Live like a Rockefeller — Gauguin’s La Vague

Loic Gouzer, Co-Chairman of Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s, reflects on the remarkable personal connections he has with a painting that has been described as ‘one of the most original seascapes in Western art’

Loic Gouzer describes Brittany, on the north-western coast of France, as ‘a world where myth and reality collide’. There is ‘something magical, a strong energy’ about the region, he says, which might explain why so many artists have been compelled to explore it.

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) painted La Vague (The Wave)  in 1888 during his second extended trip to Brittany. Vincent van Gogh had suggested to Gauguin that he meet with fellow artist Emile Bernard. The pair duly exchanged ideas, and as a result Gauguin adopted a new visual style that took a decisive turn towards the subjective, anti-naturalist, and primitivist. This work, acquired by Peggy and David Rockefeller in 1966, exemplifies this new primitive style, most notably in the brilliantly coloured vermilion beach and almost prismatic hues of the waves.

The painting was made on the beach at Le Pouldu, which Gouzer describes as an ‘aggressive and unforgiving space’. The specialist’s father is from Brittany and his great, great grand-uncle was Gauguin’s close friend and doctor. ‘I grew up hearing about those stories,’ he reveals, ‘and looking at Gauguin’s art.’

Gauguin was a modern artist to his core and his work has not aged in the 115 years since his death. In this stunning painting, Gouzer talks of Gauguin attempting to ‘liberate himself from the form of what he was seeing’, and of his desire to ‘mix his dreams into his paintings.’ Monroe Wheeler, who was head of the publications department at MoMA for many years, was similarly impressed, going as far as describing La Vague  as ‘one of the most original seascapes in Western art.’

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), La Vague, painted August-October 1888. Oil on canvas. 23⅞ x 28⅞ in (60.8 x 73.4 cm). Estimate: $7,000,000-10,000,000. This lot is offered in The Collection of David and Peggy Rockefeller: 19th & 20th Century Art, Evening Sale on 8 May at Christie’s in New York

‘The point of view is just incredible,’ remarks Gouzer of the painting’s unusual perspective. ‘It's the kind of view you’d only get from a drone. [Gauguin] decided, compositionally, that this is what the canvas demanded. That’s where he wanted to be. This was a huge breakthrough, and it really allowed for the next step, which was abstraction.’

Gauguin scholars have discovered that the artist could have only reached the grass-covered spur of rock from which this view was observed at low tide, while others have speculated about whether he worked from photographs, because only a camera could render the rocks and curved coastline in the same perspective as they appear in the painting.

‘This was a huge breakthrough, and it really allowed for the next step, which was abstraction’

What’s beyond doubt, though, is the influence of Japanese printmaking on the artist in the summer of 1888. In a letter to his friend, the painter Claude-Emile Schuffenecker, Gauguin reported that he had made a start on something ‘tout à fait japonais’. The description that he gives — a green lawn, a white sky — makes it clear that he was not speaking of this work specifically, although the plunging perspective and diagonal axis of the composition in La Vague  demonstrate that Japanese prints were most certainly on his mind at the time.

The Japanese influence might even be detected from the name of this work, which borrows directly from Hokusai, as do the tasselled waves and the tiny figures on the beach. Without the two retreating swimmers in their Victorian bathing suits, it would be impossible to know whether the dark rocks in the water were jagged little pebbles in close-up, or — as it turns out — massive outcrops viewed from on high.


La Vague (The Wave) hanging in the library of the Manhattan home of Peggy and David Rockefeller

David and Peggy Rockefeller bought La Vague (The Wave) at auction. ‘Peggy did not regularly look at auction catalogues,’ David recalled, ‘but when she did she would sometimes find something very exceptional. This was certainly the case with Gauguin’s Wave… I do not believe I would have bought it left to myself, although I have come to appreciate it enormously and am very glad Peggy spotted it.’ La Vague, which has only been exhibited twice since 1966, hung in the library of the couple’s Manhattan townhouse.

For Gouzer, this superb painting neatly draws together important strands in his own life — the coastline and culture of Brittany, his family’s connection with Gauguin, and his long-standing love of the ocean. As a board member of Oceana, an international advocacy organisation committed to protecting the world’s oceans, Gouzer serves alongside David Jr. and Susan Rockefeller, David and Peggy’s eldest son and daughter-in-law.

‘It’s an incredible connection, and the Rockefellers are an incredible family,’ says Gouzer with a smile, confirming how ‘very special’ it is for Christie’s to be offering this painting at auction in May.

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