This work will be included in the forthcoming Paul Gauguin catalogue critique, currently being prepared under the sponsorship of the Wildenstein Institute.
Please note this work has been requested for the forthcoming Painters' Paintings exhibition from 22 June-4 September 2016 at The National Gallery of Art, London.
Originally in the collection of the great modern master Henri Matisse, Paul Gauguin's striking and evocative portrait of a young man, clad in a pink European blouse and loose cravat, with the native adornment of a small white tiaré blossom tucked over his left ear, is among the first paintings the artist completed after arriving in Tahiti in 1891.
The forthright charm of this painting stems from Gauguin's sensitive characterization of his sitter, a handsome and thoughtful man of whom the artist was clearly quite fond. The sincere, underlying simplicity of this three-quarter view, bust-length portrait, moreover betokens a significant story–indeed, a profoundly transformative event–in the life and career of the great artist, in which this young Tahitian served as a catalyst and an invaluable teacher. The young man with whom Gauguin became acquainted during his initial months in Tahiti was named Jotefa–or so the artist called him in a later draft of Noa Noa (“Fragrance”), the account he began in 1893 of his first island sojourn. It was this young boy who led Gauguin through the exotic landscape of the island in search of wood for the artist’s sculpture. As a result of their contact and this seminal journey, Gauguin met with that breakthrough revelation he had been seeking of completely immersing himself in an indigenous culture and becoming a Maori. Painted in the midst of this deeply transformative Tahitian period, Jeune homme à la fleur could be seen to pay tribute to this young man, encapsulating the compelling personal and artistic adventure that Gauguin undertook in the South Seas. The importance of Jeune homme à la fleur within Gauguin’s oeuvre is reflected not only by its unique provenance–after Matisse, it was later owned by Lillie P. Bliss, one of the original founders of the Museum of Modern Art, New York–but the painting has also been included in some of the most prominent exhibitions of the artist in the twentieth century.
Matisse became the first private owner of Jeune homme à la fleur when he acquired the painting from the dealer Ambroise Vollard in 1900, drawn to it perhaps, as Yve-Alain Bois has suggested, “by the touching strangeness of the flower on the young man’s ear” (Painting as Model, Cambridge, Mass., 1993, p. 35). On 14 August 1900 Matisse paid Vollard 50 francs toward the purchase of the Jeune homme à la fleur, and made good on the balance of 150 francs on 7 October, according to receipts in the Vollard Archives. Gauguin’s Jeune homme à la fleur and a modestly scaled Cézanne Baigneuses were the pride of Matisse’s small collection of contemporary paintings. Feeling the pinch, nevertheless, of the slumping art market in Paris during the First World War, Matisse sold Jeune homme à la fleur in 1915 through the American painter and art adviser Walter Pach to the wealthy New York collector John Quinn.
Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings served as fertile inspiration for Matisse throughout his career. Later, in 1930, Matisse voyaged to Tahiti in search of fresh inspiration. It was partly a memory of the tiaré, that small Tahitian flower above Jotefa’s ear in Jeune homme à la fleur –and finding the custom of wearing the blossom still popular in the islands–that inspired Matisse after he returned to Nice from the South Seas in the summer of 1930 to model the sculpture he called Le Tiaré: a head of woman in the shape of the flower (Duthuit, no. 78). A couple of years later Matisse had his son Jean carve a white marble version, which he kept in his studio until his death. “Tiaré suggests a symbol of Matisse and his art,” Albert Elsen wrote. “Its gesture, intended to give us pleasure, is open yet secretive” (The Sculpture of Henri Matisse, New York, 1972, p. 174). Le Tiaré represents the spirit of Gauguin’s Noa Noa that Matisse brought back from Tahiti to Nice, to enhance the already exotic and dreamy atmosphere of the artist’s orientalist studio.
Gauguin arrived in Papeete, the only town on the island of Tahiti, and the capital of French colonial Polynesia on 12 June 1891. The artist however found Papeete a thoroughly westernized town, colonized with European residents and not at all the exotic, primitive idyll that he had longed for on leaving France. It soon became clear to Gauguin that it was impossible to experience anything like the authentic life of a primitive, savage culture–his reason for coming to the South Seas–anywhere near Papeete. “I was seized by a profound sadness,” he wrote in Noa Noa. “To have travelled so far only to find the very thing which I had fled! The dream which led me to Tahiti was cruelly contradicted in the present: it was the Tahiti of times past that I loved... Shall I manage to recover any trace of that past, so remote and so mysterious?” (N. Wadley, ed., Noa Noa: Gauguin's Tahiti, London, 1985, p. 69, footnote 14; and p. 13 [translation by J. Griffin of the original draft manuscript of 1893 in the J.P. Getty Museum, Malibu]). He was still not far enough from civilization, it seemed, so in the early fall, Gauguin visited and then relocated to Mataiea, a tiny village forty miles south of Papeete.
On 7 November 1891, nearly five months following his arrival in Tahiti, Gauguin wrote to his friend Georges-Daniel de Monfreid, "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 C. Frèches-Thory, Gauguin Tahiti, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2004, p. 25). Within the next few weeks, however, as Gauguin filled the pages of his Carnet de Tahiti with sketches, he began to paint as well, inspired by his new surroundings and the people he had met there. He completed some twenty Tahitian subjects by Christmas Day, including L'homme à la hache (Wildenstein, no. 430) and also likely painted Jeune homme à la fleur around this time.
