Works Collected by Theo and Vincent van Gogh

Study of a Woman Seen from the Back

Paul Gauguin

This drawing served as the example for the large figure in The Pigs or In the Heat of the Day , which Paul Gauguin painted in Arles. Yet it originated in Brittany, in Pont-Aven, in the months before Gauguin accepted Vincent van Gogh’s (1853–1890) invitation to join him in Provence. The woman’s clothing and head-covering clearly refer to a Breton setting.

Paul Gauguin, The Pigs or In the Heat of the Day, 1888, oil on canvas, 73x92 cm, private collection

Paul Gauguin, The Pigs or In the Heat of the Day, 1888, oil on canvas, 73 × 92 cm, private collection

Material and technique

On a large sheet of wove paper, folded in half, Gauguin laid in the contours of the figure’s bare back, turned-down clothing, head-covering and raised arms by sketching these forms thinly in black chalk and then accentuating them with thicker lines. Finally, using gouache, he added volume by applying colour in short, hatched strokes. The medium has discoloured considerably over the years, seen in particular on the model’s back, where nearly all the pigments have lost some of their colour, causing the scene as a whole to appear very faded.

Inspired by Degas

Gauguin seems to have depicted the woman holding out a cloth, which she might be about to hang over a balustrade, as suggested by the decorative motifs at the bottom of the drawing. This is merely a hypothesis, however, given the ambiguity of the woman’s pose. Her right arm is especially puzzling: she seems to be keeping it close to her body, perhaps in order to support her head, which is inclined to the right.

Gauguin probably drew inspiration for this setting from Edgar Degas (1834–1917), whose influence – as regards the depiction of models in a wide variety of poses observed from unconventional viewpoints – is ubiquitous in Gauguin’s oeuvre. In January 1888, during an exhibition at Boussod, Valadon & Cie, he had frequently made sketches after Degas’s paintings of women bathing that were on display. One of these sketches depicts a woman in a pose similar to Study of a Woman Seen from the Back, albeit in reverse . Although it is not known whether this sheet actually served as the example for Gauguin’s study, it does show that he assimilated Degas’s careful consideration of poses and viewpoints when portraying models. Gauguin had long been depicting models seen from the back, which is something Degas often did in his paintings of bathing women . In such compositions as The Mango Trees, Martinique, Breton Shepherdesses (1886, Neue Pinakothek, Munich) and, above all, Two Bathers , the models turn their backs to the viewer in poses à la Degas.

Paul Gauguin, Two Bathers, 1887, oil on canvas, 87.5 × 70 cm, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires

Paul Gauguin, Two Bathers, 1887, oil on canvas, 87.5 × 70 cm, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires

The model Marie Louarn

In Pont-Aven it was not difficult to find models who were willing to take part in artistic experiments. The village had exerted an attraction on artists since the mid-nineteenth century; its ‘painterly’ inhabitants, making a virtue of necessity, were willing to pose in exchange for a reasonable hourly rate. However, according to Henri Delavallée (1862–1943) – a painter in Gauguin’s entourage – there was only one model who would pose in the nude: a girl by the name of Marie Louarn (or Loaurin).

In Sylvie Crussard’s view, it is quite possible that Louarn posed for several sketches and paintings by Gauguin, including a small painted portrait . She is also thought to be the model in Charles Laval’s (1861–1894) Going to the Market, Brittany (1888, Indianapolis Museum of Art). In all of these works, the model is mainly recognizable by her pronounced jaw and mouth. She is also to be seen in Gauguin’s study Model, Frontal View , which is identical in size and technique to the study in the Van Gogh Museum and was undoubtedly made during the same session. Model, Frontal View bears two frontal depictions of the same model, wearing an outfit identical to that seen in Study of a Woman Seen from the Back. It is quite likely, therefore, that Gauguin used Louarn as the model for both works.

