Gauguin portraits at the National Gallery – a fabulous show which assembles sensitive self-portraits and psychological impressions of sitters – offers a fascinating chronology of the artist’s work.

I really enjoyed this show of Gauguin‘s portraits at the National Gallery.  Self-obsessed, self-promoting, self-centred…. yes, Gauguin was all those things and, as we were told by the show’s excellent curators, Cornelia Homburg and Christopher Riopelle, once he accepted he was an artist everything and everyone else in his life took second place.

Gauguin started off conventionally enough – he was a great admirer of the Impressionist painters whom he got to know in Paris and, when he made money as a stockbroker, he was quite their patron.  But he ached to be an artist too and spent all his spare time making art and was tutored by Pissarro.  Some of the early paintings in the show demonstrate his absorption of Impressionism but it wasn’t long before he started pushing away from those conventions and entering a new arena of style which was entirely his own.

What strikes me about the majority of the paintings in the show is that he tended to use pure colour rather than mix pigment with white. He painted relatively thinly onto coarse canvas and used strong outlines to define features. He liked strong hues, untempered by much mixing.

For Gauguin, painting a self-portrait seems not just to have been an exercise or a form of ‘limbering up’. He uses his portraits to express his own feelings about art. It’s so interesting to look at a portrait, stare into the subject’s eyes and have the sense that you are really ‘seeing’ what the artist saw and how he or she has endeavoured to control what the viewer should see.

There are some utterly beautiful works on display.  His fascination with Canary Yellow is clear to see in so many of the portraits which zing with clear colour, heat and the sense of the sitter.

It’s wonderful to see so many other artworks which he created – wood carving, ceramics and stone.  Some of these objects have been placed next to paintings which feature them.

The bust of fellow artist Meijer de Haan is astonishing.

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We also learned more about his relationships with fellow artists – famously his rift with Van Gogh.  I was intrigued to see a drawing which he made of Madame Ginoux (who ran the cafe the artists frequented in Arles) and gave it to Van Gogh who used it as reference for his own paintings. Quite a gift.

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Later in life, when Gauguin was living in Tahiti, he became nostalgic for the time he spent with his Van Gogh in Arles and sent for sunflower seeds to plant. The flowers grew well and, according to the curators, this still life of sunflowers is a ‘surrogate’ portrait of his old confederate.

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There is much to enjoy in this show which has been really well thought through and beautifully curated.

Gauguin died in 1903 at the age of 55. This is his last self-portrait.  I think it says it all.

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Gauguin portraits at The National Gallery, Sainsbury Wing. 7th October until 26th January 2020.

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