"I am writing this in the evening. The night silence in Tahiti is even stranger than anything else. It can be felt; it is unbroken by even the cry of a bird. Now and then a large dry leaf falls but without even the faintest noise, rather the rustling of the wind. The natives often move about at night, barefooted and silent. Nothing but this silence. I understand why these people can remain hours and days sitting immobile and gazing sadly at the sky. I apprehend all the things that are going to invade my being and feel most amazingly at peace at this moment.
"It seems to me as if the turmoil of life in Europe exists no longer, and tomorrow it will be the same, and so on until the end
"Such a beautiful night it is. Thousands of persons are doing the same as I do this night; abandon themselves to sheer living, leaving their children to grow up quite alone. All these people roam about everywhere, no matter what village, no matter by what road, sleeping in any house, eating, etc., without even returning thanks, being equally ready to reciprocate. And these people are called savages!... They sing; they never steal; my door is never closed; they do not kill. Two Tahitian words describe them: Iorama (good morning, good-bye, thanks, etc.)... and Onatu (I don't care, what does it matter, etc.) and they are called savages! (M. Malingue, ed., Paul Gauguin: Letters to his Wife and Friends, Boston, 2003, p. 163).
Gauguin wrote this rapt and enchanted passage in a letter to his wife Mette, who was living with their children in Copenhagen, in July 1891, only a few weeks after he arrived in Papeete, the French capital of Tahiti and the island's largest town. It was still a couple of months before the painter left Papeete to live in the countryside, but even amid the dullness and squalor of this rundown westernized settlement the artist had a momentary epiphany of the mysterious and excitingly primitive world he had long dared to imagine and had now traveled so far to find.
There is a similar sense of this serenity and repose in this still-life painting of fruit and small peppers, artfully arranged and balanced, and rendered with an almost Zen-like simplicity. The date of 1892 that Gauguin inscribed on the canvas indicates that he painted it about half-way through his first stay in Tahiti, which lasted almost exactly two years, from 9 June 1891 to 4 June 1893. There are only three other still-life paintings that Gauguin is known to have done during his first trip to the South Seas. Two of these include figures as significant participants in their compositions: Te tiari farani (Les fleurs de France), 1891 (Wildenstein, no. 426; The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow) and Le Repas (Les Bananes), also done in 1891 (Wildenstein, no. 427; fig. 1). The third, like the present painting, is purely a still-life: Nature morte aux fleurs et à l'idole, which has been ascribed to 1892 but has disappeared and may no longer be extant (W., no. 494). In addition there are five major figure paintings that incorporate still-life elements (e.g., figs. 2, 3 and 4). Gauguin painted many more pure still-lifes, about eighteen in all, during his second stay to the South Seas in 1896-1902.
Gauguin quickly became bored with colonial society in Papeete, and in the early fall he relocated to Mataiea, a village about forty miles south of the capital, hoping for a more genuine experience of primitive native life on the island. Titi, a mixed-race girl of dubious repute from Papeete, had accompanied him, but she continuously complained of missing the comforts of the capital and Gauguin eventually got rid of her. Gauguin was still not far enough from civilization, it seemed, and it annoyed him to have been fined for public indecency when he was seen naked while bathing. On 7 November 1891, five months following his arrival in Tahiti, Gauguin wrote to his friend Georges-Daniel de Monfreid, who was looking after his interests back in Paris: "As of yet I have done nothing striking. I am content to dig into myself, not into nature, and to learn a little drawing; that's the important thing. And then I am getting together subjects to paint in Paris" (quoted in F. O'Brien, ed., Gauguin's Letters from the South Seas, New York, 1992, p. 16).
Within the next few weeks, however, as Gauguin was filling the pages of his Carnet de Tahiti with sketches, he began to paint as well. He completed some twenty Tahitian subjects by Christmas Day, including L'homme à la hache (W., no. 430; sold, Christie's New York, 8 November 2006, lot 9), and two of the paintings with still-life elements illustrated here (figs. 1 and 2). On 11 March 1892 the artist wrote to Monfreid, announcing that he had completed his most important painting during his stay to date, Ia Orana Maria (fig. 3), and in the following month he declared, "I have been working hard all this time an up till now have covered forty metres of good canvas with Lefranc and Co.'s colors. I think I shall be able to pull through, and really it would have been a shame to leave" (quoted in ibid., p. 19).
