This large sheet – the latest of Paul Gauguin’s (1848–1903) drawings in the collection of the Van Gogh Museum – contains three portrait studies of one or more boys. Gauguin drew these in the autumn of 1888, when he was staying with Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) in Arles. Although Jo van Gogh-Bonger did not question the authorship of this sheet, it was not always attributed to Gauguin in the decades when it was on loan to the Stedelijk Museum. In the 1950s and 1960s, this sheet was catalogued at various exhibitions as the work of an unknown artist or by the hand of Emile Bernard (1868–1941). In 1970, however, Mark Roskill reattributed the work to Gauguin, and since then his authorship has not been doubted.
Angular lines and hatching
It is primarily the style of drawing seen in the middle boy that points to the hand of Gauguin. The considerable emphasis on the contour lines of the face and clothing, as well as the thickness and angularity of these lines, can be seen in many of the studies of Breton women that Gauguin made in 1886 and 1888, and also in the large portrait studies of Martinican women that he drew in 1887. The spare, subtle rendering of shadow, for example, corresponds to that seen in the drawn portrait of Marie Ginoux , which Gauguin made in Arles. The hatching that Gauguin applied to lend texture to the boy’s cap displays a style that he used earlier in his Breton drawings, one being Seated Breton Woman . The area coloured in with chalk, which serves as a backdrop to the drawn model, is a means previously used by Gauguin to enhance a sheet. Here he let the blue of the background run into the boy’s cap.
The boy in the middle is Camille Roulin, the eleven-year-old son of Joseph Roulin, an Arles postman and good friend of Vincent van Gogh. In late November and early December 1888, Van Gogh made an extensive series of portraits of the Roulins in which he painted each member of the family. Sometime in the first half of December 1888, therefore, Camille, wearing a buttoned cardigan and a beret, came to the Yellow House to have his portrait painted by Van Gogh . These two items of clothing also occur in the drawn portrait by Gauguin; the cap is even the same colour as in Van Gogh’s painting. A minor difference is that Gauguin made the cardigan striped, whereas Van Gogh painted it a more or less uniform green, flecked with yellow. For the rest, the small chin, the almond-shaped eyes and especially the big ears are much the same in both works . On the basis of these characteristic features, two studies in Gauguin’s sketchbook can also be identified as portraits of Camille Roulin ( and ).
It is unclear whether the studies at left and right also portray Camille Roulin. Given the sheet’s function, it stands to reason that Gauguin would have used it at a single session to make a number of sketches of the same model, varying the medium, the degree of finish and the facial expressions. In that case all three heads would portray Camille. Yet the boy in the middle seems older than the other two. The chubbier cheeks and the short, flat nose of the boy at right are indicative of a very young child, perhaps even a toddler. One hypothesis is that the portraits at the sides represent a son and/or grandson of Van Gogh’s charwoman, whom he described as having ‘a mixed bunch of kids’. She may well have brought any or all of them along when she came to clean the Yellow House.
Even so, it is more likely that the two leftmost portraits were drawn during the same session. Gauguin used blue chalk to apply a backdrop to both heads, thus combining them into one work, belonging to one point in time. As mentioned earlier, he let the blue chalk run into the cap of the middle model. The hatching on the cap was applied after the blue chalk background. Despite the differing facial features, both sketches are probably likenesses of Camille, produced in a single session and bound by the blue zone behind them.
The small portrait at right could have originated during this same session or at some other time, since it was customary for Gauguin to draw on the still blank areas of previously used sheets. A comparison of this drawing with the portrait studies of Camille in Gauguin’s sketchbook (see and ), which were done in the same rapid manner, reveals striking differences in the facial features. It is therefore likely that this depicts another child and not Camille Roulin.
The leftmost portrait differs in that its contours are accentuated with brown chalk instead of the black chalk seen in the other drawings, although the first exploratory lines in this drawing were in fact laid in with thin black chalk. The clothing of this boy was drawn with greasy yellow chalk, which was also used for the nose of the middle boy. In his cap, too, some yellow is visible between the blue, just as it is in the cap in Van Gogh’s painting.
Portraiture without passion
This situation, with Gauguin drawing the model while Van Gogh painted him, recalls a previous portrait session in Arles, during which Van Gogh and Gauguin both immortalized Marie Ginoux. Then, too, Gauguin took up chalk and paper (see fig. 1), whereas Van Gogh chose oils and canvas to paint L’Arlésienne (1888, Musée d’Orsay, Paris). However, Gauguin’s portrait study of Marie Ginoux differs in one important respect from Study Sheet with Portraits of Camille Roulin, since he actually used that drawing as the basis of a painting: Café at Arles (1888, Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow).
In general, Gauguin appears not to have fully shared Van Gogh’s enthusiasm for portraiture. The half-hearted, unfinished Portrait of Joseph-Michel Ginoux also betrays Gauguin’s disinterest. Only when portraying Camille’s mother, Augustine Roulin, did he work with complete concentration, which resulted in Madame Roulin (1888, Saint Louis Art Museum).
When Gauguin left Arles, he did not take the present sheet with him, and he also left behind his portrait of Marie Ginoux (L’Arlésienne), Portrait of Joseph-Michel Ginoux and Study of a Woman Seen from the Back. This is odd, considering Gauguin often took his works to his next destination, where they might prove useful in a new composition. Yet several weeks after his departure on 25 December 1888, Gauguin told Van Gogh in a letter that he would not be needing the studies he had left in Arles. This work, and indeed the other studies he left behind, therefore ended up in the collection of Vincent and Theo van Gogh.
Joost van der Hoeven