8. 1964: Looking for Louis Roy
Updated: May 26, 2020
Meanwhile, back in Stockton, I began studying the provenance for Flowers and Fruit that the Wildensteins had put together in 1964. I wanted to trace the painting all the way back, as they had, so that I could make an argument for bringing the painting all the way forward. I needed to become the world's only living expert on Flowers and Fruit.
The painting came with a dedication in the lower right corner:
P.G. à l'ami Roy // P.G. to the friend Roy.
And the first owner of the painting was, according to the Wildensteins, le peintre Roy. My expertise would begin with trying to identify who Roy was--beyond being a painter and a friend of Paul Gauguin.
Now, four years later, I can tell you Roy's complete name. I can tell you the regiment his son served in during World War I (he was in the Battle of the Somme; it did not go well). I can tell you about his father-in-law, who committed suicide in Hartford, Connecticut, and about his wife, who copied hand-written musical scores onto copper plates for engraving. I can tell you how much his life insurance policy was for and where he was buried. And I will tell you all of those things, and more. Now, though, I want to take you back to the beginning.
Paul Gauguin painted a portrait of his friend Louis Roy, probably in about 1894. The portrait has been in a private collection for many years; it was exhibited for the first time in the Gauguin Portraits show assembled by the Royal Ontario Museum and the National Gallery London. Here it is:
Take a good look, because he's important to us. Distinctive red hair that is getting a little thin on top. A luxuriant moustache. Somber blue eyes gazing into the middle distance. A prominent nose. Gauguin has placed his sitter in front of a sculpture--I know, it looks like a wadded lump, but it's a sculpture--and an image of a poster from an exhibition (you can perhaps make out the first letters of the word Synthétiste in the upper right corner).
This portrait, long before it went to its current owner, belonged to Louis Roy himself. In about 1900 he sold it--yes, he sold his own portrait--to the statesman Olivier Sainsère who collected art from Pissarro to Matisse, Monet to Picasso.
Here's what the Wildensteins had to say about Louis Roy in the 1964 catalogue entry for his portrait:
The painter Roy participated in the Exhibition organized at the Café Volpini in 1889, under the title "Exhibition of paintings by the Impressionist and Synthetist Group."
The 1964 catalogue told me that Roy had owned several other paintings by Gauguin, besides Flowers and Fruit and this portrait. But it did not tell me any more about the man himself. I now knew what he looked like, but nothing more.
Look for Louis Roy yourself online and you will realize within a few seconds that the French word for king--roi--can also be spelled with a y, and that of the kings of France, 18 were named Louis. And those are just the most famous ones.
(Look for Paul Gauguin, on the other hand, and there he is, large as life.)
I did not train as an art historian, so I did not have a deep well of knowledge of minor artists to draw on. I did, however, have the Internet and access to a major university library. So I set out to learn who Louis Roy was and how he came to know Paul Gauguin and to own--or, maybe, to forge--some of his paintings.