After spending two years in Tahiti, Gauguin returned to France in August of 1893 arriving in Marseilles with very little money. He was under the impression that as his friends in Paris and Copenhagen had written to him of their enthusiasm for his latest batch of Tahitian paintings he would have the prospect of a substantial income. Gauguin borrowed money to pay for his passage to Paris only to find that his dealers Boussod and Valadon had not sold any of his works. "When he discovered that they had made no sales, he severed the relationship on the spot and took all his paintings and ceramics out of the gallery" (N.M. Matthews, Paul Gauguin: An Erotic Life, New Haven, 2001, p. 193). In November of that year he had an exhibition at Galerie Durand-Ruel, selling eleven paintings and netting close to 10,000 francs. He had also inherited 13,000 francs from his bachelor uncle Isidore, and was able to establish himself on the rue Vercingétorix on the outskirts of Montparnasse. There were, however, conflicting reports on the financial success of the Durand-Ruel show, "According to Monfried, Gauguin's exhibition was followed by 'un insuccès pécuniaire' (financial failure), which arose from a quarrel between him and Durand-RuelWhatever happened, even though Gauguin had an enviable cushion of money through sales and inheritance, he knew that he had lost his chance for the kind of steady income and promotion that only an established dealer like Durand-Ruel could provide" (op. cit., pp. 199-200). By September 1984, without a dealer to represent him or the prospect of another exhibition Gauguin was already planning his return to Tahiti.
In 1895 Gauguin summered in Brittany as a guest in the home of Polish artist Wladyslaw Slewinkski, a friend and member of the "Pont-Aven" group that Gauguin had spearheaded. Enfant au bavoir is closely related to a major oil painted that same year, Double portrait d'enfants (Wildenstein, 1964, no. 530; fig. 1), and was one of a series of three smaller canvases that he painted that summer. The current work was a gift to Slewinkski and his wife; the second was a gift to artist Charles Filiger, also a guest at Slewinkski's home during this time; the whereabouts of the third canvas remain unknown. While the identity of the infant in the current work is not known, it was perhaps the child of an acquaintance summering in Brittany, such as Paul Sérusier or Claude-Emile Schuffenecker.
Portraits of children are rare in Gauguin's oeuvre; there are only fifteen recorded pictures in which Gauguin portrayed his own children, the most intimate of which were painted between 1883-1885 when Gauguin and his young son, Clovis, lived together in Paris following personal adversity and financial misfortune in Copenhagen. The most magical work from this period, Clovis endormi (Wildenstein, 1964, no. 81) features the young boy with flowing golden locks slumbering next to a large antique Norwegian tankard. It is packed with a deeply personal significance, and represents the most intimate and involved period of Gauguin's life as a father.
(fig. 1) Paul Gauguin, Double portrait d'enfants, 1895. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.
(fig. 2) Paul Gauguin, Head of a Child, circa 1890. Private collection.