58. Around the buvette
Theo van Gogh to his brother Vincent, Paris, February 9, 1890:
De Haan sent me a painting to dispatch to his brother. One can see that he’s trying very hard, it’s pink and orange onions, green apples and an earthenware pot. It’s very carefully studied as regards values and influence of tones, one on another. I’d like to see a little more casualness in it, but it’s very carefully studied and kept in quite a bright range of colors.
Gauguin and de Haan painted different versions of the same still life: the same earthenware pot, the same apples and onions and loaf of crusty bread, with the same stubby carrot, all arranged on a rumpled dishtowel. Gauguin added a fragment of a Japanese wood cut print on the edge but, otherwise, the paintings use the same props.
Meijer de Haan, Still life with pot, onions, bread, and green apples, oil on canvas, 1889-90. Musée de Pont-Aven.
Paul Gauguin, Still life with onions, 1889-90, oil on canvas, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek.
If we set the paintings next to each other, we can almost see where the two men sat to sketch. Gauguin was to de Haan’s left, so that he saw the side of the pot, the top of the loaf of bread, and the edge of the woodcut. De Haan faced the pot and saw both of its handles and the cut side of the bread. They likely made drawings and sketches before they ever put brush to canvas. Canvas and oil paint were expensive, and they would have wanted to know how the pieces fit together before they uncapped their paint tubes. We can imagine them working side by side while storms battered the coast. Gauguin wrote to Schuffenecker in October 1889:
I am on the coast in a big house with a view of the sea just below. The storms are amazing, and I am working with a Dutchman who is my student and a really good fellow. I think I’ll probably only come to Paris for a month or so this winter, maybe longer if I sell something. I want to be able to afford a trip to Holland to see some Rembrandts up close.
Apparently Schuff didn’t know de Haan, and Gauguin didn't bother to introduce him by name. But de Haan has been talking to him about Rembrandt and Gauguin is curious. Maybe the two are planning a trip together: de Haan would bring Gauguin to meet his family, see his studio, see his world. It’s the sort of conversation that you might have while the rain and wind rattle the windows and you try to capture the line of an onion, the shape of a linen cloth. Conversation that stops and starts.
Marie Henry would have had to track down the earthenware pot and kitchen towel, not to mention the food, next time she needed them, venturing either to the artists’ makeshift studio across the way in the Villa Maudit or searching high and low in the buvette to see where Gauguin and de Haan had set themselves up that day. The pot is not that different from the one in my kitchen that, on this winter day, holds soup made from some of the same ingredients that the painters had swiped from the buvette’s pantry. The paintings capture moments in each artist’s development. But they also capture a specific domestic moment, and it’s a domestic moment that reveals women’s labor. Someone baked the bread and picked the apples. Someone dug the onions and cured them; someone pulled up the carrot and left the ferny top attached. The kitchen towel was one of a set of a dozen or more that Marie Henry and whoever worked for her used to clean the bar and dry dishes, that they bunched up to protect their hands while lifting something hot, maybe this very pot, off the stove. Artists don’t travel around with props like earthenware casseroles and kitchen towels. These were objects that belonged to Marie Henry.
That they turn up here tells us something about the way that daily life unfolded at the Buvette de la Plage in the autumn and early winter of 1889-90. Borrowing pots and pans to paint and sketch implies familiarity. It implies friendliness. The surviving still lifes from these months suggest that the artists spent a lot of time in or around Marie Henry’s kitchen: we see her blue pitcher, pewter pot, kitchen baskets. Her dimpled glasses. Her larder: beets, carrots, potatoes, garlic, shallots, even a ham. (Did Meijer de Haan paint the ham and eat it, too? How many observant Jewish artists painted traife?)
Meijer de Haan, Still life with ham, about 1889, oil on canvas, Norton-Simon Museum
Paul Gauguin, The Ham, about 1889, oil on canvas, Phillips Collection
These paintings are scattered now from Los Angeles to Copenhagen, Paris to Pont-Aven. If we could magically gather them together in one room, their presence could conjure up a sense of how the buvette smelled and sounded and tasted in those months. Cooking sounds from the kitchen, soups and stews bubbling on the stove. The artists coming in and out, letting the wind and rain in as they went between the inn and their studio in the villa across the street. During big storms, they didn’t bother to go out, just took over the café tables in Marie Henry’s bar. They document more than the artists’ development. They document a specific household made up of Paul Gauguin, Meijer de Haan, and Marie Henry. Other artists came in and out—Charles Filiger, Paul Sérusier, perhaps Louis Roy. Marie Henry’s daughter Léa, nicknamed Mimi, was part of the scene, an infant whose growth marked time’s passing. The artists painted her, too: reaching for a piece of fruit, playing with a cat.
Meijer de Haan, Still life with profile of Mimi, 1889, oil on canvas, Van Gogh Museum
Paul Gauguin, Mimi and her cat, gouache on board, 1889, private collection
Theo van Gogh never sent de Haan’s still life to his brother. It found its way back to Le Pouldu and was not sold for another 70 years. Gauguin’s matching painting sold for the first time in 1923, in the same April 14 auction as Flowers and Fruit. That day, the art dealer Alphonse Allard bought it for 6,600 francs. He sold it to Goupil and Son’s London gallery. The Danish museum director Helge Jacobsen bought the canvas in London and donated it to Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, in Copenhagen, in 1927.
Gauguin’s Still life with onions and Japanese Woodcut is still at the Glyptotek. Before it came to Copenhagen, someone wrote a note on the back of the canvas: “Collection Roy / Gauguin.” But who? And when? Did Louis Roy visit the buvette and come away with a few paintings? Finding an answer to those questions can bring us closer to an answer to the question of who painted, and when, Flowers and Fruit.