This work will be included in the forthcoming Paul Gauguin catalogue raisonné being prepared by the Wildenstein Institute.
The narrow stretch of sea and strand visible in the distance indicates that Gauguin likely painted this haunting self-portrait in Le Pouldu, a tiny fishing hamlet on the far west coast of Brittany, about 30 miles (47 km) from the artist's usual refuge in Pont-Aven, a larger town that was situated in a valley further inland. The flourishing artists' colony in Pont-Aven had become too conservative and pretentious for his taste, and the tourists too numerous, and during his third trip to Brittany in 1889 Gauguin decided to spend the month of August in Le Pouldu. It would be cheaper there as well; the Groupe Impressionniste et Synthétiste exhibition that opened in June 1889 at Volpini's Café des Arts in Paris, which included seventeen of Gauguin's pictures, had proved to be a complete financial disappointment, and Gauguin was burdened with mounting debts. Paul Sérusier accompanied him at first, and thereafter Meyer de Haan; both men were aspiring young painters. The windswept desolation of the seaside landscape and the austere lives of its inhabitants strongly appealed to Gauguin. He wrote to Emile Bernard, "What I am trying to get at is a corner of myself which I do not yet understand" (M. Malingue, ed., Letters, no. 84).
Gauguin returned to Pont-Aven in late August, but finally despairing of the place, headed back to Le Pouldu in early October, again with de Haan. There he remained through the harshness of the winter, into early 1890. "When the storms rage," he wrote to Emile Schuffenecker, "it is magnificent" (Letter, no. 90). The two men had taken rooms in the Buvette de la Plage, a small bar and hotel run by Marie Henry, an attractive 30-year-old unmarried woman known as "Poupée" ("Doll"), who had a young daughter. De Haan rented a studio for their use in the nearby Villa Mauduit, on the edge of the dunes. During this second, lengthy stay in Le Pouldu, Gauguin painted some of his most powerful works to date, all on the theme of self-martyrdom, Le Christ au Jardin des Oliviers (Wildenstein, no. 326; fig. 1), Le Christ jaune (W., no. 327, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo), and Le Christ vert ou Calvaire breton (W., no. 328, Musées Royaux des Beaux-arts, Brussels).
Gauguin attempted to seduce Marie, but she refused to have an affair with a married man. To Gauguin's chagrin, Marie instead bestowed her favor on de Haan, who was a hunchback (he made Marie pregnant shortly before his departure a year later), while the jealous Gauguin had to settle for occasional dalliances with the hotel's maid. Autoportrait à la mandoline may refer in part to this romantic disappointment; here the lonely artist consoles himself with his mandolin, while two small figures dance by the shore in the distance. There is possibly another reference as well, to Tannhäuser, the 13th century minnesänger (troubadour) whom Richard Wagner depicted in his namesake opera, in which the hero vies in a singing contest for a wish to be granted by his beloved. During his stay in Le Pouldu, Gauguin copied some of Wagner's writings into his notebook, and Sérusier inscribed on a wall in the hotel dining room a passage which the artists called "their credo": "the faithful disciples of great art will be glorified and that---enveloped in a celestial tissue of rays, of perfumes, of melodious sounds--they will lose themselves forever in the bosom of the divine source of all Harmony" (quoted in J. Rewald, Post-Impressionism, New York, third ed., 1978, p. 255).
Gauguin was an accomplished amateur on the mandolin, and he took his instrument on his travels. He would play and sing with friends, or to pass the time when he was alone. He featured his mandolin, of the classic Neapolitan lute type with a teardrop face and bowl-shaped back, in some early still-life paintings (see W., nos. 39, 46, 91, and 173).
(fig. 1) Paul Gauguin, Le Christ au Jardin des Oliviers, 1889. Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach. Gift of Elizabeth C. Norton, 46.5 Courtesy of The Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida. BARCODE 25238648