A Gauguin Comes Home to the Norton Simon

Published on Sep 4, 2020

Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903) The Swineherd, 1888; Oil on canvas; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of Lucille Ellis Simon and family in honor of the museum’s twenty-fifth anniversary (M.91.256)

The Norton Simon Museum is enjoying a special loan of one of the late founder’s prized possessions–Paul Gauguin’s The Swineherd. Purchased in 1955, the painting was the seventh work of art to enter Norton Simon’s personal collection, and the most significant one till then. Of course, Simon would go on to amass a world-class collection of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, much of it on display at the museum named after him (although The Swineherd was later gifted to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art).

Born in Paris in 1848, Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin had always been drawn to art. In the 1870s, he followed six years in the merchant marine with working as a stockbroker, while taking studio classes and going to art galleries. He also began hanging out with an art crowd. In 1885 he decided to leave behind bourgeois life–and his wife and four children–in Denmark. He brought his eldest son, Clovis, along with him back to Paris.

Between 1886 and 1890 he paid several visits to Brittany, a province in western France with a rural culture that appealed to artists seeking something they thought fundamental and authentic. The Swineherd depicts a peasant in his cap and simple blue tunic, hand to chin, perhaps deep in thought, as he stands on a hillside tending pigs. In the background are the rooftops and spires of Pont-Aven, and more hills beyond.

“Gauguin painted the picture on his second trip to Pont-Aven,” says Emily Talbot, chief curator at the museum. “It was here that Gauguin developed the visual language that we associate most closely with his work—namely, an expressive use of color and flat, simplified forms.” Indeed, there is a fairy-tale-like quality to the painting’s rich colors and bucolic tone.

“I like Brittany,” Gauguin once wrote to a friend. “Here I find a savage, primitive quality. When my wooden shoes echo on this granite ground, I hear the dull, muted, powerful sound I am looking for in painting.”

The work is on loan through Nov. 9 from the LACMA, which received the painting from Lucille Ellis Simon, the first wife of Norton Simon. The Norton Simon Museum is still closed to visitors due to Covid19, but the painting can be viewed online here.

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