Phillips Petting Zoo: Paul Gauguin

Paul Gauguin, The Ham, 1889. Oil on canvas, 19 3/4 x 22 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection. Acquired 1951. Photo: Claire Norman

This is a series is about animals, but no, this is not a post about the pig from which The Ham is derived . . .

Notice near the rim of the café table Gauguin signed the work “P GO”. The artist often abbreviated his signature with these initials and when you say “P GO” in French, it sounds indistinguishable from its homophone, “pego,” nautical slang for penis. This double entendre wouldn’t have been lost on Gauguin; he spent six years in the French merchant navy. On her blog, Tate Curator Christine Riding discusses how the museum almost called a children’s book on birds and animals in Gauguin’s art “P GO” until someone pointed out the name’s indelicate connotation.

Paul Gauguin, The Ham (detail), 1889. Oil on canvas, 19 3/4 x 22 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1951. Photo: Claire Norman

In 1901 Gauguin settled on Hiva Oa in the Marquesas Islands, and there he acquired a little dog he named “Pego.” Perhaps that’s him in lower right corner of the late painting, Marquesan Man in a Red Cape, although Gauguin painted many dogs throughout his career, including these adorable puppies.

In 1998 June Hargrove, my graduate school advisor, met Pego’s descendant pictured below; he lived on the grounds of the Gauguin Museum in Mataiea, Tahiti. The director of the museum told her that in the 1960s a scholar researching Gauguin received a canine descendant of Pego from someone in Gauguin’s family. He brought the pup to the museum. Apparently, by the time she took this photo, Pego’s progeny had populated the place.

Canine descendant of Gauguin's dog Pego. Photo: June Hargrove