It was probably around this time that Gauguin acquired his young native wife, when a local family, following Tahitian customs of hospitality, offered their teenaged daughter to the European guest in their village. Tehemana became the artist's vahine and model. Gauguin had assimilated himself into the communal life of Mataeia as much as any European might be allowed. He was probably referring to this period in Noa Noa, his collection of memories, stories and observations of his first Tahitian sojourn:
"My neighbors--three of them quite close by, and many more at varying distances from each other--look upon me as one of them. Civilization is falling from me little by little.
I am beginning to think simply, to feel only a little hatred for my neighbor--rather, to love him. All the joys--animal and human--of a free life are mine. I have escaped everything that is artificial, conventional, customary. I am entering into the truth, into nature. Having the certiftude of a succession of days like this present one, equally free and beautiful, peace descends on me. I develop normally and no longer occupy myself with useless vanities." (O. F. Theis, trans., Noa Noa, New York, 1985, p. 17).
Most of the figure paintings that Gauguin was making of Tahitian subjects are in a large easel size, measuring three feet (90 cm.) or more on one side. At nearly four feet in height, Ia Orana Maria is the largest canvas that the artist painted during his first stay in Tahiti. It is with these paintings that Gauguin hoped to dazzle the Paris art world, and convince people of the significance of his quest for the primitive. Smaller canvases are relatively rare--as noted above, Gauguin painted fewer than a handful of pure still-lifes, and there is only one other in the smaller easel size seen here, the work thought to be disparu. The format of the present painting is also unusual--it was painted on a canvas in an elongated or panoramic landscape format. This picture is similar in shape and size to three landscapes that Gauguin painted in 1892, in which he turned the canvases on their side to work in a vertical format (W., nos. 490-492). The choice of canvas size and cut may have been dictated by circumstances of necessity. Gauguin would periodically run low on supplies and need to conserve them, and at other times he had no money to purchase needed materials when shipments periodically arrived by boat. By June 1892 Gauguin had become desperate over his financial situation, and was seeking permission to return to France. He wrote to Monfreid in August 1892: "I have had no canvas for a month and dare not buy any, as I have so little money, so I cannot do anything. But I am studying with the brain and eyes, then I rest a little, which won't do me any harm. Lying fallow from time to time is necessary for active people like me" (quoted in M. Malingue, ed., op, cit., p. 174).
The fruit depicted in this still-life are very likely oranges, which were cultivated and grew wild in Tahiti, and the hot red and green peppers were a commonly used condiment, but there is little to suggest that either was part of Gauguin's diet during this time. Indeed, this still-life may represent an imaginary feast rather than a real one, as odd as this might seem in light of the tropical abundance that surrounded him. On 5 November 1892 Gauguin wrote to Monfreid: "to keep my affairs in any sort of order and to avoid running into debt, I hardly eat. Only a little bread and tea. I've grown very thin on it, I am losing my strength and ruining my stomach. If I went to hunt bananas in the mountains, or to fish, I could not work Oh, how much misery on account of this accursed money!" (in F. O' Brien, ed., op. cit., p. 24). Occasionally the young naval lieutenant Paulin Jénot, who had greeted Gauguin on his arrival in Tahiti, would bring him food from Papeete. When he could afford food, he relied on tinned goods sold by the local Chinese merchant, who did not stock fresh produce, for which there was no demand; the villagers foraged for or raised their own fruits and vegetables. It was impossible for Gauguin to buy fruit from local villagers--they did not accept money and would instead simply give the fruit to him. Gauguin--in his still very European sense of pride--refused to accept such gifts, because he believed it was tantamount to an admission that he was lazy and a beggar, unable to provide for himself.