Among the drawings he likely made during this time is a sheet showing the head of a young Tahitian man with a downy moustache, illustrated here. Charles F. Stuckey suggested this drawing “perhaps portrays Anani, Gauguin’s landlord and neighbor in Mataiea, or Jotépha, who led Gauguin into the mountains to find wood to make sculpture” (The Art of Paul Gauguin, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1988, p. 224). While Gauguin did not name Jotefa anywhere in his original manuscript of Noa Noa, he did so in his collaboration with Charles Morice, published as La Plume edition in 1901 (English translation by O. F. Theis, published by Nicholas L. Brown, New York, in 1919).
Gauguin described in Noa Noa his growing friendship with Jotefa, and their journey to the nearby mountain, where Gauguin experienced his epiphany of becoming Maori. Gauguin was seeking a piece of rosewood for a sculpture and Jotefa offered to take him to find it. The pair set off together and in the process of finding and chopping down the desired piece of rosewood, Gauguin experienced a moment of transcendence:
“We were reaching our destination... There several trees (rose-wood) extended their huge branches. Savages both of us, we attacked with the axe a magnificent tree... I struck furiously... In 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 remnants of civilized man in me. I returned at peace, feeling myself thenceforward a different man, a Maori... He said to me: ‘Are you pleased?’ ‘Yes’... I was definitely at peace from then on. I gave not a single blow of the chisel to that piece of wood without having memories of a sweet quietude, a fragrance, a victory and a rejuvenation”
(N. Wadley, ed., Noa Noa: Gauguin's Tahiti, London, 1985, p. 28 [translation by J. Griffin of the original draft manuscript of 1893 in the J.P. Getty Museum, Malibu]).
Gauguin’s reference to the lotus–an aquatic flower that blooms during the summer and only in daylight, viewed in Buddhist and Hindu tradition to be the symbol of purity and rebirth–reflects the transformative nature of the artist’s adventure with Jotefa. Completely immersed in the indigenous culture of Tahiti, Gauguin had attained his long yearned for desire to escape modern society and live a simpler, primitive existence. In this context, Jeune homme à la fleur can be seen as an important and touching tribute to the young Tahitian man who aided Gauguin on this transformational journey.
The image of the woodcutter–surely also inspired by Jotefa–occurred earlier in Noa Noa, in a dream. “Near my hut there was another hut (‘Fare amu’, house to eat in). Nearby, a pirogue–while the diseased coconut-palm looked like a huge parrot, with its golden tail drooping and a huge bunch of coconuts grasped in its claws. The nearly naked man was wielding with both hands a heavy axe that left, at the top of the stroke, its blue imprint on the silvery sky and, as it came down, its incision on the dead tree, which would instantly live once more in a moment of flames” (op. cit., 1985, p. 17). This vision became the genesis of L’homme à la hache, completed in late 1891, at around the same time as Jeune homme à la fleur.
Gauguin was particularly fascinated with one aspect he had observed in the stylization of archaic art, postcards of which he collected and carried with him in his travels, using them for reference while he painted. Ancient and native arts often shared an outwardly androgynous conception of the human body, which Gauguin saw mirrored in the actual figures of young Tahitian men and women; both sexes generally share similar body types, with flattened chests or smallish breasts, slim waists, narrow hips and thick, trunk-like lower legs. “In the benevolent environment of Tahiti [Gauguin] could relax and be Christ”–Wayne Andersen explained–“but a Christ of a different color; the passive Christ of Pont-Aven must now give way to the muscular Androgyne who was, in truth, the perfect man. The reborn Christ was both savage and gentle, both man and woman, in his dual nature, the true image of the God who created him” (Gauguin's Paradise Lost, New York, 1971, p. 206).
Gauguin’s voyage to the South Seas and the art he made whilst he was there inspired a host of twentieth century artists. In his early days as an artist in Paris, Pablo Picasso looked to the great French artist as a powerful source of inspiration, treasuring his copy of Noa Noa for the entirety of his life. Gauguin’s writings, as well as his paintings, were, as John Richardson detailed, ‘the main conduit for the primitive power and mystery and drama that he appropriated from Gauguin’ (A Life of Picasso, Volume I: 1881-1906, London, 1991, p. 264). Picasso drew a Gauguinesque study of a nude in December 1902 that he signed “Paul Picasso” in honor of the older painter, who had but months left to live in distant Hivaoa. For Matisse, Gauguin’s work–its liberated, flattened colours and stylized forms–provided endless inspiration and his influence proved crucial in the emergence of Matisse’s Fauve style in 1905. While Matisse and Derain were painting together in Collioure that summer, Aristide Maillol introduced them to Georges-Daniel de Monfreid, the custodian of Gauguin’s archives and the caretaker of numerous paintings that Gauguin had sent to France from Tahiti and the Marquesas. Seen in such quantity, these canvases were a revelation to the two painters. As a result, they moved away from the tesserae-like divisionism they had derived from Signac and Cross, toward the application of paint in Gauguin’s synthétiste manner, employing large patches of brilliant color to achieve–surpassing even their master–dramatic tonal contrasts of unprecedented intensity and impact.