The Wildenstein Institute will include this painting in their forthcoming Gauguin catalogue critique.
Paysage aux troncs bleus is a recently rediscovered painting dating from Paul Gauguin's historic first trip to Tahiti. This picture, hitherto unknown in the literature on the artist, bears a clear relationship to Gauguin's Cabane sous les arbres, which was sold at auction in May of this year in New York. The present work has been in the hands of the same Norwegian family for over half a century, and has not been seen in public in all this time.
This picture sings with the intense and highly interpretative palette that marks out the greatest of Gauguin's pictures from his first voyage to Tahiti. The blues of the trees that dominate the composition have an ethereal quality; Gauguin has managed to capture the idea of their shadows in that cool blue, and thrusts it into relief by contrasting it with the dense, lush green of the background. Meanwhile, rainbow-like bands of colour form almost geological striations across the lower portion of the canvas, giving a sense of receding distance while eschewing the perspectival techniques traditionally associated with Western art. In the background, horses graze and smoke curls from a fire, being blown into the distance, giving the sense that Paysage aux troncs bleus in fact shows a moment related to that in Cabane sous les arbres. Indeed, some of the trees appear as though they could be the same ones, seen from a slightly different vantage point that removes the hut of the latter painting, which must have resembled Gauguin's own abodes in the outskirts of Papeete, the Tahitian capital, and then later dozens of miles from there in Mataiea. During his time in Tahiti, Gauguin created several pairs of related pictures, sometimes recreating a composition and sometimes showing a variation, as is the case here.
Gauguin had travelled to Tahiti in search of an Arcadia. He had already headed to Martinique in 1887, where he had been plagued by illness during his five months. However, his appetite was again whetted by the exotic exhibits that were on display at the Exposition Universelle held in Paris in 1889. He carried out research, trying to settle on a place to visit that would allow him to work outside the Western tradition. Dismissing one of his initial choices of destination, Gauguin wrote to the Symbolist artist Odilon Redon, 'Even Madagascar is too near to the civilised world... I shall go to Tahiti and hope to end my days there. I judge that my art, which you like, is only a seedling thus far, and out there I hope to cultivate it for my own pleasure in its primitive and savage state' (Gauguin, quoted in C. Ives et al., The Lure of the Exotic: Gauguin in New York Collections, exh. cat., New York, 2002, p. 77). On arrival in Tahiti, Gauguin had in fact found that the civilization there had been contaminated by the West, not least by the missionaries, meaning that many of the traditions and beliefs of the past were already disappearing. While his disillusionment would, during his second stay in Tahiti some years later, lead to his departing for the more 'savage' Marquesas, during this first stay he remained infatuated by the place, and that infatuation suffused his paintings. These took on a new energy after his discovery of a book on the old Polynesian beliefs, which reignited his passion for Tahiti.
This passion is reflected in the electric palette of Paysage aux troncs bleus. Gauguin's deliberate use of an emphatically flat composition in this picture recalls the influence of Japanese and tribal art, as well as one of Gauguin's own paintings from four years earlier. This was a landscape believed to show a view in Brittany, Les arbres bleus of 1888, now in Ordrupgaard Museum near Copenhagen. It is thought that Les arbres bleu solicited the following praise from Octave Maus, which employed terms that remain appropriate to Paysage aux troncs bleus: 'Insofar as one landscape shows trees with blue trunks and a yellow sky, one might conclude that M. Gauguin lacks the most elementary notion of colour... I humbly confess my sincere admiration for M. Paul Gauguin, who is not only one of the most refined colourists I know, but also one of the most innocent where the tricks of the trade are concerned' (Maus, quoted in R. Brettell, F. Cachin, C. Frèches-Thory & C.F. Stuckey, The Art of Paul Gauguin, exh. cat., Washington D.C., 1988, p. 119).
This marked a shift in the critical appreciation of Gauguin's work that was growing throughout the late 1880s and early 1890s, as more and more artists and collectors sought out his work, either to see or to acquire. In 1891, he was able to stage a successful sale in order to raise funds for his voyage. Meanwhile, during the course of 1888, he had been sought out by another artist, Paul Sèrusier, who painted a picture under Gauguin's direct instruction. This reflected the importance of perception and subjectivity in Gauguin's paintings. 'How do you see that tree?' he asked Sèrusier. 'Is it really green? Use green then, the most beautiful green on your palette. And that shadow, rather blue? Don't be afraid to paint it as blue as possible' (Gauguin, quoted in D.W. Galenson, Artistic Capital, New York, 2006, p. 41). Like Paysage aux troncs bleus, that picture, painted on a cigar box and later entitled Le Talisman because of its importance as a cornerstone of the Nabis, shows the streaking blue of the trees in shadow. Looking at Paysage aux troncs bleusand some of its sister pictures from the same journey, it is clear to what extent Gauguin, now that he was in Tahiti, pushed his own lessons to a new extreme.
As he recalled in his memoir, Noa Noa, 'Everything in the landscape blinded me, dazzled me. Coming from Europe I was constantly uncertain of some colour [and kept] beating about the bush: and yet it was so simple to put naturally on to my canvas a red and a blue. In the brooks, forms of gold enchanted me - Why did I hesitate to pour that gold and all that rejoicing of the sunshine on to my canvas? Old habits from Europe, probably, - all this timidity of expression...' (Paul Gauguin, Noa Noa, trans. J. Griffin, Oxford, 1961, p. 20). Soon, Gauguin had overcome these 'old habits' and was painting in a searing palette, as seen in Paysage aux troncs bleus or indeed in pictures such as Cabane sous les arbres, Matamoe in the Pushkin Museum, Matamua in the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection or the two landscapes known as Mahana Maa, one of which is in the Cincinnati Art Museum and the other in the Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki. His time in Tahiti, whether spent exploring religious or mystical scenes or simply immersing himself in the nature, lifestyle and beauty of his surroundings, thus resulted in a new-found determination.
While half way through 1892, he had written letters to France expressing his own doubts, he now painted with a new-found certainty. Showing his own appreciation of the changes that had come about in his art and in his person, he wrote of his return to France in 1893 that he was''older by two years, but twenty years younger; more barbarian than when I arrived, and yet much wiser' (Gauguin, quoted in G.T.M. Shackelford & C. Frèches- Thory, Gauguin Tahiti: The Studio of the South Seas, exh. cat., Paris & Boston, 2004, p. 45).