La maison blanche was painted during Paul Gauguin's stay in Dieppe during the summer of 1885, at a pivotal moment in his life and his career. This was an incredibly productive period, a final flush of Impressionism, coming only the year before his first seminal stay in Brittany, which would soon see him take a very different path and move towards his Synthetist aesthetic. In this light, it is only too appropriate that La maison blanche may have appeared, under the title Le château de l'Anglaise, in the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition of 1886. It seems all the more likely that this picture was shown then if, as Richard Brettell suggested, the other contender for that title, which appears to show the same building in the background, was in fact exhibited as Près de la ferme; that work was formerly in the Portland Art Museum (see R. Brettell & A.B. Fonsmark, Gauguin and Impressionism, exh. cat., Fort Worth & Copenhagen, 2005, p. 264; also D. Wildenstein, Gauguin, Prémier itinéraire d'un sauvage, Catalogue de l'oeuvre peint, vol. I, 1873-1888, Paris, 2001, p. 221).
Discussing the pictures that Gauguin exhibited in 1886, the critic Gustave Geoffroy wrote, ‘There are some still-lifes among the nineteen canvases Gauguin exhibits, but there are mainly landscapes. He has searched out willows, ponds, farmyards and roads... There is firmness in most of these studies and an understanding of the dominant effect’. Another critic, Marcel Fouquier, wrote on 16 May 1886, ‘Gauguin, Guillaumin, Schuffenecker and Signac, newcomers to Impressionism, like all converts, are consumed with a fine ardour, a burning desire to go further than anyone and to make Pissarro stop, bemused, in front of their canvases. None of them lacks talent’ (quoted in C.S. Moffett, The New Painting, Impressionism 1874-1886, exh. cat., San Francisco, 1986, pp. 456-457).
Gauguin’s stay in Dieppe is shrouded in mystery. He had arrived in the coastal town on the Normandy coast at the beginning of the summer of 1885, shortly after his return to France following the debacle of his stay in Copenhagen, where he had gone with his Danish wife Mette and their family. While in Copenhagen, tensions between the artist and his wife, her family and their acquaintances had come to a head, marking the beginning of a permanent rift between them. Gauguin was evasive about the length of his stay in Dieppe in his letters to his wife, withholding details as to where he was staying, as well as of the duration of his stay. In September 1885, Gauguin wrote to his great mentor Camille Pissarro: 'I'm just back from Dieppe where I spent three months with a friend who put me up. Of course I did a lot of work but there were lots of obstacles given that it's a long way from the countryside which means motifs were rather lacking' (Gauguin, quoted in op. cit., 2001, p. 213).
It is unknown why Gauguin made such a mystery of his movements in Dieppe during his campaign there, which lasted from June or July through to September. Nothing is known of the ‘friend’ with whom he told Pissarro he was staying. In the catalogue raisonné of his work, it has been suggested that the Englishwoman after whom one of his pictures, probably this one, was named may have played some role in his life or accommodation. He may have obfuscated the details of his hosts because they played some part in the conflict between him and his wife, or between other members of Mette's family (see ibid., p. 213). Nonetheless, during his time in Dieppe, Gauguin painted with incredible variety and enthusiasm, including a number of daring vertical landscapes such as La maison blanche. It is this series of works that Richard Brettell has described as being ‘of real ambition and originality – compositionally, chromatically, and iconographically’ (R. Brettell, Gauguin and Impressionism, exh. cat., Fort Worth & Copenhagen, 2005-2006, p. 260).
La maison blanche encapsulates this important moment of artistic development and transition. Before arriving in Dieppe, Gauguin had been staying in Denmark with his wife and children. Here, away from the art world of Paris, he had had time to process the developments he had made, his style and subject matter. Without contact with his contemporaries, namely Pissarro, Gauguin turned to the works in his collection for guidance. Indeed, Gauguin had, over the course of the late 1870s, amassed an impressive collection of Impressionist paintings. With a profound admiration for both Pissarro and Cézanne, Gauguin owned a number of works by each artist, many of which were vertical landscape compositions, a radical pictorial device that he was particularly drawn to.
Similarly, the compositional structure of the present work – concealing the distance with a screen of trees – was being explored by all three artists at this time. Showing the white walled and blue, slate roofed house of the title nestled beyond the dense, summer foliage, Gauguin prevents a traditional sense of pictorial perspective, rebuffing the viewer’s gaze as it moves from the expansive, empty foreground towards the protagonist of the scene. This was an oft-used device in particularly in Cézanne’s work, and Gauguin owned two such landscapes by the artist: Le Château de Médan (circa 1880, Glasgow Museums, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow) and the slightly earlier L’Allée (circa 1879, Göteborgs Kontsmueum). In addition, Gauguin’s facture in the present work also reveals his profound interest in the art of Cézanne. Using refined, parallel brushstrokes, he has captured the delicate play of light across this quiet, rural scene, as well as the myriad hues of the foliage, while losing none of the novel compositional structure for which he would become well known in the years that followed.
Yet, already the signs of Gauguin’s move away from Impressionism to his own, unique Symbolist idiom are clear. The undulating line and flattened plane of colour that demarcates the grassy bank in the foreground would become a frequent feature of his later landscapes, particularly the early Tahitian ones. And similarly, the curving form of the soaring trees in the middle of the picture hint at the stylised lines of these later works. With its delicate palette of blues and greens, radical composition and handling, La maison blanche is therefore an important transitional work in the oeuvre of Gauguin; a painting that embodies the high point of the artist’s form of Impressionism, while also demonstrating the direction that his art would start to take the following year.
Since the time of its creation, La maison blanche has passed through a number of important European and British collections. From the great German collector, Richard Semmel, this painting was subsequently acquired by The 2nd Lord Hollenden, before The 9th Earl of Jersey, where it was part of his esteemed and diverse art collection shown at his home, Osterley House, on the outskirts of London.