'I am an artist and you are right, you are not mad, I am a great artist and I know it. It is because I am such that I have endured such sufferings. To do what I have done in other circumstances would make me a ruffian. Which I am no doubt for many people. Anyhow, what does it matter? What distresses me most is not so much the poverty as the perpetual obstacles to my art, which I cannot practice as I feel it ought to be done and as I could do if relieved of the poverty which ties my hands. You tell me I am wrong to remain far away from the artistic centre. No I am right, I have known for a long time what I am doing, and why I do it. My artistic centre is in my brain and not elsewhere and I am strong because I am never sidetracked by others, and do what is in meMy actions, my painting etc., are criticised and repudiated every time, but in the end I am acknowledged to be right. I am always starting all over again. I believe I am doing my duty, and strong in this. I accept no advice and take no blame. The conditions in which I am working are unfavourable, and one must be a colossus to do what I am doing in these circumstances' (Paul Gauguin, 'Letter to his Wife Mette' March, 1892, reproduced in M. Prather & C. F. Stuckey, eds., Gauguin, A Retrospective, New York, 1987, p. 179).
Depicting a narrow path winding through a small but idyllic tropical valley nestled beneath the island mountains, Le Vallon is an accomplished landscape painting that Gauguin made during the second year of his first visit to Tahiti in 1892. A masterly and integrated fusion of natural form and colour, the painting is both a paean to and an invocation of the spectacular Tahitian landscape as a metaphor for the prelapsarian idyll that Gauguin had long dreamed of finding in the South Seas.
Writing to Odilon Redon that 'Madagascar is still too close to the civilized world. I will go to Tahiti and I hope to finish my life there,' Gauguin had first set sail from France for Tahiti in April 1891. He was dreaming of a primitive idyll, he wrote, far from the European 'struggle for money...(where)...I will be able to listen in the silence of beautiful tropical nights to the soft murmuring music of my heartbeats in loving harmony with the mysterious beings in my entourage' (Paul Gauguin, quoted in Paul Gauguin, exh. cat., Chicago, 1989, p. 210). What he found in the Tahitian capital of Papeete was a disillusioning colonial outpost, rife with corruption, its citizens riddled with syphilis and the untainted primitive culture he had imagined now clothed and closeted into oppressive Catholic missions. 'But the landscape', he later wrote, 'dazzled and blinded me', with its 'violent pure colours'. It was 'simple to paint things as I saw them; to put without special calculation a red close to a blue. Golden figures in the brooks and on the seashore enchanted me. Why did I hesitate to put all this glory of the sun on my canvas. Oh! The old European traditions!' (Paul Gauguin, Noa Noa, New York, 1957, p. 30).
Drawn increasingly away from the depressing conditions of the capital, Gauguin finally moved, five months after his arrival, thirty kilometres down the coast to the village of Mataaiea. There, far from the external trappings of Western civilization, and beginning to feel himself increasingly acclimatised into the 'primitive' culture he had sought, he set about assembling an entire repertoire of sketches detailing the people, gestures, customs, faces, animals and plants all around him. 'My life is now that of a savage' he wrote back to Europe proudly, I am working all the time, but up 'til now only studies, or rather documents (drawings), are piling up' (Paul Gauguin, quoted in Gauguin Tahiti, The Studio of the South Seas, exh. cat., Boston, p. 25). It was these 'documents' and what he once described as the 'whole little world of friends' , by which he meant the many photographs, illustrations, drawings and other images - a whole library of which, he had taken with him to Tahiti - that were to serve as models and prompts for many of the paintings he made on the island.
