A-Level: Paul Gauguin, Nevermore

Paul Gauguin, Nevermore, 1897, oil on canvas (Courtauld Gallery, London)

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Rachel Ropeik: [0:01] We’re standing here in the Courtauld Galleries in front of Paul Gauguin’s “Nevermore,” from 1897.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:11] This is one of the paintings that really lives up to our expectations of Gauguin. The classic story that he goes off to Tahiti and this was painted during his second trip. He’s got a much more complex relationship with Tahiti than I think is often acknowledged.

Rachel: [0:25] I just love the idea of Gauguin kind of going off to Tahiti with this idea that he would be finding an untouched civilization. People living freely and naturally without what he saw as the the ruining influence of modern society.

[0:39] And he got there and it was much more developed and a tourist center, and that wasn’t at all the case, then he sort of painted it that anyway!

Dr. Zucker: [0:48] That’s true, and yes, he does paint it that way, but at the same time this is in many ways a traditional French painting of a nude. It’s — he’s really creating our expectations of a primitive society. It’s been roughly handled. The colors evoke a sense of a pre-industrial culture. There’s some very radical ways in which he handles paint.

[1:09] At the same time, we have a full-length nude reaching across the canvas up on her hip, which in some ways is not so distinct from the ways that nudes have been handled in the Academy for many years.

Dr. Beth Harris: [1:20] Right, but it’s not a Venus.

Dr. Zucker: [1:21] No.

Rachel: [1:22] I do think there’s something ambiguous about the way the nude is portrayed though, which may have something to do with that. Typically, in your academic nudes, the woman is very much laid out for the viewer’s pleasure. You can look at her. She’s fairly passive. She’s fairly exposed. This woman, certainly with her face, is given a bit more independent presence.

[1:46] She has this sidelong glance, perhaps looking back at the people in the background, whether they’re talking about her or not.

Dr. Harris: [1:54] There’s a way that her right arm comes in front of her chest that suggests a protecting of her body, and the way that her left hand comes up above her face that draws our eye up to her head and her sense of her presence and independence in a way that is different than just the flirtatious, typical nude that would have been in the Academy.

Dr. Zucker: [2:18] It’s true. In those cases, you would not be able to read into her at all. Here, she has clear intention. She’s thinking, and we can see her thinking. We can see her reacting.

Rachel: [2:28] And her head, the contrast with that bright yellow of the pillow right behind her head, too, I think makes that a spot in the whole painting that really draws your attention very strongly. More than perhaps other parts of her body, which are contrasted against other dark areas of paint.

Dr. Zucker: [2:43] There’s an interesting contour and a very, very strong, very dark contour, so much so that her left leg almost seems like an independent unit that’s been placed against her body.

Dr. Harris: [2:55] Look at all those curves of the bed frame or headboard in the back of the furniture that she’s lying on, the curve of her back, the arabesques on the wallpaper. There’s a lot of flattening decorative forms that I think for Gauguin are an effort to remove the figure from an everyday world and place her more in a dreamlike space.

[3:20] Rachel, when you mention the yellow, that very bright yellow, almost citron yellow, that her head is on, it made me think that maybe what we’re seeing is her dream, is her imaginings on this bed. Not that we’re looking at a real scene of a woman on a bed, but a imaginary space.

Dr. Zucker: [3:43] You’ll notice that that yellow shows up only again in the clouds, so I think there’s something to what you’re saying. At her feet, there’s a red that shows up again in the trees in the background, and actually that little bit of a trace of a landscape that we see through the window and through the doorway does feel very much almost like an illustration for a children’s book. It feels very much like a fantasy, like a dream.

Rachel: [4:06] It does have a very dreamlike quality. And I think this bird, this raven, which we assume is connected to the title of the painting, “Nevermore,” from the Edgar Allan Poe poem, that bird is kind of done the same way. There’s a very flattened, decorative, dreamlike quality to the bird as well, almost as though it’s one of the pieces of patterning in the wall decoration in the background.

Dr. Zucker: [4:31] There’s something really psychological here and something very emotive. Something that seems to be getting at a reality that is below the surface that pulls away our expectations and pulls away even what’s visible to us and seems to try to evoke a kind of internal emotional state.

Dr. Harris: [4:49] Exactly. And her emotional state.

[4:51] [music]

Cite this page as: Rachel Ropeik, Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "A-Level: Paul Gauguin, Nevermore," in Smarthistory, July 25, 2017, accessed July 13, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/gauguin-nevermore-2/.