In any case, Gauguin did not require actual fruit in order to paint them. He often worked from sketches, but mostly from memory and his imagination, inventing colors and forms as he painted. When the dealer Ambroise Vollard asked Gauguin to paint some floral still-lifes, which would be easier to sell in Paris than the Tahitian subjects, the artist replied in a letter dated January 1900, "I am not a painter who copies nature--today less than before. With me everything happens in my crazy imagination and when I tire of painting figures I begin a still-life and finish it without any model" (quoted in R. Brettell et al, The Art of Paul Gauguin, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., p. 456). He may have also painted this still-life out of wistful nostalgia for the favorite Cézanne painting in his collection back home, Nature morte au compotier (Rewald, no. 418; fig. 5). On the eve of his departure from France, Gauguin refused an offer of 300 francs for this "exceptional pearl", as he called it, at a time when he could have readily used the funds to finance his journey. He wrote to Emile Schuffenecker, "It's the apple of my eye, and unless there's an absolute necessity I would part with it only after my last shirt" (quoted in J. Rewald, The Paintings of Paul Cézanne: A Catalogue Raisonné, New York, 1996, Volume I, p. 277). This "absolute necessity" did in fact arise in 1897 when Gauguin needed money to pay for hospital expenses in Papeete, and he finally allowed the dealer Chaudet to sell his prized Cézanne for 600 francs. This was not until after he had painted what was in effect a consolation piece to compensate for its absence, recreated as a Tahitian version, La théière et les fruits, 1896 (W., no. 554; fig. 6).
Commentators have generally assumed that the still-life elements in the large Tahitian figure paintings were intended to do little more than fulfill a largely accessory and decorative function, and were minimally emblematic in themselves. This may not be true in the present still-life, where the exclusive focus on the fruit and little peppers may signify some way in which the artist identified especially with them. The whole, perfectly rounded forms of the ripening fruit piled on and contained within the circumference of the dish may symbolize an organically homogenous community, to which the spicy little peppers do not belong, a visual metaphor for the way in which the position of the artist inevitably lay outside the confines of society. This is not to burden this wonderfully radiant painting with some darker emblematic content, but if this is the point the artist wished to make, he does so in a very genial and light-handed manner. Gauguin appears to have retained a fondness for the imagery he chose to depict here, because he again included these fruits and peppers in one of his finest late still-life paintings, Nature morte aux fruits et fleurs, 1901 (W., no. 631; fig. 7), in which he also adopted a predominantly yellow and orange tonality.
Gauguin sailed from Tahiti on 4 June 1893, bound for Noumea and then on to Marseilles, where he arrived on 30 August with only four francs left in his pocket. A month or two before his departure, he wrote to Monfreid, "In my two years stay, some months of which went for nothing, I have turned out sixty-six canvases of varying quality and some ultrabarbaric sculpture. It is enough for a lone man" (F. O'Brien, ed., op. cit., p. 30). He carried these paintings and several sculptures back with him, including this Nature morte. The leading Impressionist dealer Paul Rosenberg acquired this painting by 1929, and then sold it to Georges Menier (1880-1933), whose family owned the famous Chocolat Menier, since the 1850s the world's leading maker and distributor of quality packaged chocolates. Menier collected both Impressionist and Modern paintings; he was friendly with Matisse, Modigliani and other important artists. He purchased one of the Modigliani's scandalous nudes in 1918, and then commissioned from him a painting of his wife Simonne, one of the artist's most stately portraits (Christie's New York sale, 9 May 2007, lot 53). The couple's son Claude, who was also painted by Modigliani and had a strong interest in art, inherited this glowing Gauguin still-life painting from his parents.
Paul Gauguin in Breton costume. February 1891, two months before leaving France for the South Seas. Photograph by Louis Maurice Boutet de Monvel. Private collection. BARCODE 25010985
(fig. 1) Paul Gauguin, Le Repas (Les Bananes), 1891. Musée d'Orsay, Paris. BARCODE 25010992
(fig. 2) Paul Gauguin, Te faaturuma (La Boudeuse), 1891. Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts. BARCODE 25011005
(fig. 3) Paul Gauguin, Ia Orana Maria (Je vou salue Marie), 1891-1892. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. BARCODE 25011012
(fig. 4) Paul Gauguin, Te Aa No Areois (Le germe des Areois), 1892. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. BARCODE 25011029
(fig. 5) Paul Cézanne, Nature morte au compotier, 1879-1880. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, (fractional gift of David and Peggy Rockefeller). BARCODE 25010961
(fig. 6) Paul Gauguin, La théière et les fruits, 1896. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. BARCODE 25011036
(fig. 7) Paul Gauguin, Nature morte aux fruits et fleurs. 1901. Private collection. BARCODE 25010978