• Stephanie Brown

24. The evidence of the feet


Paul Gauguin, Breton Girl Spinning (detail), 1889. Van Gogh Museum.


On Friday December 13, 1889, Gauguin wrote a long catching-up letter to van Gogh. Van Gogh was convalescing in the asylum at Saint-Rémy; Gauguin was in Brittany, staying in the tiny village of Le Pouldu. He described the work that he'd been doing--including "a peasant woman spinning at the sea’s edge, her dog and her cow."


Paul Gauguin, Breton Girl Spinning, 1889. Van Gogh Museum.

And here she is. She's spinning thread by hand, yes, but she's standing at the edge of a bluff overlooking the beach and the sea. Her cow has wandered off in search of sweeter grass, but her terrier pup is sticking close. Then there's the matter of the angel who seems to be descending in a cloud. The painting is also called Joan of Arc, referencing the story of France's patron saint whom archangels visited while she was minding her flocks, telling her to lead an army to expel the English. Maybe those ships are the English fleet; maybe they're local fishermen. It's both Saint Joan and a peasant Everygirl. Gauguin, in describing it to van Gogh, left out the angelic bit and referred to it as a young woman spinning. Did young women customarily bring their spinning out to the bluffs, to multitask while they minded their cow? Hard to say.









But what we can say is that this painting shares elements with other paintings from the same period, and referencing the same period. First, there's the man shouldering the oyster rake.

Paul Gauguin, Breton Girl Spinning (detail), 1889. Van Gogh Museum.












He calls to mind a similar figure in Archie Hartrick's sketch of Gauguin.


A.S. Hartrick, Paul Gauguin at Poulhan, by 1913?,

Courtauld Gallery / Liss Llewwllyn Gallery














And the same oyster man shows up in Gauguin's 1889 Green Christ.









Paul Gauguin,

Calvaire Breton (The Green Christ), 1889,

Musées royaux des beaux-arts de Belgique


Gauguin's oyster man is almost a doodle, a repeated phrase, a piece of scenery. It tells us that these works of art were all made within a few months of each other, all sharing the same vocabulary.


And that brings us to the matter of our Everygirl's feet. Here they are again:

They're curiously sketchy. Her left foot is in profile, her toes quickly outlined. There's a suggestion of ankle, but that's all. Her right foot only looks like a foot because of context. Take the same shape and put it in another place and you'd have a loaf of bread, or a sausage.



Paul Gauguin, Breton Girl Spinning (detail), 1889. Van Gogh Museum.


Compare these inelegantly drawn feet with others:

Jean Hugues, Femme nue de dos..., (detail), about 1900, RF 5 1940, 26

Fonds des dessins et miniatures, collection du musée d'Orsay


Edouard Manet, Femme en costume de bain noir, s'apprêtant à plonger (detail), 1880,

RF 11175, Recto, Fonds des dessins et miniatures, collection du musée d'Orsay



Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Etude pour la toilette (detail), 1859?,

RF 3408, Recto, Fonds des dessins et miniatures, collection du musée d'Orsay



Each was drawn by another, similarly trained, French artist, who was either a contemporary of Gauguin's or in a close generation. And each one reminds us of exactly how rough and shorthand our Breton girl's feet are. Gauguin made a choice. Gauguin is not concerned with showing us the fine shading that would suggest a delicate ankle, the heavier lines that would suggest the distribution of weight, the gentle highlighting that would suggest a source of illumination.


And then we have these feet:

Another inelegant set of lines that only suggest the idea of feet. They have a similar rubbery quality to our Breton girl's feet: almost the feet that you might shape out of putty or play-dough. These particular feet belong to a figure sketched by none other than Louis Roy, and bound in the Schmit album we opened last week:

Louis Roy, Femme nue, debout, levant le bras droit ; bras droit, RF 28849, Recto, Fonds des dessins et miniatures, collection du musée d'Orsay





The sketch makes the same sort of joke that Gauguin's Le roy et la royne makes. We see a naked woman, her hair flowing down her back, as she is reaching up into a tree. A disembodied arm stretches in from the margins. Is the (equally sketchy, rubbery, mitt-like) hand about to caress the woman's bottom, or is the hand reaching out to stop her in mid-reach?




The penciled caption reads: "Tu feras pas ça." That can translate as "you will not do this," but it can also translate as "thou shalt not." When the French God gives his commandments to Moses in Exodus 20, he addresses his prophet as tu, the French familiar form of you. And he uses the future tense of the verb faire: tu feras, you will. Thou shall. Add the colloquial version of the French negative (ne pas becomes, in spoken French, pas). Thou shalt not. And ça is the shortened form of cela, this.


Tu feras pas ça becomes Thou shalt not do this, and our naked woman transforms into Eve picking the fruit of the tree of knowledge. She is a naked Everywoman about to be felt up by a stranger, and she's also Eve being warned against original sin. The dejected king in Gauguin's sketch Le roi et la royne is both a king, and his friend Louis Roy. She is a naked woman, and she is Ev--just as our Breton girl is an Everygirl multi-tasking on the headlands and she is Joan of Arc in the moment before she is called by angels to save France.


Gauguin painted his Breton girl in the fall of 1889. Louis Roy's Eve/nude found its way into an album of sketches from 1889. Both share the same double meaning, the same wry wit. And they share a remarkably similar pair of feet.

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