Updated: Dec 12, 2020
Gauguin left Pont-Aven for Paris in mid-October 1886; in some lost or undigitized exchange of letters, he had managed to get Schuffenecker to find him a cheap place to live. Cheap it must have been: Gauguin's "insalubrious flat" was above a sellier's, a saddle-maker's workshop at 257 rue Lacourbe in Paris' 15th arrondissement. Six days a week, Poutos and his workers cut and stitched and molded leather for saddles. It was smelly and loud. Across the street, at no. 258, Mégret kept his lumber yard: horses and carts back and forth all day, men loading and unloading boards, the smell of sawdust blending with horses and horse leather. And a few blocks away was a factory that built Otto engines, precursors to combustion engines. It was a working-class street deep on the Left Bank.
Annuaire-almanach du commerce, de l'industrie, de la magistrature et de l'administration : ou almanach des 500.000 adresses de Paris, des départements et des pays étrangers : Firmin Didot et Bottin réunis, 1886, p. 112.
The apartment was a far cry from the fresh air and open fields near Pont-Aven, and although it may have been geographically close, it was even farther in spirit from Gauguin's former Paris dwellings. In 1880, he and his wife Mette had leased a comfortable house at 8, rue Carcel. It had a large studio and plenty of living space for the growing family.
They moved into the house in October 1880; Paul and Mette's fourth child, Jean-René, was born in the house the following April. Gauguin painted his children in the garden of the house that summer. Clovis plays with a ball on the ground; his sister Alice watches over the baby in his elaborate pram; their mother, or perhaps a maid, crosses her ankles as she sits over her sewing. Flowers are blooming, and the neighboring church of Saint-Lambert peeps over the wall. Gauguin could have walked over to the rue Carcel from the rue Lecourbe in that late autumn of 1886: not even ten minutes' walk, but another world. From factories and workshops to gardens and fresh air. If he walked over, he may have stopped in to say hello to some of the tradesmen whose bills he had likely been late in paying when the family lived there. The butcher, the baker, the grocer. Or he might have crossed the street, lest the shopkeepers remember another debt. Gauguin's life had changed in the years since the family had lived in the house: separated from Mette, with Clovis stashed in a boarding school and the other children with their mother and her family in Copenhagen, Gauguin was on his own. No longer a bourgeois stockbroker and Sunday afternoon painter, he was a full-time painter in threadbare bourgeois dress. No longer living in a commodious house, but in a damp flat over a noisy tradesman.
Gauguin went to visit his sister Marie when he had unpacked and done what settling in he could. Marie and her family lived on the other side of Paris. Their apartment at 50, Boulevard de Courcelles, was in a grand Hausmannian apartment building just across the boulevard from the entrance to the Parc Monceau: it must have smelled like money. Marie's husband Juan Uribe, who was Chilean, had an import/export business with interests in South America. His business was successful enough. Marie took her younger brother to task, "claiming that for eight years [...he] hadn't done a stroke of work except on his painting." She had not been visiting Clovis; she had her own children and her own affairs to look after, and didn't have time to go all the way out to Antony to see her nephew when his own parents couldn't be bothered. Whether Gauguin went to visit his son that fall we don't know.
We do know that he had advised Schuff that he wanted to rent a flat near Ernest Chaplet's ceramics studio on the rue Blomet. Chaplet was an accomplished ceramicist--he had worked at Sèvres--and was experimenting with art pottery. Gauguin had become interested in making pottery before he went to Pont-Aven and pursued it in earnest with Chaplet that fall in Paris. He paid for his lessons and studio time, at least occasionally, in paintings: an 1881 still life formed part of the collection that Chaplet donated to the musées nationaux in 1910. It was the first work by Gauguin to enter the national collection.
One of the only paintings that survives from the winter of 1886-87 is a still life that features a pot that the student-ceramicist made--as well as apples and a winter squash, arranged Cézanne-like on a cloth on a table. The background is patterned wallpaper, or perhaps a screen, and peering in from the side is the profile of young bespectacled Charles Laval. Laval had returned from Pont-Aven as well, and may at some point have shared the flat on the rue Lecourbe; we know that Gauguin suggested it later that winter.
So Gauguin passed his time experimenting with clay at the ceramics studio, painting and sketching in his dingy studio, and catching up with artist friends like Degas and Guillaumin. He quarreled with his old friend Pissarro on the direction that the Impressionism was taking, and spent three weeks in the hospital with angina. Clovis came to stay with him for a few weeks around the holidays, after Gauguin sold a painting by Jongkind he had bought a few years earlier to pay the school fees. But the winter dragged on, grey damp day following grey damp day. The heat of the kiln in the ceramics studio, the chill of the flat; the smell of the sawdust, the constant noise of the street. In February Gauguin wrote to Mette: "Time goes by with so little change in adversity that you see yourself sinking into the slough, you grow inert and all but cease to feel..."
Meanwhile, across the Seine and up the hill in Montmartre, Emile Bernard was getting to know Vincent Van Gogh. They bumped into each other at a shop where both bought paints: Tanguy's, at 14, rue Clauzel. Julien-François Tanguy, old enough to be nicknamed Papa, or Père, was popular with young artists because he would sometimes take paintings as payment for art supplies. The connection between Emile and Vincent would precipitate other connections--and lead to a set of twin paintings that will play a key role in our story.
But before we reach that chapter, we have to pack Gauguin up and put him on a ship bound for Panama. Juan Uribe, Marie Gauguin's husband, had gone to Panama to open a mercantile store. The grand apartment on the boulevard de Courcelles turned out to mask a struggling business. Uribe was out of money. The Panama Canal was under construction; the French Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique was predicting profits for anyone who invested. Money would shortly rain from the tropical skies. Gauguin had had enough of Paris, enough of the rain and cold. He had had enough of his damp flat and the smell of leather, of the fine film of sawdust that covered everything. Gauguin regaled Laval on the glories of living simply, away from toxic civilization. He painted pictures in words as they sat over their rough red wine in the drafty room smelling of oil paints, of a new life in an unspoiled place where it was never cold and mangoes fell from the trees.
In March 1886 Gauguin wrote to Mette in Copenhagen and asked her to come collect their son. Gauguin couldn't pay the school bill; maybe Mette could, or maybe her family would help. He, himself, was leaving the country in search of artistic freedom and success. Mette came to Paris the first week of April. The couple met, fought, and separated. Mette recruited Schuffenecker, ever the enabler, to go with her to Antony to collect the son she had not seen in nearly two years. They would not see Gauguin again until 1891.
Laval, meanwhile, was packing and saying his farewells. On April 9, the two painters left Paris. The next day they boarded the ship Canada, bound for Colón and the isthmus of Panama.