By Aaron Freundschuh (Guest Contributor)
At 2:30am, Paul Gauguin waded into a throng of gawkers on the Place de la Roquette, a few hours before the execution. The winter sky was dark, the air frigid, and the wait, long.
Still another rude discovery awaited the painter. One did not stroll into eastern Paris and simply pluck a prime spot looking on to the guillotine. Barring personal connections or professional duties—Gauguin had neither—unobstructed views of the ceremony were extremely hard to come by.
Just a few days before, in sunny Provence, Gauguin had split with Vincent Van Gogh in a bloody episode that would be understood, but only much later, as a consequential moment in the history of modern art. Having quit the “Studio of the South,” Gauguin was now enjoying a layover en route to Brittany when he made the decision, puzzling on its face, to traverse the French capital in the middle of the night to bear witness to a beheading about which he was dubious.
It was December 28, 1888. The man scheduled to die at dawn was a convict named Prado.
In his retelling of the morning’s events, Gauguin conveys an almost knowing skepticism of Prado’s guilt. In the manner of a detached observer, he scrutinizes the scene, highlighting the rudimentary practices and oversights that characterize the death penalty.
And yet he makes no attempt to conceal the bloodlust that’s driven him to the Place de la Roquette. The crowd stirs as Prado ambles into view, and Gauguin is swept up in the excitement. Guards move to keep control of the situation, shoving Gauguin and others “suddenly, brutally” backward.
But he persists: “I wanted to see, and when I want something, I’m stubborn.” The other onlookers settle into something like a solemn moment, and Gauguin makes a break for it, sprinting forward and plunging for a sightline “between two gendarme boots.”
The blade drops, and the jockeying picks up again. A torrent of obstacles (“three times I was pushed back”) thwart Gauguin and screen him from the money shot: a clear glimpse at Prado’s severed head when it is lifted from its receptacle.
A Murky Tale
In the aftermath of Prado’s execution, Gauguin conceived his Jug in the Form of a Head, Self-Portrait, a grotesquerie of glazed stoneware that is housed today in the Designmuseum Danmark, in Copenhagen. Generations of art historians, aficionados, and biographers have examined this disquieting piece, a self-portrait-as-death-mask that conveys Gauguin’s interest in the theme of self-martyrdom, as well as his imagination of the messianic mission of the modern artist. There have also been questions—inevitably—about the ears. They are missing on both sides of the piece, in what many have taken as an allusion to Van Gogh.
It is a murky tale, often told: Gauguin and Van Gogh had been quarreling; on December 23, 1888, a portion of Van Gogh’s left ear was sliced off, probably by Van Gogh himself.
Days later, as Van Gogh sat before a mirror to paint the devastating Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe, Gauguin, by then in Brittany, dressed his self-portrait jug with expressive red streaks of blood that appear to pool and coagulate around the base of the neck—what he saw, or tried very hard to see, when he craned forward on the Place de la Roquette.
Who Was Prado?
What are we to make of Gauguin’s wish to fire Prado’s ordeal into his own distorted likeness, effectively rendering, together with the allusion to Van Gogh, an odd trinity of fates? While much has been written about the deep ties between Gauguin and Van Gogh, the allure that Prado may have held for Gauguin remains more obscure. Who was Prado?
Gauguin writes that during their nine weeks together he and Van Gogh chatted about the sensational criminal investigations in the news, especially those of two foreigners in Paris: Prado (alias Linska de Castillon), and Enrico Pranzini, a flashy and charismatic young man from Egypt whose case had triggered an immense scandal several months before. Both Prado and Pranzini proclaimed their innocence unwaveringly.
The murder trials of foreigners held great significance in a historical context teeming with populist xenophobia, particularly, as in these two cases, when the suspects were accused of killing high-class Parisian prostitutes. At the time, France was in a fevered state over the perception that violent crime rates were on the rise and immigrants were to blame for it. Although this notion had no basis in fact, its corrosive effects were already apparent in the descriptions of Prado and Pranzini, both of whom had led migratory lives, as “cosmopolitan adventurers,” shapeshifting infiltrators, and serial seducers.
For Gauguin, the outlaw colonial dimension of these cases was bound to be of interest. The stories that trailed Prado—probably apocryphal, but supposedly corroborated by South American immigrants in Paris—were of colorful adventures in Latin America. It was said that he was the son of a Peruvian general, and that he’d frolicked through the Caribbean. Partly as a result, Prado was slurred as a “rastaquouère,” a term that carried the suggestion of racial mixing.
Gauguin cultivated an edgy, colonial-outsider image; he liked to remind people of his “Indian origins.” In fact, as the Prado case neared its climax in the autumn of 1888, he gave Van Gogh a painted self-portrait in which he’d styled himself Jean Valjean of Les Misérables, but with a physiognomy of exaggeratedly exotic features.
It is true that Gauguin’s earliest memories were not of France but instead of Lima, where he spent much of his boyhood. His grandmother, Flora Tristan, had been the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy Peruvian, Tristan y Moscoso, a man of Spanish descent; and the family tree did have its share of political radicals, plus a convict or two.
But of course, Gauguin had the luxury of trading on his own colonial origins from a position of relative privilege. That colonial nostalgia embellished his work is as well known as his turn away from Impressionism in the latter-half of the 1880s, when he experimented in radically new ways with color and perspective.
The self-portrait jug’s colonial accents are multiple. Indeed, it’s been suggested that the genesis of the piece lay in the Peruvian pottery of Gauguin’s mother’s collection. (Art historians have also noted that the jug’s color was obtained using a Japanese technique.) As he had done in his Jean Valjean pose a few months before, Gauguin shaped his jug-likeness with “Incan” facial features.
But there is a darker resonance in the object’s fusion of human anatomy and quotidian household decor—a material history now forgotten, but one which the Parisians of Gauguin’s day were forced to reckon with. This history runs through the morning of Prado’s execution.
Prado was one of a series of convicts with colonial ties to be sentenced to death in Paris during 1880s, a group dubbed by one journalist “the great lords of crime.” As it happens, in more than one instance these men had no local next-of-kin to claim their guillotined bodies. By convention, this meant that their corpses were turned over to the Paris Medical School for the purpose of scientific research (the anatomical properties of a convict, foremost the skull, were believed to manifest a biologically criminal essence).
But outrageous rumors—in at least one instance confirmed—swirled around these remains donated to science. With no oversight to prevent them from doing so, workers in the medical school’s amphitheater, as well as doctors, journalists, and policemen, could at times succumb to the temptation to carve up the cadavers, refashioning body parts as souvenirs of a legendary criminal case. Flesh might be used for book bindings or cardholders, a skull for a punch bowl.
So by the time of his execution, Prado had good reason to fear the desecration that awaited his decapitated corpse. In his final hour on death row he rose from bed and—as Paul Gauguin and about 600 other peopled waited impatiently on the other side of the wall—made a statement that startled his captors. “I hereby demand that my body be buried in the ground and not subjected to the experiments of the medical faculty,” he said.
In the absence of protocol relating to such a declaration, a dispute erupted at a nearby cemetery later in the morning between a policeman, a priest, and an aggrieved official from the medical school. Prado’s name lingered in the headlines for another day or two, his last wish having been granted.
For more reading on the career of Paul Gauguin, see Françoise Cachin, Gauguin: The Quest for Paradise (Henry N. Abrams, 1992).
Aaron Freundschuh’s recently published book is, The Courtesan and the Gigolo: The Murders in the Rue Montaigne and the Dark Side of Empire in Nineteenth-Century Paris (Stanford University Press, 2017).