Mr. Gauguin’s Heart: The Beautiful and Bittersweet True Story of How Paul Gauguin Became an Artist
By Maria Popova
Many great artists have in common the ability to transform trauma into creative power. Among them is the great French Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin (June 7, 1848–May 8, 1903), whose work influenced such legendary artists as Picasso and Matisse.
A wonderful addition to both the best children’s books about making sense of loss and the finest children’s books celebrating cultural icons, Mr. Gauguin’s Heart (public library) by writer Marie-Danielle Croteau and illustrator Isabelle Arsenault tells the bittersweet, unbelievably beautiful story of Gauguin’s early childhood and how, after his father’s death, the young boy sought solace in art and transmuted his grief into his first painting.
In this 2004 debut, Arsenault — whose genius has produced such subsequent treasures as Jane, the Fox & Me, Virginia Wolf, and Migrant — once again reveals herself to be one of the most gifted and evocative visual storytellers of our time.
We meet young Paul, a little boy who lives with his beloved parents, his sister Marie, and a dog he adores — “an odd-looking, little orange dog” with whom Paul goes everywhere, plays constantly, and even has conversations.
But the oddest thing about the little orange dog is that is that only Paul can see it.
One day, the Gauguins depart for Peru, and Paul’s imaginary companion boards the ship with the rest of the family. The other passengers find the bond between the boy and his invisible friend endearing — a testament not to his strangeness but to his boundless imagination.
It is a joyous journey, until Paul finds his mother in tears one afternoon.
She told Paul and his sister that their daddy had been carried away.
“How?” the children cried.
“It was his heart,” Mrs. Gauguin answered.
Marie threw herself, wailing, into her mother’s arms. Paul said nothing. He didn’t understand what it all meant. He didn’t see how being carried away by one’s heart could be such a tragedy.
Unable to make sense of it all, the boy perches on the ship’s bridge with his dog and peers into the ocean. All of a sudden, he sees a giant red balloon floating over the horizon. Holding onto its string is his father. As the other passengers gasp at the breathtaking sunset, Paul watches them point to his father’s big red heart.
The days wear on and every time the sun sets, Paul begins to cry all over again, saying goodbye to his father’s heart anew — a tender testament to the waves in which grief always seems to come.
When they finally reach Peru, Paul refuses to leave the ship, unwilling to part with the daily encounter with his father’s heart over the horizon. It takes an old man — a fellow passenger who had been watching the boy play with his invisible companion during the journey — to convince him to disembark the ship, on the pretext that his little orange dog needs to get out and run. So heartbroken is the little boy that he has stopped seeing his imaginary friend. All he wants is to be left alone, to scream that he never had a dog — but the old man seems to believe in the dog so staunchly that Paul doesn’t have the heart to disappoint him.
Leading Paul to the entrance of a great big park, the old man instructs the boy to meet him there next morning, with his little orange dog in tow. Paul complies and finds the old man painting quietly by the pond the next day, so immersed in his art that he doesn’t even notice the boy and his dog.
Eventually, he encourages Paul to join him at the easel and shows him how to mix red and yellow in order to make orange. More than that, he initiates the future painter in the incredible power of art:
“Painting is magic,” he said to Paul. “You can start with next to nothing and still do anything you want.”
The little boy looked the old man straight in the eye. “Even bring something to life?”
“Yes, you can bring things to life,” he replied. “Or prolong the life they had.”
The old man took a paintbrush and drew a picture of an orange on the white canvas. Then he peeled his own orange and ate it. “You see, my orange is gone and yet it isn’t. I still have this one.”
That evening, Paul goes home and shuts himself in his room. His mother, somewhat worried, hears rustling but the boy insists that she leave him alone. After a prolonged silence, he lets her in — and there, on a makeshift easel, is a painting of the ocean, with a giant red circle floating above the horizon.
Mrs. Gauguin’s face lit up. Seeing his mother’s smile, Paul realized that he wanted to be a magician.
Many people came to visit the Gauguin family in Peru. And all who came admired the little boy’s painting. Since they knew nothing about affairs of the heart, they assumed he had painted a picture of Japan’s national flag.
Years later, Paul would become one of the greatest painters of his time. It is said that his art resembles that of Japan. But what no one knows — other than you and Mrs. Gauguin — is that the red sun he painted all those years ago does not represent the flag for a faraway nation. The little boy’s painting of the big red sun is really a picture of Mr. Gauguin’s heart.
Mr. Gauguin’s Heart, originally published in French and translated into English by Susan Ouriou, is the kind of treasure that breaks your heart, then breaks it open. Complement it with an equally moving fictional counterpart in Oliver Jeffers’s The Heart and the Bottle, then revisit the illustrated stories of other luminaries’ childhoods: artist Henri Matisse, mathematician Paul Erdos, and primatologist Jane Goodall.
Published July 8, 2015