If Paul Gauguin had produced no paintings, he would still be given a special place in the history of modern sculpture. Throughout his career, Gauguin created works in the most "primitive" or "direct" of sculptural materials: earth (ceramic) and vegetation (wood). In the first medium, he compared himself - as he often did in paintings - with God, molding human forms from the earth. Of the surviving ceramic vessels (he likely made at least twice as many as are known today), this "portrait" vessel is among the most original and accomplished.
The vase had traditionally been read as a portrait of Louise Schuffenecker, the wife of its first owner and the central focus of a famous group portrait of the Schuffenecker family painted in 1889 (Musée d'Orsay, Paris), the same year that this vessel was made. If this identification is true, Mme Schuffenecker has been transformed from the despondent, bourgeois woman of the painting (she is literally swathed in clothes) to a pale nude, whose disembodied hand provocatively arranges the ribbon in her hair. Indeed, the frank sexuality of the ceramic woman is everywhere stressed by the artist. The head and upper torso rest confidently on her large, curved breasts; her ear is shaped as a faun's; and on the vessel itself Gauguin incised a long snake coiled in a tree. Clearly, this woman is a temptress, and Gauguin relates her to Eve, making overt associations between the ribbon in her hair and the serpent in the tree.
The seemingly idiosyncratic design of a bust as a vase did not originate with Gauguin. The painter derived the idea from ancient Peruvian ceramics, particularly those of the Moche culture (c. A.D. 100 - 700). He knew these ceramics both from his own childhood in Peru and from the collection owned by his great-uncle Isidore, who raised him after the family returned from Peru to France. Yet, as is always true for great artists, the source is completely subsumed by Gauguin, who felt no need to be slavish or to "quote" from a single reference. While the form itself was created by Gauguin, the luscious glazing might have been done in the studio of, and possibly under the direct supervision of, the ceramicist Ernest Chaplet with whom Gauguin worked in the spring of 1889. The use of metallic, flowing, richly colored glazes makes this work as masterful as any produced in France during the late 1880s. There is little evidence in Gauguin's earlier ceramic production that he had this degree of skill.
"Impressionist Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture from the Wendy and Emery Reves Collection," page 97