Gauguin’s Nose

Gauguin, Self-portrait, Head and Shoulders. Pencil on paper. 13 x 10cm. Private Collection.

This is a little-known self-portrait of Paul Gauguin. The features seem to add up. That lantern jaw, signature moustache and the long, curling hair have been seen before. But, stop! What did he do to his nose? It's classical, Roman and as straight as a brush. It looks nothing like his true one. You might think that Gauguin, not as well trained as his peers, blew his nose but I doubt it. The change is intentional and demonstrates how facial "inaccuracies" in a portrait`by an artist of this stature are often a key to the work's meaning.

Details of four other Gauguin self-portraits

Gauguin's nose was really hooked as we know from other self-portraits (above) and photographs. Such a drastic nose job, beaten out of shape into a straight line, can only have been his choice.

Gauguin, Self-portrait, Head and Shoulders. Pencil on paper. 

What does it mean? My guess, as always, is based on the same paradigm that makes sense of all the other seemingly odd and inexplicable images on EPPH. Why should this one be any different? Gauguin, in my view, drew himself as though he was partly a classical sculpture. His odd schnozzle has become the ideal. It's not real. His nose defines him as a work of art. Now see how his clearly-delineated neckline (repeated several times) and the vertical lines below it can make him resemble a sculpted head on a pedestal.1 He didn't blow his nose after all; he's a bust. In making his face resemble in part an artwork and in part himself, he has done what artists all over the Western world have done. He has become both object and subject of his own drawing, artist and artwork in one.

For a closely related example by a colleague of Gauguin's, see "Van Gogh's Nose" (2010).


1. The lines of his shoulders are part of the alternative view, the self-portrait.

Reader Comments

Leave a Comment

The EPPH Blog features issues and commentary.