18. Summer 1886
Clovis Gauguin was seven years old the summer that his father discovered Brittany.
Born in Paris in 1879, he was the third child of Paul and Mette Gauguin. The month that Clovis was born, Paul Gauguin participated in the fourth Impressionist Exhibition, exhibiting a statuette of his eldest son, Emil. The Gauguin family spent much of Clovis' first summer with the Pissarro family at their home in Pontoise, just northwest of Paris. The baby would have been passed between his mother and Julie Pissarro, herself the mother of a flock of children. Summer afternoons while the fathers went off to paint in the fields, sometimes
accompanied by Paul Cézanne, mothers and children would sit in the garden. The men may have been giving birth to a new kind of painting but the women were busy with their more tangible offspring. Gauguin, that summer, was the learning alongside Pissarro--and also had enough funds to buy works from the older artist. He was working as a stockbroker and making a good living; he could afford to hire a carriage to take him to the Bourse, the stock exchange, and wait until his workday was over to carry him home again. The family of five--six in 1881, with the birth of another son--lived comfortably on his earnings, and Paul, in his early thirties, had enough left over to buy and sell the work of his Impressionist painter friends. And there were endless Sunday afternoons to experiment with his own paintings.
That all changed in 1882. The market crashed in Paris; Gauguin lost his job. With four children under 10, he decided to become a full-time painter. Finances got bad and then finances got worse. In 1883 another child came. In 1884 the family moved to Rouen, where they could live more cheaply. Towards the end of 1884, they did what families often do to retrench: they moved home, to Mette's home, Copenhagen. There Mette could get more help with the children and perhaps her family's connections would bring Paul painting commissions--or at least bring him to his senses.
Neither was the case, and in the summer of 1885 Paul Gauguin went back to Paris. He brought with him six year old Clovis, whom he deposited for safekeeping with his sister Marie. Marie Gauguin was a year older than Paul and comfortably married with two young children of her own. Clovis stayed with his aunt and cousins through the summer and then, in October 1885, Marie passed him back to his father. Paul had made no headway, no sales of his own work and few sales from his collection of Impressionist works. By the winter, father and son were living in a flat with a few sticks of rented furniture. "Clovis doesn't have any woollen vests,"Paul wrote to Mette, "apart from that he's fine...it's been very difficult these last few days to find anything for us to eat--[Clovis] is very sweet and plays all alone in his little corner without tormenting me; he sometimes asks where mother is and when she'll be coming?"
Christmas 1885 brought smallpox for Clovis. His father took work pasting advertisements on walls for 5 francs a day.
In February Gauguin reported to Mette that the boy, now stronger, "is heroic; in the evening when we sit down to a piece of bread and sausage he doesn't think about the appetite he used to have, he doesn't say a word, doesn't even ask to play and goes off to bed...in heart and mind, he's an adult now."
The adult would turn seven in May. His father--38--was already thinking of going off to paint in Brittany, "where it's possible to work living in a boarding house for 60 francs a month." Paul, with his sister's help and her funds, found a boarding school, a pensionnat, for Clovis in the village of Antony-et-Berny. Early on a summer morning in 1886, Gauguin packed his son's few things and together they crossed Paris to the Gare d'Orsay, where they boarded the train that would take Clovis to his new life.
Antony-et-Berny, a village of 1800 souls, was seven miles south of Paris. It had a post and telegraph office; a maker of church candles; two cafés; two public day schools (one for boys, one for girls); a town hall; four grocers; one cheese shop; and a wholesale wine dealer. Gauguin père et fils were bound that morning for the Pensionnat Lennuier at 4, rue de la Mairie. It had been in business at least since the 1860s, when Stanislaus Lennuier served on the town council in addition to running the boarding school. By 1886 his son Albert had taken over the school. Paul and Clovis got off the train and walked past the public park, then turned left on the rue de la Mairie. They knocked at number 4. A maid showed them into the headmaster's office. Gauguin and Lennuier were both in their mid-thirties; they would have sized each other up, Lennuier making his regular welcome speech, explaining the rules of the house to the child, explaining the expectations from parents, to the man. Then Gauguin would have handed over the first month's fees along with a caution, a safety deposit. Opening the large ledger that sat on the corner of his desk, Lennuier would have entered Clovis' name and age, the amount of the deposit, and an address where père Gauguin might be found. A maid or nurse would have taken Clovis away, and Lennuier would have seen Gauguin out. They shook hands at the front door. Gauguin returned to the station and Paris. Clovis, if he were in the garden behind 4, rue de la Mairie, could have seen the steam from of his father's train, heard it as it chugged away.
Clovis had never lived in a small town. Born in Paris, he had lived there, in Rouen, and in Copenhagen. He had never lived near fields, never known streets without gas lights. In about twelve months, he had left his mother and siblings behind, spent a few months with an aunt and cousins whom he hardly knew, lived in a series of cold- and colder-water flats with his father, and survived smallpox, with who knows what kind of scarring. Now he was living with strangers. On July 5, Lennuier's older sister Amélie died. Clovis had been there for barely six weeks. The body was laid out in the front room of the house, with mourners taking turns sitting by the casket. Amélie had lived almost her entire life in Antony; the scent of flowers sent by neighbors hung heavy in the hallways. We can hope that there was someone around who noticed Clovis, who made sure he had something to eat. Maybe there was a dog or a cat to keep him company; if we are extravagant in our hope, we can imagine that some adult or older child took Clovis to spend the day of the funeral exploring the town and the fields and gardens. But we don't know. The Lennuiers could just as well have been latter-day Thenardiers.
Ten days later, on July 16, Paul Gauguin boarded a train for Pont-Aven, where he would spend the next three months painting and beginning to build a community of artists around his vision. He did not return to Antony before he left. He was already in arrears on Clovis' fees. Visiting was too risky, because it would give the Lennuiers an opportunity to hand the boy over to his father. And the artist had learned that having his son underfoot slowed his work.
We know this much because, in the fine print of the 2002 Catalogue raisonné for Gauguin, there's a mention of the Lennuier School in Antony. The editors note that on the evening of July 16, Gauguin left for Brittany, "leaving Clovis without holidays at the Lennuier School at Antony." Sources on Gauguin during these years often mention his family and then dive off in other directions that lead towards the artist's development. I knew that Gauguin brought Clovis, "his favorite son," back to France with him in 1885. But it took afternoons of reading between the lines and combing indexes before I found out what he did with the little boy when they got to Paris. The "Lennuier School" mentioned in the 2002 Catalogue led me to Antony, and that led me to the departmental archives of the Hauts-de-Seine. There I found, in the 1886 register of death certificates, that Amélie Lennuier had died and that her schoolmaster brother had been present. A check of the Didot-Bottin Almanach brought up the Pensionnat Lennuier.
Before we join Gauguin at a table in front of the Pension Gloanec in Pont-Aven to debate aesthetics over a bolée of hard Breton cider, noting the choices he made that brought him there can make him more human. Often great artists are given a pass in our history on the ordinary human obligations. Maybe that's because of who wrote the history, and what they needed it to tell them. Gauguin's Pont-Aven works earned him--eventually--a place in the pantheon of French artists. His innovations changed the way that following generations painted. And: Gauguin consigned his seven year old son to strangers. He spent the summer painting by the sea. His child spent the summer in a house in mourning over 300 miles away.
In 1900, Clovis Gauguin died in Copenhagen of blood poisoning following an operation. Paul Gauguin died in 1903 in the Marquesas, on the far side of the world. Father and son had not seen each other in nine years. The Breton paintings that made him famous did not appear on public exhibition until 1919.