A Taste of the Unexpected: Paul Gauguin’s Illustrated Menus
Drawing Room: An Intimate Look at French Drawings from the Esmond Bradley Martin Collection features 39 drawings with a dynamic array of mediums, techniques, and subject matter. One of the most unexpected surprises in the exhibition is a set of two menus illustrated by artist Paul Gauguin. He made these, along with nine others (in other collections), for a banquet he held around 1900 when living in Tahiti, which was then a French colony. He had ventured to the South Seas for the first time in 1891 and returned again in 1895 to make the islands his permanent home. Disillusioned with modern French society, he went there in the hopes of finding an unspoiled paradise far from the reaches of commercialism and urban life.
The first menu features a Tahitian woman and Breton women in conversation: “What! [Are] you Breton?” “No, I [am] a woman of Tahiti.” In 1888 Gauguin had spent time in Brittany in northwest France. Much like his desire to return to a simpler state of existence in Tahiti, Brittany represented, to him, a society untouched by the chaos and corruption of modern life. Here, women from the two cultures meet face-to-face.
An illustration of Jean de la Fontaine’s fable The Raven and the Fox, a warning about the dangers of flattery, appears on the top half of the second menu. In the story a raven perches in a tree with a snack of cheese in its beak. The fox compliments the bird for its beauty and slyly wonders aloud if its voice is as lovely. The raven opens its beak to sing, dropping the cheese on the ground, which becomes the fox’s tasty treat.
The menu planned for the evening’s dinner appears in a whimsical combination of French and Tahitian. It began with aperitifs and “foutimaises assorties,” a made-up word derived from the word “foutaises,” meaning something silly. The main course included a wild pig cooked island style, chicken in a “sauce coco,” and roast beef. Like any proper French meal, Gauguin included wines from a colonial cellar. There would be no salad, and the final bite was dessert.
The playfulness of the drawings, done in watercolor and crayon, suggests a festive and special occasion for Gauguin and his friends and gives us a glimpse into his charmingly creative approach to entertaining company.