Paul GAUGUIN | Seascape with cow (At the edge of the cliff) [Marine avec vache (Au bord du gouffre)]

France 1848 – French Polynesia 1903

Seascape with cow (At the edge of the cliff)
[Marine avec vache (Au bord du gouffre)]
oil on canvas
canvas 72.5 (h) x 61.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Gift of Countess Vitali in memory of her brother Viscount Guy de Cholet 1923
Photograph: Jean Tholance All rights reserved

When Gauguin returned to Brittany in February 1888, it was for most of the year, until autumn, when he left on an ill-fated trip to Arles to join van Gogh. In Brittany he stayed at the Pension Gloanec in the small fishing village of Pont-Aven. During late summer or early autumn (August or September 1888) the artist made a trip to the cliffs overlooking the little Porsac’h creek, sited three kilometres west of Le Pouldu. In a letter to his friend Emile Schuffenecker, written in September 1888, Gauguin philosophised on aesthetic matters:

In the absence of religious painting, what beautiful thoughts can be evoked with form and colour. How prosaic they are, those naturalist painters, with their trompe-l’oeil rendering of nature. We alone sail on our phantom vessels, with all our fanciful imperfection.1

Seascape with cow was made around the time that Gauguin gave Sérusier his lesson in intensifying pure colour, which resulted in Sérusier’s The talisman. Gauguin’s dramatic composition is strengthened by arbitrary colouring and his application of bright complementary colours, orange and green. As we look down the cliff, the creek rushes to meet the dark sea, with white surf crashing against the rocks. We catch a glimpse of a red-sailed Breton fishing boat. On land, a black-and-white cow almost leaves the painting. The animal stands near the brightest of haystacks, which are opposed by similar shapes of brown rocks on the left, echoed at the right. The central path of light green water meets a viridian meadow across the front left.

Gauguin wrote to van Gogh on about 10 September 1888 that ‘Forms and colours brought into harmony produce poetry by themselves.’2 He produces harmonies here by four pairs of repetitions with variations: opposing brown-purple rocks, two mounds of orange, bright green field versus light green water, and below, a black-and-white cow, while, above, the black sea breaks into white waves. Seascape with cow is an extraordinarily abstract painting for the late nineteenth century. Its artificial planes sweep across the canvas like theatre curtains drawing back one after another.

At the edge of the cliff was valued by Boussod et Valadon at 300 francs in an inventory of 1890. It was among the thirty paintings Gauguin offered for sale at Drouot’s auction house on 23 February 1891 to finance his trip to Tahiti. Now titled Seascape with cow, it sold for 230 francs at the auction.3

Christine Dixon

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009

  1. Quoted in Belinda Thomson (ed.), Gauguin by himself, Boston: Little, Brown 1993, p. 90.
  2. Quoted in Thomson, p. 90.
  3. Daniel Wildenstein, Gauguin: a savage in the making, catalogue raisonné of the paintings (1873–1888), vol. 2, Milan: Skira; Paris: Wildenstein Institute 2002, p. 488.