Gauguin’s Fresco – A Tale of Discovery

Gauguin’s 1889 fresco, Breton Girl Spinning can be seen in the final gallery of our exhibition Paul Gauguin: Paris, 1889. It was made as part of the “decorative ensemble” for the dining room of the Buvette de la Plage, an inn at the tiny seaside village of Le Pouldu, France. Analysis of the paintings and decoration by Gauguin and his fellow artists is well documented, but the story of the discovery revealed itself to this reader while preparing for a book discussion of Gauguin’s Noa Noa, his Tahitian memoir. The Ingalls Library maintains artist clipping files, and what follows is the story found in newspaper clippings published between 1926 and 1950, buried in the eight Gauguin files.

In 1924, an American artist traveling in Brittany missed his bus. This student, Isadore Levy (and according to some versions, also Abraham Rattner) stayed for refreshment at the Buvette de la Plage, once known as the Maison Marie Henry. While waiting for the patronne to serve him, he noticed brightly colored paint peeking from the part of the wall where wallpaper fell away.

Levy couldn’t resist the temptation, and peeled more paper from the wall. He recognized the signature, “P. Go.” “You have here a real Gauguin!” he announced excitedly. “Who is Gauguin?” the old woman asked, a little frightened for her guest’s sanity. “He was a great artist, one of the greatest of modern times. This beautiful work on your wall is his.” Levy and three other artists pooled their funds to purchase the two Gauguin paintings, the “Maid” and a small white goose. They paid $2,000.00 for the wall, plus the cost of replastering and wallpapering the dining room. The frescoes were removed by the Louvre’s expert, M. Chauffrey, by drilling and sawing the bricks and securing the paintings with iron bars, cement, and wood frames. The photograph here from the New York Herald Tribune of 20 June 1926 states that “the murals are to go to a state museum.” In 1927 Gauguin follower/Boston Herald correspondent Francis Dickie, sees them in Paris, at the Levy studio. Located at 15 rue Cauchois and situated in the shadow of the Moulin Rouge, they’ve “just returned from the expert hands of a Parisian restorer.” Dickie notes that the “pictures will be shown to art-lovers in New York, and probably other American cities in the future.”

And sure enough, they turn up in New York in 1931 at the Fifty-Sixth Street Galleries. According to the Chicago Evening Post Art World, of Jan.13, 1931, they were discovered by an American named Jan Ravey (same romantic discovery). Ravey was one of the four artists! It is noted in this article that these four artists, having paid off their indebtness and procuring authenticity by the Louvre’s curator, M. Jamont (1928), as well as several experts (Rosenberg & Bernheim) refused European offers of purchase, preferring to bring them to New York.

“Breton Girl Spinning” (then known as “Jeanne d”Arc”) reappears in Life Magazine on May 1, 1950. Levy and Rattner (now a prominent New York artist) kept the fresco “hidden away in a storage house.” They reveal that it will be put up for sale. The price? $25,000.00. The Life article has two wonderful photographs: one of the mural in situ, and a contemporary one of the proprietress sitting in her remodeled dining room in full Breton coiffe.

The frescoes, still owned by Levy and Rattner, were exhibited in Houston and New York, and published by John Rewald in his ground-breaking book of 1956. Rewald tells us too, that Gauguin pursued the daughter—the infamous Marie Henry! Gauguin created one of his yellow zincographs for the Volpini Suite portfolio with her likeness, the raven-haired beauty with her swan. And more shocking, Marie Henry falls not for Gauguin, but for his friend and fellow painter at the inn, Meyer de Haan, bearing him a child. Rewald suggests an atmosphere of jealousy... oh, one can only imagine!

“Breton Girl Spinning” is finally brought to auction at Parke-Bernet Galleries in 1965. The painting is still the property of Mr. and Mrs. Abraham Rattner, of New York, (with, we later found, Isadore Levy) and titled "Jeanne d'Arc." It sold for $65,000.00. When brought to auction again in 2002 as property of the Frederic W. Ziv Trust, it carried an estimate of two million dollars. It remained unsold (or, bought in), but it is now owned by the Van Gogh Museum. In our galleries, when I stood in front of it knowing all the details, I couldn't help but feel in awe of a wall carried through two countries and over the Atlantic ocean.