Paul Gauguin, Model, Frontal View, 1888, black chalk and charcoal, opaque and transparent watercolour on wove paper, 26.3 × 40.4 cm, Jean Bonna collection, Geneva

Paul Gauguin, Model, Frontal View, 1888, black chalk and charcoal, opaque and transparent watercolour on wove paper, 26.3 × 40.4 cm, Jean Bonna collection, Geneva

Example for the painting The Pigs or In the Heat of the Day

In any case, Gauguin did not use the sketch for a painting in Pont-Aven; he turned to it again only in mid-November 1888, when he was staying with Van Gogh in the Yellow House in Arles and constant rain kept the artists indoors. Gauguin sought to turn this disappointment into an opportunity to paint from memory (peinture de chic), from the imagination (de tête) or from existing drawings.

Gauguin painted Night Café, Arles (1888, Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow), using a portrait drawing he had made in Arles (L’Arlésienne (Mme Ginoux, née Marie Julien, 1848–1911), 1888, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco), and The Wine Harvest: Human Misery (1888, Ordrupgaard, Charlottenlund), the latter reportedly painted completely de tête. Both Van Gogh and Gauguin were very pleased with The Wine Harvest: Human Misery. In the painting several Breton figures appear in a landscape that loosely refers to the autumnal, red-coloured vineyards that they had seen in the vicinity of Arles. Gauguin thus combined a present-day observation with figures from the past.

For the next canvas in his series of imaginary scenes Gauguin sought inspiration in Study of a Woman Seen from the Back. He transferred the figure to the canvas almost literally – apart from adding an outstretched right leg – but he placed her in completely imaginary surroundings consisting of nearly abstract areas of colour. Instead of holding a cloth in front of herself as she does in the sketch, she seems to be resting against a bale of hay. Another bale of hay (more readily identifiable because of the pitchfork) appears in the right foreground. The large areas of yellow represent pigs, recognizable by a hanging ear at lower left and a tail at upper right.

The pigs

In Gauguin’s symbolism, pigs could stand for sexuality. The fact that in this painting he combined two pigs with a semi-nude woman leaves little doubt about the underlying message. Shortly after completing it, Gauguin named this work Les Cochons (The Pigs), which stresses the importance of the pigs in this work and underlines its sexual connotations. Moreover, the scene itself, featuring a woman resting against something, recalls the recumbent woman in The Death of Sardanapalus by Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) , although there the sexual reference is more obvious because the subject is a concubine.

By placing the model in an imaginary world, Gauguin changed the original context of the drawing, which he used only as a starting point for a painting – a working method now customary to him. In similar fashion, he integrated his drawn portrait of Marie Ginoux (L’Arlésienne) (1848–1911), which he had produced in the Yellow House, into the painting Night Café, Arles. Compared to that painting, The Pigs or In the Heat of the Day is a much more ambiguous and abstract work, in which Gauguin toyed with suggestive forms, the distortion of depth and colour combinations.

It was precisely the ambiguity and abstraction of The Pigs that Gauguin found so satisfying. He therefore submitted it to the 1889 exhibition of the Brussels artists’ society Les Vingt. It is interesting to note that for this occasion he changed the title to En plein chaleur (In the Heat of the Day), thus focusing on a different element in the scene and altering the work’s meaning to some extent. This allusion to the heat that caused the woman to shed her clothing and rest against a bale of hay calls to mind Jean-François Millet’s (1814–1875) Vineyard Labourer Resting , the actual subject of which is the man’s utter exhaustion. Viewed from that perspective, the woman’s extremely tanned lower arm and hand become striking signs of outdoor work – a detail that Gauguin had already recorded in the drawing. This shift in emphasis underscores the multiple possible interpretations of the painting and the many points of departure offered by Gauguin’s original drawing.

When Gauguin left Arles on 25 December 1888, he left this sketch behind, together with Study Sheet with Portraits of Camille Roulin, Portrait of Joseph-Michel Ginoux and L’Arlésienne (Mme Ginoux, née Marie Julien, 1848–1911). Remarkably, he took along the study Model, Frontal View, possibly with the intention of using it for a painting – a project that never came to fruition.

Joost van der Hoeven
March 2023


Joost van der Hoeven, ‘Paul Gauguin, Study of a Woman Seen from the Back, 1888’, catalogue entry in Contemporaries of Van Gogh 1: Works Collected by Theo and Vincent, Joost van der Hoeven (ed.), Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum, 2023.

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