Gauguin produced sixty six paintings during this first two-year-long stay in Tahiti; paintings that were to both redefine modern art and inspire future generations for decades to come. In general these works can be classified into two types, those made seemingly documenting or inspired by the open-air life along the coastal plane and those, like Le Vallon, that depict the landscape of the interior of the island. 1Wanting to suggest a wild and luxuriant nature, and a tropical sun which makes everything around it blaze,' Gauguin wrote of one of these works, 'I had to give my figures an appropriate setting. It is really life in the open - an intimate life all the same, among the thickets and the shaded brooks; these women whispering in an immense palace which Nature herself has decorated with all the riches that Tahiti holds. Hence these fabulous colours, this fiery, yet soft, muted air' (Paul Gauguin, quoted in R. Goldwater, Gauguin, New York, 1955, p. 112). Nature, in the form of the Tahitian landscape, became a sensual and semi-abstract paradise of rich colour and form into which, in painting after painting, Gauguin's elegant Tahitian figures were seamlessly inserted. But, what is perhaps most unique or even revolutionary about these works is that Gauguin, unlike almost all other European painters of exotic tropical lands, did not resort to a phoney exoticism, but sought, more than is often thought, to render accurately the scenes and life he saw before him. This is especially true of Gauguin's Tahitian landscapes which, despite their apparently idealised compositions are often extremely accurate in their portrayal of the hills and valleys of the island's interior.
What is idealised about these landscapes is the artist's use of them as metaphors for an ideal world of man and nature living in harmony and for what he felt to be his own progress towards the purer, more natural state of being that he saw in his ideal of the 'savage'. Gauguin's inclusion of female figures in his landscapes for example, often marked a deliberate attempt to draw a visual correlation between the fecundity and fertility of Woman and the bounty of nature. Similarly, as in Le Vallon for example, many of his landscapes depicting a narrow winding path leading towards the mountains, also seem suggestive of a metaphorical journey into the heart of the island and into the heart of Nature. Indeed, it was this same metaphor that Gauguin used to form the heart of his memoir of this first Tahitian sojourn, the book entitled Noa Noa, that he completed in 1893. Forming the basis of this diary's title, Gauguin described how on a journey to the heart of the island with a beautiful young man to find a suitable tree for carving, he became intoxicated into a state of transcedence. 'From all this youth, from this perfect harmony with the nature which surrounded us, there emanated a beauty, a fragrance (noa noa) that enchanted my artistic soul,' Gauguin wrote. On reaching their destination 'where the crags of the mountain drew apart, and behind a curtain of tangled trees, a semblance of a plateau (lay) hidden but not unknown'. It was there, like a rite of passage, that Gauguin underwent what he seems to have understood as an awakening that unburdened him of his Western mindset and allowed him to be reborn as an innocent or savage. Now 'savages both of us', he wrote, 'we attacked with the axe a magnificent treeIn time with the noise of the axe I sang: "Cut down by the foot the whole forest (of desires), Cut down in yourself the love of yourself, as a man would cut down with his hand in autumn the Lotus". Well and truly destroyed indeed, all the old remnant of civilised man in me. I returned at peace, feeling myself thenceforward a different man, a Maori' (Paul Gauguin, Noa Noa Journey to Tahiti, Oxford, 1961, p. 24).
Something of this progress towards an idealised, integrated and harmonious natural state is evoked in Le Vallon through the simple elegance of its composition. Rendered in a series of sequential dabbed and angular brushstrokes reminiscent in some respect of Cézanne's structuring of nature, and of some of his own earlier Martinique paintings, Gauguin here articulates in sumptuous and subtly changing detail, a myriad pattern of foliage animated and shimmering in different shades and colours. In his rendering of this unspoilt and idyllic landscape of cultivated plenty, Gauguin has drawn on a classical format for his composition. Not unlike Poussin's Italianate landscapes in its use of the Golden Section and the placing of distinct figures at various strategic points in the composition in order to lead the eye through the painting, the composition leads to a small figure in red standing before what also seems to be a waterfall pouring from the rock near the painting's centre. This seamless and intelligent marriage of modernist style, classical composition and exotic subject matter, is what ultimately distinguished Gauguin's art and made it so influential for so many years to come. But more than this, here, in this work, in leading the eye in this way, the structure of the painting, as in many other Gauguin landscapes from this period such as Rue de Tahiti (Toledo Museum of Art) and Montagnes Tahitiennes (Minneapolis Institute of Arts) appears to invoke a specific and even mystical sensation. It is one of entering into and then journeying through an idyllic and harmonious realm - a sensation that is ultimately evocative of a similar sense of the transcendent journeying through the landscape and into the interior of this world that Gauguin described himself undergoing in Noa Noa.