'Gauguin's teeth' found down well

John Lichfield
Saturday 01 December 2007 01:00
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Many art collectors would give their eye teeth for a painting by Paul Gauguin but how much would they give for his teeth?

Four rotten molars, which may have belonged to the French Post-Impressionist, have been found by archaeologists at the bottom of a well that the painter built on the remote island of Hiva Oa, on the Marquese islands in the Pacific Ocean.

According to the Gauguin specialist Caroline Boyle-Turner, there is strong possibility that the teeth belonged to the quarrelsome, syphilitic painter.

They almost certainly came from a European mouth, she says, because they are severely decayed. Marquese islanders of a century ago did not eat sugar and their teeth did not decay. The well, dug beside a hut used by Gauguin, was used to dump debris from his home but was sealed just after his death.

Writing in Van Gogh Studies, an annual review from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Ms Boyle-Turner gives the first full account of the objects found during an excavation of the well seven years ago. They include four teeth that Ms Boyle-Turner believes Gauguin may have kept as a souvenir after they were extracted while he lived on the island for the last two years of his life in 1901-03.

Gauguin, born in Paris in 1848 to a relatively well-off family, befriended but then quarrelled with most ofthe leading Impressionist artists before breaking with the movement.

After giving up his job as a foreign exchange broker, he lived briefly with Vincent van Gogh at Arles in southern France in November and December 1888.

Their spectacular rows and brawls culminated in Van Gogh threatening Gauguin with a razor and then cutting off part of his own ear. Gauguin returned to Paris, spent time at an artists' colony at Pont-Aven in Brittany, and eventually settled for the last years of his life in the Pacific Islands. He named his hut on Hiva Oa the "Maison de Jouir", or "the house of orgasm".

The island council built a replica of the hut in 2003 and finds from the archaeological dig are displayed there. Other odds and ends from the painter's home found 9ft down the well include a New Zealand beer bottle, five broken plates from Brittany, smashed perfume bottles, orange and ochre minerals which are presumed to be hand-made paints, a makeshift artist's palette and most intriguingly an empty Bovril jar.

This suggests that Gauguin,an enfant terrible all his life, remained a rebel to the end. He was probably the only Frenchman ever to have liked Bovril.

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