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Gedo, M.M. (1998). Paul Gauguin: A Life. By David Sweetman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995, 600 pp., illus., $35.00. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 46(4):1295-1297.

(1998). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 46(4):1295-1297


Paul Gauguin: A Life. By David Sweetman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995, 600 pp., illus., $35.00

Review by:
Mary Mathews Gedo

This biography of Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) merits review in a psychoanalytic journal because it demonstrates the problems inherent in so many “psychobiographical” studies. The author attempts to apply certain psychoanalytic insights to Gauguin's character and career, but the attempt falls short because Sweetman does not develop a comprehensive overview of Gaugin's character and therefore cannot correlate certain key events of his early childhood with his mature personality. Without such a guiding conception, the author presents would-be analytic interpretations in a hit-or-miss fashion.

Sweetman's research throughout the biography reflects a similar spottiness. For example, he reports in exhaustive detail on the structure of the Paris Bourse during the period of Gaugin's professional activity in finance. By contrast, he contents himself with repeating the standard misinformation about the artist's medical history, without ascertaining what was known about syphilis at the time, and without consulting a neurologist about whether the artist's myriad symptoms from 1891 on could plausibly all be attributed to tertiary syphilis. (In point of fact, Gaugin did not contract the disease until the winter of 1894-95, when he broke out with secondary syphilitic eruptions so severe that he was forced to delay his second voyage to Polynesia.) The author's seeming naivete in describing the physical and mental crisis Vincent van Gogh suffered during Gauguin's sojourn with him in Arles simply as a “demented” state suggests that he probably also failed to investigate the cause of the Dutch artist's condition—which almost certainly was a form of temporal lobe epilepsy.


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