Although Paul Gauguin is most famous for the work he produced while inspired by the tropical islands of Tahiti and their people, much of his best earlier work was created in Brittany, while he stayed in an artists’ colony in Pont-Aven. There, where he first stayed in 1886 and to where he would often return, the artist can be said to have genuinely developed what would become known as Cloisonnism, which would later evolve into the Synthetist style.
Among the most important examples of the developing Cloisonnism is undoubtedly Le Christ jaune, this oil on canvas which is now part of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery Collection. Finished in 1889, the painting has had quite a troubled history, having been purchased by one Paul Rosenberg in Paris in 1925, confiscated by the German Army as they occupied the city in 1940, spending time first in the German Embassy then in the Louvre, only to be returned to Mr. Rosenberg after the end of the war and promptly sold to their current owners. Indeed an object with a rich history intertwined with the history of Europe.
Aesthetically, the piece is considered the apogee of the path between Cloisonnism and Synthetism. With its intense colors, flat prolonged planes, and thick irregular outlines, the yellow Christ is almost a portrayal of Gauguin’s departure from the style of his peers, exchanging the divided brush strokes of Impressionism for a style that reflected reality as the artist remembered it, as it showed itself in the artist’s mind. As such, it is a painting teeming with contrasts which go beyond the use of intense colors.
Take, for example, the difference in brushwork between the yellow Christ and the peasant women surrounding him. While the women are rendered in a somewhat traditional yet straightforward way, having even some semblance of shadows and depth of field, the yellow Christ is portrayed in extremely simplified forms, contrasting with its environment, almost as if it were less real than the women or the landscape. The reason for Gauguin’s portrayal might be that he based the yellow Christ on the crucifix present in the Pont-Aven church, which was made of unpainted wood.
It is a painting of great historical relevance, not only for its turbulent past in the hands of the Reich but also because it marks the development of a style that would change the art world for years to come.
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