Friday, January 25, 2008


Paul Gauguin is one of my favorite illustrators.

He was also the ultimate outsider. He fought with authority figures such as police and clergy. He cursed the hypocrisy and commercialism of western civilization. He abandoned his home in France, his religion, his job, even his wife and five children.

Gauguin lived his final years on the tiny South Pacific island of Hua Oa, an island of steamy tropical jungles and volcanoes, of black sand and pink skies, of tiki gods and exotic fruit. Clouds of mist hovered around the cliff from which natives sacrificed virgins to the sea.

It would be hard to imagine a more committed rebel than Gauguin.

And yet...

when he died all alone in his hut under an alien sun, wracked with morphine addiction and the ravages of his lifestyle, they found an unfinished painting on his easel: a conventional winter landscape of a charming French country village.

Illustration is commonly criticized as "lower" art for using obvious, sentimental subject matter to appeal to popular audiences. Norman Rockwell might have been a great artist, we are told, if it weren't for his middle class values. Great art has to rise above such cheap sentimentalism.

No artist ever ran further or faster from middle class values than Gauguin. None ever paid a higher price for his "outsider" status. But as he faced a lonely death, stripped of all pretense and bravado, somewhere close to Gauguin's core was a sentimental image from his youth.


Blogger jim said...

interesting take on Gauguin. I remember my art history 101 teacher summing up him up as a 'bastard' for his lifestyle and leaving it at that. One man's rebel is another woman's bastard I guess.

On the excellent point of gaugin's last painting, and how that relates to Rockwell's body of work, I do think you're on to something. The longing to 'return home' is just as valid artistically when gauguin sneaks in a painting on his deathbed, as when Orson Wells whispers Rosebud on *his* deathbed, as when Rockwell paints a young man returning home from the war. But for some reason poor old Rockwell is tagged as the 'sentimental' one.

Speaking of which, this being an Illustration Blog, it seems odd that Rockwell hasn't really had too many posts to himself yet. I would love to hear you and your readers' thoughts on some aspects of his work some time in the future.

1/28/2008 5:28 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Jim, "Rosebud" is the perfect analogy.

1/29/2008 1:55 AM  
Anonymous az said...

He was a great artist and a stubborn rebel - and he was one of those guys whose conception of paradise essentially included making love to very, very young girls... You may salute him for having been brave enough to make his dreams come true, but, well...
To leave your family behind and go to some nice and cheap third world country where you can live all your fantasies to me seems to be a rather common middle class dream; My heroes are those who don't...

1/29/2008 2:39 PM  
Blogger David Glassey said...

Read A Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham which is a very interesting take on the Gauguin legend.

1/29/2008 2:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with everyone above.

What a great artist, and yet a very sad example of what it means to be human. His work is extremely beautiful, but he's like many modern popular artists or athletes of our day who may do art or athletics or even acting really well while the rest of their life is in shambles.

Gauguin reaped the ultimate harvest from how he lived his life. He died all alone by himself in a lonely little hut -- just as he lived for himself, he died by himself.

I'm hopeful that the painting on his easel at the end of his life maybe reflects something of a change of mind like the Prodigal Son. As the Prodigal sits in the sty feeding the swine, he has an image of home and a desire to turn back to it and all that he has abandoned.

Interestingly, David, you mention the topic of illustration's common criticism being a "lower" art form because it employs obviously sentimental subject matter "to appeal to popular audiences". Perhaps people are drawn to their art (by illustrators, such as Rockwell, Loomis, and the rest) because it holds on to what Gauguin gave up: core healthy human qualities, that being love, commitment and a connection/communion with other beings. We become true human being's by these qualities.

P.S. I really love your web site!


1/29/2008 3:44 PM  
Blogger David Glassey said...

Gauguin was after something that he couldn't find in the European society that he lived in and he was determined to make art in the way that he wanted to, therefore he paid the price of being an outsider. He actually painted himself as Christ in at least one painting I know of, I'm sure that is an insight into his character at the time. I'm not so sure that he could stop going on the path that he was on, his daimon was in possession of him. It's what gives his art it's power.
I'm not sure it's a middle class dream to do what he did, plenty of other artists at the time didn't and they thought he was a nut.

1/30/2008 1:56 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Az, I hope you aren't suggesting that child molestation is a middle class value...

Gauguin was a horrible person in many ways, but he did not take an easy path. He lived in poverty and dared everything for his art. Was it worth it? I suppose that depends on whether you are one of his kids, or someone who is well fed and clothed enjoying Gauguin's paintings in a museum 100 years later.

As I've said in earlier postings, I am intrigued by the selfishness of great artists. Andrew Wyeth took his son for a walk in the woods and lost him when Wyeth decided to stop and paint some light shining through the trees. They found the frantic boy hours later. Wyeth hadn't even noticed him wandering off.

1/30/2008 7:25 PM  
Blogger Robert said...

Just discovered your blog. Good insights.

NY Times had a recent column on why some men do those things. It turns out they may just be jerks!

1/30/2008 8:28 PM  
Anonymous Ed T said...

Great blog, I'm adding you to my blogroll. Gauguin doesn't get enough credit has one of the first artists to truly champion abstraction in their painting. His use of color was and is amazing.

1/31/2008 1:34 AM  
Blogger Philip Pignotti said...

Thank you so much for this blog.
I've just started to go through the many page. I'll be back often!

