Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin was born in Paris on this date in 1848, to journalist Clovis Gauguin and Alina Maria Chazal, daughter of the proto-socialist leader and feminist Flora Tristan, whose father was part of an influential Peruvian family. In 1850 the family left Paris for Peru, but Clovis died on the voyage, leaving eighteen-month-old Paul, his mother, and sister, to fend for themselves. They lived for four years in Lima with Paul’s uncle and his family. The imagery of Peru would later influence Gauguin in his art. It was in Lima that Gauguin encountered his first art. His mother admired Pre-Columbian pottery, collecting Inca pots that were at the time dismissed as barbaric by artists. Such memories later triggered an interest in Primitivism in his art.
At the age of seven, Gauguin and his family returned to France, moving to Orléans to live with his grandfather. The Gauguins came originally from the area and were market gardeners and greengrocers: gauguin means ‘walnut-grower.’ His father had broken with family tradition to become a journalist in Paris. Although Gauguin learnt French his preferred language remained the Peruvian dialect of Spanish all of his life. Gauguin apparently excelled in school, but hated the boarding school he was sent to, and so left at age seventeen. He worked as a pilot’s assistant for three years in the merchant marine, and then served in the French navy for two. In 1871, Gauguin returned to Paris where he secured a job as a stockbroker. He became a successful Parisian businessman and remained one for eleven years. At this time he began painting, being inspired by his many friends and acquaintances who were painters, most notably Camille Pissarro, who was also his teacher.
In 1873, he married a Danish woman, Mette-Sophie Gad and they had five children. In 1884 the family moved to Copenhagen where Gauguin tried his hand as a tarpaulin salesman. Given that he could not speak Danish and there was not a huge market for French tarpaulins in Denmark, his endeavors failed, and his wife became the breadwinner whilst he took up painting full time. In 1885 he left the family (on his family’s insistence), and moved back to Paris. In 1887 he sailed for Panama where he worked as a laborer on the canal before being laid off after only 15 days. From there he moved to Martinique where he painted tropical scenes he hoped would sell in Paris (they did not).
In 1888 he was back in France where he spent a famously tormented three months with Vincent van Gogh (kudos to anyone who can pronounce his last name correctly — a source of constant irritation to Vincent). Both shared bouts of depression, suicidal tendencies, and an inability to sell their paintings. It was in December of that year that van Gogh, during an illness, threatened Gauguin with a razor and then fled to a brothel where he cut the lower lobe of his ear off and gave it to a prostitute for safe keeping wrapped in his handkerchief (there are multiple versions of this story). Hint: if you are depressed, broke, and suicidal, making art that no one understands, try not to hang out with like people. Gauguin took the hint and left soon after.
In 1891, Gauguin sailed to French Polynesia to escape European civilization and “everything that is artificial and conventional.” He wrote a book there titled Noa Noa describing his experiences in Tahiti (although some modern critics believe it was largely fantasy). He returned to France in 1893, but then left for Polynesia again in 1895, dying on Atuona in the Marquesas Islands in 1903 at age 54 of the combined effects of alcoholism, morphine use, and syphilis. No one is really sure how many children he left behind in Polynesia.
In the popular mind Gauguin is perpetually associated with his paintings of Tahitian women, but he experimented with many styles such as Cloisonnism, Primitivism, and Synthetism, influencing a generation of Post-Impressionists to come. Most of his paintings are in museums, so one rarely comes up for sale. The last auction at which one of his paintings came on the block had a pre-sale estimate of $15.6 million, but ended up being sold privately. It always irks me more than a little that he (and his erstwhile friend van Gogh) died in poverty, whilst now the über-rich battle over the spoils.
Today’s recipe combines elements from two aspects of Gauguin’s life: Peru and Tahiti. It is a ceviche given a Tahitian twist. Ceviche is a dish of raw fish marinated in lime juice, now popular throughout Latin America and Polynesia, whose origin point is disputed. However, it most likely originated in Peru where nowadays the varieties are seemingly endless. I was once in a restaurant in Cusco with 58 versions on the menu. This dish gets its Tahitian twist from the coconut milk in the marinade, and also from the fact that it is marinated very briefly so that the fish does not have a chance to “cook” in the citrus juice. Make sure the ingredients are well chilled before assembling the dish.
E’ia Ota (Tahitian Ceviche)
1 ½ lb (.7 kilos) sashimi quality tuna or firm white fish cut in ½ in (1.25 cm) cubes.
1 small cucumber, peeled, seeded, cut into ½ in (1.25 cm) cubes
1 tomato, seeded and diced
3 scallions, chopped (plus 1 for garnish)
½ cup (118 ml) freshly squeezed lime juice strained of pulp
¼ cup (59 ml) coconut milk
sea salt or kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
Toss together in a non-reactive bowl the fish, cucumber, tomato, scallions, lime juice, and coconut milk with a large pinch of salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate for 20 minutes.
Drain off the excess fluid. This can be served in small glasses with the ceviche. In Peru it is known as leche de tigre.
Serve in chilled bowls or large shells garnished with scallion.
Serves 4 to 6