Bonjour Monsieur Gauguin
oil on canvas glued onto wood
Hammer Museum, Los Angeles,
The Armand Hammer Collection,
Gift of the Armand Hammer Foundation
Gauguin presents himself as a wandering artist who encounters a peasant woman. He had spent the last several years moving about: since 1885 he had lived in Copenhagen (his wife, Mette, was Danish), Paris, Brittany, Panama, Martinique, and Arles. In Arles he stayed with Vincent van Gogh, and together they visited Montpellier, where they saw Gustave Courbet's painting Bonjour Monsieur Courbet (1854), the inspiration for the title and subject of this painting.
Outspoken, charismatic, and ferociously egotistical, Gauguin enlisted all of his talents in the careful construction of a potent self-mythology. Often spun from a kernel of truth, Gauguin's tales about himself were marked by exaggeration and fabrication. His numerous self-portraits were part of an effort to craft a public image, as well as a means of understanding himself and his role in the world.
Central to Gauguin's mythology was his identification as a "savage," understood by him to mean wild, free, and primitive. He claimed to be of Inca descent, saying, "You know I have Indian blood, Inca blood in me, and it's reflected in everything I do....I try to confront rotten civilization with something more natural, based on savagery." Gauguin did spend his early childhood in Peru, where his great-uncle was the Spanish viceroy. But his claim of ancestral ties to the native population held no truth, revealing more about his personality than his biography.
In his self-portraits, Gauguin presented himself as both a prophet and a martyr. In one painting, he is Lucifer, the fallen angel; in another he is Christ, the outsider suffering on behalf of humanity. He saw himself on the margins of society, a wanderer, outlaw, and observer, a heroic artist seeking deeper truths.