Paul Gauguin: A Life

David Sweetman, Author Simon & Schuster $34.5 (24p) ISBN 978-0-684-80941-0
Sweetman's brilliantly illuminating biography scrupulously lays to rest any number of myths surrounding Gauguin as it dismantles the conventional image of the bourgeois Parisian stockbroker who abandoned his wife and children in search of a Tahitian paradise. By combing the records of the bourse, Sweetman, biographer of van Gogh and Mary Renault, establishes that Gauguin (1848-1903) was not a stockbroker-he was an accountant, an ``office-bound drudge'' who arranged the paperwork for stock settlements. Far from being a conventional bourgeois, the French painter was raised by his widowed, half-Spanish mother, Aline Chazal, who had been kidnapped and abused by her unstable father and neglected by her mother, Flor Tristan, a socialist revolutionary and one of France's first feminists. Gauguin, who called himself ``the Savage from Peru,'' was taken to Peru when only 18 months old by his parents (his father died on shipboard) and spent the next six years there; his great-uncle was Peru's last viceroy, and Sweetman shows that Gauguin's art synthesized pre-Columbian, Christian and Polynesian myths. Mette-Sophie Gad, Gauguin's mannish, boisterous, gruff, cigar-smoking wife, had separated from the painter before he left for Tahiti in 1891; he mourned the loss of his five children, who, raised in Copenhagen, ``were now little Danes with few traces of any Frenchness left.'' Although Sweetman calls Gauguin a ``syphilitic paedophile'' who took a succession of Polynesian ``child-brides,'' he rejects feminist assessments of the artist as a sexual tourist and colonialist, arguing that Gauguin celebrated and integrated himself into a disappearing culture on the verge of extinction. Illustrated. (Feb.)
Reviewed on: 01/29/1996
Release date: 02/01/1996
Genre: Nonfiction
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