Painter's great-granddaughter refutes claims of rape, syphilis and paedophilia. Paul Rodgers reports
To some, he is an artistic genius, the gifted post-Impressionist whose work inspired a generation of painters and sculptors including Picasso; to others he was a wife beater who became a despicable sex tourist, exploiting the Tahitian beauties he painted, before dying of syphilis and alcoholism.
Now a new champion has emerged to defend Paul Gauguin's reputation - his British great-granddaughter.
Mette Gauguin was stung by criticism of him at a recent Tate Modern exhibition. "There were a number of comments about him being a sexual tourist, an exploiter of young women, who had abandoned his children and wife and gone off to exotic lands to enjoy himself. It wasn't like that. I think he was an incredibly brave, courageous man," Ms Gauguin said.
She claims that stories about him have unjustly besmirched his reputation. She denies accusations that he deserted his family to pursue his career as an artist. It was the 1882 stock market crash that forced him out of his job with a Paris broker. The family moved to Copenhagen, his wife's home, where he tried selling tarpaulins. "It was a disaster - he couldn't speak Danish," said his descendant, a print-make, who came to Britain as a child after the Second World War.
Gauguin's desire for a creative career eventually pushed him to leave Denmark. "He had always been interested in art. But Mette [his wife] saw it more as a hobby," says her namesake. "The in-laws weren't particularly pleasant to him. They thought he was wasting time and not providing for his children. Reading between the lines, they were probably instrumental in the break-up." When he left Copenhagen, Gauguin reportedly said: "I hate the Danes."
At her Oxfordshire home, Mette Gauguin has letters and photographs from other descendants in Denmark, Norway, Tahiti and the Marquesas, islands in French Polynesia. "Gauguin's bottom may have sat in that chair," she says, pointing to a rustic piece which used to belong to her grandfather, Gauguin's son, Pola.
After separating from his wife, Gauguin travelled widely and became a full-time artist. He had always led a peripatetic lifestyle, she says. He was born in Paris, but when he was three he was taken to Peru, where his relatives, a branch of Italy's Borgia clan, included the last Spanish viceroy. "He reckoned he also had savage blood from the Incas," she said. …