Painted in 1891, Jeune homme à la fleur was one of the first paintings Gauguin completed after arriving in Papeete, the only town on the island of Tahiti.
Gauguin was, at first, disappointed by his arrival on the island. He had hoped to escape the shackles of ‘the present day’. Instead, he was greeted by local grandees and Gauguin was unable to find the culture he was looking for, ‘To have travelled so far only to find the very thing which I had fled!’ he wrote.
Gauguin relocated 40 miles south of Papeete to the village of Mataiea in search of the ‘primitive past’ he so craved. Even here he was troubled by the conventions of contemporary society when he was fined for public indecency for swimming naked in the sea. However, while he was here he started painting the men and women around him including this portrait of a young man, clad in a pink European blouse and loose cravat, with the simple but telling native adornment of a small white tiaré blossom tucked over his left ear.
Almost 40 years later, Henri Matisse, partly under the influence of Gauguin, travelled to Tahiti. He had bought this painting from the dealer Ambroise Vollard in 1900 and it later inspired one of Matisse’s sculptures. In 1915, feeling the pressures of the First World War in France, he sold it to the wealthy American lawyer and collector John Quinn.