Newly acquired drawing by Paul Gauguin conceals the story of a unique woman

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Newly acquired drawing by Paul Gauguin conceals the story of a unique woman
Paul Gauguin, Sovende kvinde. Portræt af Madame Mette Sophie Gauguin, slut 1870’erne, pastel og kul på papir. © Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek.

COPENHAGEN.- Meet Paul Gauguin’s wife, Mette Gauguin, as immortalised in Sleeping Woman – a pastel and charcoal tribute by the artist. Demonstrating Gauguin’s association with Denmark, this newly acquired work also conceals the untold story of a progressive woman who is owed a great deal of credit for Gauguin’s success as an artist.

From 11 October, visitors to the Glyptotek can see a new work by Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). The museum has acquired a rare drawing for its Gauguin collection, described as one of the finest in the world. Sleeping Woman. Portrait of Madame Mette Sophie Gauguin (late 1870s) portrays Gauguin’s Danish wife Mette Gauguin (née Mette Sophie Gad) (1850-1920).

The drawing dates from Gauguin’s early years, when his art was still an enjoyable diversion alongside his job as a stockbroker. In Paris, he, Mette and the children lived a life of optimism, energy and financial stability.

“During these years, Gauguin’s art featured things close to him: his Danish wife, their five children and still lifes of flowers and domestic items. This small drawing of Mette Gauguin asleep admits us into Gauguin’s private domain. In a loose, sketch-like form in charcoal and pastel, the artist accurately captures his wife’s distinctive profile with her prominent nose and dark, thick hair. A reminder of Gauguin’s association with Denmark, the drawing is an incentive to learn more about this extraordinary woman, Mette Gauguin,” says Anna Kærsgaard Gregersen, Curator of French Art at the Glyptotek.

An enfant terrible with business acumen

Mette Gauguin played a major role in terms of the relationship of the Danes and Danish cultural institutions with the artist: “Mette Gauguin was an enterprising, characterful and progressive woman, who was ahead of her time. She flitted confidently between family life and Gauguin’s business. The newly acquired drawing reflects one of Gauguin’s rare, yet important series of motifs, adding further detail to the story of the short, yet crucial chapter of Mette Gauguin and Paul Gauguin’s time together in Copenhagen. That’s why it is also delightful that the work will now ‘reside’ in the Glyptotek, not far from where the couple lived in Copenhagen. The drawing couldn’t hope for a better home,” says Anna Kærsgaard Gregersen.

As a young woman, Mette Sophie Gad travelled to Paris. She found a room in a guest house, where she met her future husband, the stockbroker Paul Gauguin. They were married in 1873. Paul Gauguin tried to make a breakthrough as an artist, and the wife took care of the couple’s five children until they were forced to seek new ways of establishing a sound financial basis. In 1884 the family moved to Denmark, where Mette Gauguin was able to use her French language skills to teach French to young diplomats-to-be. She also translated books by Leo Tolstoy and Émile Zola into Danish.

When Paul Gauguin abandoned his family just six months later, Mette became their breadwinner. She took over part of her husband’s business, submitted photos to, and organised exhibitions, and sold works to Danish collectors. As part of the Danish artistic and intellectual milieu, she also arranged salons in the family’s own home. In his book of memoirs, the author Otto Rung describes Mette Gauguin: “I remember only one person from ‘80s and ‘90s who wore her hair short. When she appeared, her brave femininity made her instantly popular with everyone […] She was the snobby, prim enfant terrible of the fin de siècle and everyone loved her!”

A tribute to Mette Gauguin by Emma Gad

Mette Gauguin’s 70th birthday was celebrated with a tribute in the Politiken newspaper, written by the highly influential Emma Gad, who was married to Mette Gauguin’s cousin. It stated: “How his wife strove and struggled, while attached to the somewhat eccentric artist [Paul Gauguin], and what she accomplished after returning here with her children […] deserve their own chapter in the Book of Life […]. But now, turning seventy, she is receiving the credit she deserves. Not only is she more esteemed and honoured than most of her many friends, but her two sons became artists and are in the process of building a reputation, bearing with honour the famous name they inherited from their father.”

Mette Gauguin died shortly after this, on 25 September 1920. Today she is buried at Garnison Cemetery in Copenhagen with some of the couple’s children. Her tombstone bears the following inscription: ‘FAMILY AND FRIENDS LAID THIS STONE IN MEMORY OF A STRONG SPIRIT AND A GENEROUS HEART.’

Although the stay in Copenhagen was not Paul Gauguin’s happiest time, the period was decisive for his career. He abandoned his family in Denmark for the sake of art. However, his enterprising wife ensured that many of his works remained in Denmark. The couple remained married throughout their lives, even though the last letter between them was in 1897 – a letter that paints a portrait of a strong wife, mother and businesswoman.

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