Gauguin, Le Sourire (Titre), woodcut, 1899

Le Sourire (Titre)

Guérin 75, Mongan, Kornfeld, & Joachim 58

woodcut, 1899, on fine ivory Japon paper, the exceedingly rare first state*, a superb working impression, printed in greyish-black, probably by the artist himself

An early working impression, before the sole edition of about 30, irregular margins, trimmed to the block on three sides, small margins below),

a few small printing creases, traces of pinkish pigment visible upper left in transparency and on the reverse, a small piece of brown wrapping paper stuck to the upper right corner, otherwise in very excellent condition

B. 103 x 182 mm., S. 111 x 181 mm.

Provenance: a private American collection

During Gauguin's second stay in Tahiti, he published a short-lived, mimeographed journal, titled Le Sourire** (The Smile), cutting and printing by hand the headpiece for each issue; it is estimated that the print runs were less than 30, most of which were subsequently discarded (according to Bouge, there are only two known complete collections of this ephemeral work)

The first state, as yet undescribed, is of the utmost rarity. 

Gauguin, Le Sourire, 1899, woodblock, NGA

Given their extensive expertise in Gauguin prints,we have researched the present impression at the Art Insitute of Chicago, in September 2013, as follows;

The Art Institute of Chicago holds four impressions of Paul Gauguin's woodcut title for Le Sourire, MKJ 58:

      -  one impression of the journal itself, with the woodcut rather carelessly printed as the headpiece (catalogue n° 1948.418-423);

      -  two impressions of the initialed and numbered ("10" and "18"), tiré à part edition, on tissue-thin Japan paper (catalogue n°   2002.243 and 1946.33);

      -  one impression of the posthumous edition, printed by Pola Gauguin in 1921 (catalogue n°  1924.1194).

Harriet Stratis, with Nancy Ireson and myself, first conducted an overall visual examination of the five prints (along with a photograph of the original double woodblock, now in the National Gallery of Art, Rosenwald Collection, 1943.3.1726.b, left), including a physical overlay to confirm imprint identity.  This included an evaluation of the layout of the blocks that composed the original work, as well as a clear correspondence with the inverted woodblock for MKJ 69, partially visible in the lower register.  There are also detailed striations in the countenance of the outward-looking seated figure that map onto the reworked features.Gauguin, Le Sourire, woodcut, AIC

Subsequent to this, it was suggested by Peter Zegers that it would be worthwhile to examine this anomalistic impression with the n° 18 impression (right) from the tiré à part edition more closely, for two reasons:

  -  the inking of this impression was qualitatively much closer than that of the darkly-inked impression of n° 10, and notably

  -  on the card mount of this print , there was a hand-written annotation (anonymous and undated, but clearly resulting from an earlier curatorship of the AIC): 

        "There is a later state in which the seated figure looks out at the spectator."

This was of course quite intriguing.  Someone in the AIC had seen an equivalent impression, if not the one at hand...

Given that the central seated figure (with a glowering and downcast countenance on the original woodblock in the Rosenwald Collection) is consistent with that of all of the known impressions (Mongan, Kornfeld, and Joachim identify only one state), it would evidently appear that this could not be a later state, but rather an un-described early state (1st state?) of the print, as attested e.g. by the printed matter between the throat of the upward-looking head and the shoulder of the seated woman that was later removed. 

Thus, contrary to the annotation on the mount of the impression in the AIC catalogued as 1946.33, this could not be a late impression, as attested by the original woodblock itself.

Furthermore, studied close-up examination (under a Leitz binocular microscope) of the two prints revealed a clear consistency over the two impressions, although the fine incising that was apparent in the published state (notably on the uplifted head to the right) had not yet been added.

The conclusion is quite simply that the present impression represents an early undescribed state of the woodcut, probably a working proof (further corroborated by the rather weak-greyish tint of the inking, as if the artist casually pulled an impression, simply wishing to monitor his progress). 

* This state is not described by either Guérin or Mongan, Kornfeld, & Joachim.

**  Gauguin outlined his editorial project quite clearly:

"Hommes graves souriez, le titre vous y invite. Tant de délassement personnel, tant de classement d'idées aimées, quoique folles peut-être ; je rédige Le Sourire. Informes et indécis, l'oeil proche, ces écrits au recul et à l'examen deviendront précis si vous le voulez. Je ne vous dirai pas la vérité, tout le monde se vante de la dire ; la Fable seule indiquera ma pensée si toutefois Rêver est Penser - maintes fois aussi un dessin, quelques traits seulement..."

"Serious Men, kindly smile, as the title prompts.  Both as personal entertainment, and in ranking beholden, yet perhaps foolish ideas, I write Smiling. Shapeless and indecisive to the close eye, these writings, in retrospect and review become clear if you so wish.  I  will not tell you the truth, everyone brags about saying such; only Fable will reveal my thoughts, if yet Dreaming is Thinking - again as a drawing, only a few lines ... "