Gauguin and Emile Schuffenecker, a minor painter of the Pont-Aven school, first met in 1872. Both were then employed in a stockbroker's office. Until the early 1890s when they quarrelled, Schuffenecker gave great support to Gauguin. He encouraged Gauguin to take up a career as a painter, often inviting him to dine and, on a number of occasions, to stay. He also had the idea for the 1889 Exhibition at the Volpini Gallery, a key moment in Gauguin's influence on young painters. However, Gauguin did not hesitate to reveal his contempt for "good old Schuffenecker" on several occasions, including in this painting.
Gauguin started this painting in January 1889, and only finished it the following spring. This explains the contrast between the heavy clothes of Louise, Madame Schuffenecker, the glowing stove and the verdant landscape of the background.
Van Gogh's influence is evident in the large areas of contrasting primary colours, yellow and blue. The figures are painted flat, like those in the Japanese print on the wall. There is tenderness in the portrayal of the two children in their red pinafores. The same cannot be said of the parents. For Louise, Gauguin presents the image of a surly creature, malevolent even. Perhaps he was annoyed with her unenthusiastic welcome when he came to stay with the Schuffeneckers, with her indifference. Unless, as his close acquaintances believed, the painter had tried to seduce her without success? A few symbolic elements might confirm this idea: two previous portraits of Louise in ceramic feature a serpent, a symbol of temptation. And here, in particular, the very ostentatious wedding ring on her overly large hand portrays her as a dominating mother and demanding wife.
As for Emile Schuffenecker on the left, he looks very small in his big slippers. He looks meekly at his wife. His hands are crossed, in an obsequious pose, without any sign of a paintbrush. The man is denied his status as a painter, and ridiculed as a husband. In return for Schuffenecker's devotion, Gauguin offers posterity only this eloquent but cruel family portrait.