Above the Sea

Paul Gauguin (French, 1848-1903)

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In 1889 Gauguin worked in the village of Le Pouldu. There he created this dizzying panorama, recording the site's craggy cliffs and the waves breaking on the beach. At right are a girl with her scythe and a boy playing a flageolet, or flute - symbols of the artist's attachment to the harmonies of Breton life.

Yet Gauguin also altered the view to suit his imagination, boldly pairing near and far, steep and flat to create a complex surface pattern. And where has he placed the viewer-hovering perilously over the abyss?

Indianapolis Museum of Art: Highlights of the Collection (2005)

In 1889, Paul Gauguin returned to Brittany and spent much of his time at Le Pouldu, a coastal village even more remote than Pont-Aven. There he created this dizzying panoramic view of the rugged Atlantic shoreline. With bold pairings of near and far, steep and at, Gauguin merged distant beaches and craggy cliffs into a nearly abstract surface pattern of brilliant color. His image, however, for all its disorienting space and dazzling palette, does resemble the actual site. Period photographs show that the waves at upper left do meet the beach in a series of broad arcs, and Gauguin wrote that the wet sands of Le Pouldu looked rose, not yellow. The canvas is a powerful application of the Pont-Aven School approach called Synthetism, which calls for a synthesis of the artist's response to nature and sense of design.

At the right edge of the composition Gauguin has included a narrow path and a Breton boy and girl. The girl leans against the wall with her scythe, apparently taking a rest from cutting wheat in the adjacent field, represented by the flat area of golden color in the lower right corner. Her companion plays a flute-like Breton instrument called the flageolet, another reminder of Gauguin's attachment to the harmonies of life in Brittany.

Do not paint too much from nature. Art is an abstraction; let yourself dream in front of nature and extract from it, and think more of the creation that will result.
-Paul Gauguin, 1888

Gauguin and Van Gogh

A tour-de-force balance of abstraction and representation, Flageolet Player on the Cliff, Brittany is also a complex exercise in linear stylization paralleling Vincent's own ‘exaggerations,' which he compared to the warped lines of old wood—one thinks of The Starry Night, which Gauguin had learned about prior to leaving for Le Pouldu in July.

Druick, Douglas W., and Peter Kort Zegers. Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South. Exh. cat. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2001, p. 293.

The Geography of the Cliff

"Le Joueur de Flageolet sur la Falaise features the rim of the cliff which drops off to the Plage Porguerrec. Painted at high tide, the beach below is overwhelmed by the surf. Gauguin was positioned on the west edge of the Fort Clohars promontory at a somewhat higher level than can now be reached.”—p. 616

Andersen, Wayne. “Gauguin's Motifs from Le Pouldu—Preliminary Report,” The Burlington Magazine 112, no. 810 (September 1970): 616.


Sold by the artist at the Vente Gauguin in 1891 to a M[onsieur] Strauss.{1}
Probably to (Ambroise Vollard, [1867-1939] Paris, France) between 1894 and 1899.{2}
To the collector, artist and benefactor of Gauguin, Gustave Fayet [1865-1925].
By 1928 in the collection of George Viau [1855-1939], Paris;{3}
purchased from the posthumous auction of the Viau collection by a Paris collector named Ménard;{4}
sold via (Drouot Montaigne, Paris) to Samuel Josefowitz, Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1992;{5}
acquired as a partial gift, partial purchase by the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 1998.

{1} It appears in the Catalogue d’une vente de 30 Tableaux de Paul Gauguin, Hotel Drouot, Paris, 23 February 1891 as no. 19 (Au-dessus de la Mer), as correctly cited in Georges Wildenstein, Gauguin, 1964, cat. rais. no. 361: à M. Strauss, 32, rue de Lévis. Labels on the verso of the stretcher, which are reproduced in the 1992 sale catalogue, Drouot Montaigne, Paris, Importants Tableaux des XIXe et XXe siècles under the multi-page entry for this painting, mistakenly identify it as no. 29 (Au-dessus du gouffre) of the Vente Gauguin. The latter painting Wildenstein, 1964, cat. rais. no. 282 and Wildenstein, 2002, cat. rais. no. 310 passed from this sale via the collection of Comte Guy de Cholet directly to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris. The merit of the 1992 Drouot Montaigne sale catalogue rests on its facsimile reproduction of the checklist for the 1891 Vente Gauguin catalogue.
{2} Despite the fact that a 1902 letter from Monfreid to Gauguin cited in Wildenstein, 1964, p. 138 doubts Vollard's ownership of this painting, new research for the Ambroise Vollard: Patron of the Avant-Garde exhibition, jointly organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, and the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France, confirms that it passed through Vollard's hands early on.
{3} See Paul Gauguin, 1848-1903, Kunsthalle Basel, July-August 1928, cat. no. 53, as lent by Dr. G. Viau, Paris. There are also four Collection George Viau labels on the stretcher citing former exhibitions this painting was included in.
{4} See Catalogue des Tableaux Modernes composant la Collection de M. Georges (sic) Viau, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 11 December 1942, lot. No. 102 (ill.).
{5} See letter from Daniel Wildenstein to Samuel Josefowitz, dated 23 September 1998, stating: [ce peinture] a toujours appartenu à Ménard depuis la vente Viau où il l’avait acheté, in IMA Historical File (1998.168).

Object Information

Paul Gauguin (French, 1848-1903)
creation date
oil on canvas
29 x 36-5/8 in. (canvas)
36-7/8 x 44-5/16 x 2-1/2 in. (framed, glazed)
mark descriptions
Signed and dated, lower right: P. Gauguin 89
Frame label, verso, ink on adhesive paper, left near lower corner: Z14534 Josefo CUT DOWN SPANISH 0.00FT £320 | SUBJECT ARTIST GAILGIN | COMMENTS PEND JD ORDER/ | DUE BACK 30-10-92
Backing board label, verso, ink on adhesive paper, upper left: VAN GOGH AND GAUGUIN: THE STUDIO OF THE SOUTH | Cat: 96 Crate: 61 {handwritten] | Paul Gauguin | FLAGEOLET (FLUTE?) PLAYER ON THE CLIFF, 1889 | Oil on canvas | 73 x 92 x cm., (28 3/4 x 36 1/4 in.) | 1998.168
other title
Le Joueur de Flageolet sur la Falaise
other title
The Flageolet Player on the Cliff
accession number
credit line
Samuel Josefowitz Collection of the School of Pont-Aven, through the generosity of Lilly Endowment Inc., the Josefowitz Family, Mr. and Mrs. James M. Cornelius, Mr. and Mrs. Leonard J. Betley, Lori and Dan Efroymson, and other Friends of the Museum
Public Domain
European Painting and Sculpture 1800-1945

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