguin on his journey of discovery but none actually did.

Shortly before Gauguin departed for Tahiti, he auctioned thirty canvasses and sold all but one. Edgar Degas, the famous impressionist, bought La Belle Angèle. Gauguin’s association with the symbolists had proved extremely profitable. However he was not prepared to compromise his own artistic integrity and by leaving a flourishing career in Paris for the uncertainty of the South Seas, Gauguin demonstrated the sincerity of his own artistic vocation.

In "La Belle Angèle" Gauguin depicts a Breton peasant girl against a decorative background in an unnaturally stiff pose with heavily rouged cheeks and sharp narrow eyes. Her image is juxtaposed with a pagan idol from which she is separated by a heavy circular line.

The painting is a typical Gauguin canvass of the time. He achieves a memorable image by combining two apparently contrasting motifs, thus implying that the respectable peasant girl remains dominated by her primitive instincts.

Image Source: The Yorck Project

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