1/31/2008 4:10 AM  
Anonymous Brian said...

I don't know about the "selfishness" of great artists. I'm sure that there were any number who were not so self-involved. Mucha comes to mind as a good father. Sorolla too.

As far as Gauguin leading an irresponsible life, that's a road a lot of people take. I find it fascinating to note that the popular perception of artists as wackos--as drug using, promiscuous, irresponsible, emotionally unstable, etc.--is never applied in the same manner to other lines of work, like great surgeons, CEO's, athletes, et al.

A double standard for sure.

1/31/2008 11:55 AM  
Anonymous az said...

I guess you aren't intrigued by this kind of hard-nosed egocentrism in general but only in "great artists"... Could you please explain where you see the difference? In the more or less valuable artistic outcome? Like, the well fed and clothed audience sometimes enjoys art even more when it is bought with the suffering not only of the artist himself but also of his family and friends and (underage) lovers?
Really, is it worth it?
Obviously artists have to be self-centered to some extent; There seem to be many ways, though, to prevent others from suffering. Why marry if you know you woun't be able to care for a family? Why not stay away from people entirely, if all you care for is your art?
Wouldn't this be a far more intriguing attitude?
Btw, I wrote "middle class dream". Dreams are the logical antipode of values. No need for values if you don't have dangerous dreams.

1/31/2008 3:01 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Thanks so much, ed and phillip-- it's good to hear from you, and I hope you'll weigh in often.

1/31/2008 6:15 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Brian and az, I don't think there's a simple answer regarding the selfishness of artists. We talked about this in connection with Rockwell Kent a while back.

Sure, artists are not uniquely selfish; lots of people are "hard nosed egocentrics." I guess I would say however that artists are one of the few groups who have even a slim possibility of redeeming themselves for such behavior. If they are selfish because they are protective of some divine talent, and recognize that they will have to limit their time with their spouse and children, or decline to take some better paying job to support their family in order to fully realize that talent... that seems to me to be a more excusable form of selfishness than one who is selfish merely because they are lazy or greedy or lecherous. If Herman Melville was not notoriously dedicated to his craft, we would not have Moby Dick, but his poor mistreated daughter would have been much happier. The same with William Falkner, who was a beast to his daughter.

I do not forgive Gauguin for his despicable behavior, but it does matter to me when an artist is harder on himself than he is on others. I am guessing that if you gave many artists a choice between being a tormented alcoholic or a happy and supportive spouse and parent, many would choose the latter if they could.

1/31/2008 6:33 PM  
Anonymous az said...

But David, do you really believe they can't make this choice, like everybody else? Do you think a "divine talent" is sort of a disease? Maybe we should stop thinking of talented artists as superior to people who are talented in other fields. The whole hocus-pocus about the exceptional position of artists to me seems to be mainly a selling point nowadays, and it sure is a perfect alibi for every miserable litte asshole who can hold a brush to go and whoop it up...

2/01/2008 4:50 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Az, I understand your feelings and share many of them. I'm just saying that, as unattractive as selfishness is, the inquiry doesn't end there for me. I think it matters what you do with your selfishness.

2/02/2008 12:04 AM  
Blogger Noah S-L said...

Do you think this gave his art a realistic sense to it, like it was scarier? I found that when I saw Frida Kahlo

2/02/2008 7:18 AM  
Anonymous Tania said...

Hello dear renegade,

I find it interesting how you can harp on about standards in the arts with such insistency and yet feel intrigued by someone like Gauguin who violated so many art standards of his time, plus about every single moral standard one can think of... Enthralling!! There might be some hope for you :-)
Best wishes, your savage Tania

PS. Actually you DO forgive him, don't you? For having been authentic in a way few dare to be...

2/02/2008 1:32 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Dear Savage Tania, it is easy for me to forgive Gauguin. I am not his wife or his children or his room mate or one of his Polynesian girlfriends. I just get to enjoy his art.

P.S. -- you don't really think I "harp" on anything, do you?

2/02/2008 3:21 PM  
Anonymous tania said...


2/02/2008 3:59 PM  
Anonymous the errant aesthete said...


While I've had your site bookmarked for some time, I've never had the opportunity to take in all the wonder, beauty and creativity it entails. It is truly exceptional and the comments it inspires are thoughtful, articulate and informed.

Unless you have an objection, I will be posting your illustrations and take on Gauguin on my own site within the next few days. I hope you'll look for it.

2/12/2008 3:39 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Errant, I would be flattered.

2/12/2008 5:14 PM  
Blogger Lost In Wonder said...

Thank you for sharing this story about Gaugin. It's a very interesting insight.

2/15/2008 10:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ahhh, glorifying a pedophile. Okay.

2/24/2008 1:23 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, you are certainly welcome here but I think you will find that most of the participants are willing to read a little more carefully and think a little more complexly.

2/24/2008 10:37 AM  
Anonymous mulberry said...

Sorry to come in months later, I've just read your piece for the first time!

Rockwell's art is certainly sentimental, and in my opinion this means that it can never rank as first-rate, however technically clever he may have been.

Sentimentality is by definition cheap, off-the-shelf emotion, and therefore in art it is always a failing not a strength.

But there is a difference between feeling a sentimental emotion and allowing that to spoil your art. And this is the difference between Gauguin and Rockwell.

9/02/2008 9:31 AM  

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