France 1869 – 1903
oil on canvas
canvas 88.0 (h) x 115.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchase 1929
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
The sitter, Gabrielle Vien, was born in 1886 and was therefore in her eighth year when Séguin painted her portrait.1 Her gaze encounters the viewer’s directly, without coyness or false sentiment. She is a good child, posing dutifully, dressed in her best clothes. They are black—was she in mourning? Does she seem older than her years? This may be the result of the quizzical angle of her head, inclined slightly downwards, while the girl looks sideways at the artist, and at us.
Although Séguin was a friend of the Nabis painters, especially Sérusier and Denis, he never joined the group formally. Instead of the Nabis’ small, informal studies of domesticity, Gabrielle Vien seems a much more ambitious and conventional portrait. Perhaps it was a commission, or an attempt by the artist for public recognition. Séguin presents his work as a modern version of a Renaissance portrait. A demure female subject sits in a dark interior, with patches of light emanating from her hair, face and hands, which clutch a white handkerchief. In the lower-left corner, a bright warm patch of colour—a bowl of flowers or fruit on a table—forms the left corner of the pyramidal composition. A window opens onto the outside world, showing a small village and tilled ground.
The painting was never completed, and some details are difficult to read. According to the model, the window and the landscape were painted by Gauguin.2 He was a colleague, or rather a mentor, for Séguin, in Pont-Aven, and wrote an introduction for the younger artist’s one-man show at the Galerie Le Barc de Boutteville in 1895. Gauguin called him a ‘cerebral artist—he expresses not what he sees but what he thinks by means of an original harmony of lines, limited by arabesques’.3 If the sitter is correct, it is rather Gauguin’s curves and arabesques made by the curtains which complicate and ornament the simple arcs of the child’s black dress. The small pleasures of texture and pattern are provided by an embroidered collar, floral decoration on the sofa, and lively waves of golden hair.
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
- The sitter was brought up in Paris in intellectual circles, the daughter of Elizabeth de Saint-Maure. Gabrielle was widowed at twenty and became a singer under the name of Mary Christian. The partner of Marco de Gastyne, after their separation she became a writer, novelist, poet and journalist under the name of Marie Jade. Awarded the Prix Amie of the Academie francaise in 1970, she died in 1980.
- ‘Gabrielle Vien’, website catalogue entry, 2006, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, viewed 22 September 2009, www.musee-orsay.fr/en/collections/index-of-works/notice.html?no_cache=1&nnumid=007979&cHash=8e04573399.
- Taube G. Greenspan, ‘Armand Séguin’, in Jane Turner (ed.), The dictionary of art, vol. 28, London: Macmillan 1996, p. 371.