This work will be included in the forthcoming Paul Gauguin Digital Catalogue Raisonné, currently being prepared under the sponsorship of the Wildenstein Plattner Institute, Inc.
The present still-life represents an exceptionally rare and intriguing record of the bold stylistic and iconographic shifts that occurred in Gauguin’s work once he began his mythic journey in search of an authentically primitive, unspoiled existence, far removed from his European past. In depth scientific examination of the canvas indicates that he very likely worked on the painting in three separate campaigns over the course of nearly a decade. Coupled with stylistic and iconographic analysis, this close technical study suggests that he painted the initial version of the composition in 1886, the same year that he made his first trip to the remote Breton hamlet of Pont-Aven, and inscribed the canvas with that date. The next year, following his return from a transformative five-month stay in Martinique, he seems to have altered the right side of the painting, adding the enigmatic figure in non-western, native costume. In 1893-1895, back in Paris between his two Tahitian sojourns, he re-worked the canvas in a more wholesale manner, transforming the elements of the still-life and dramatically heightening the palette to manifest the exotic character to which he now aspired.
In its final form, the painting is a private palimpsest of the various phases of Gauguin’s evolution as a painter, documenting—to paraphrase the title of the artist’s later Tahitian masterpiece—where he had come from (“d’où venons nous”), who he was (“que sommes nous”), and where he was going (“où allons nous”). “Tracing the trajectory of Gauguin’s artistic development after 1886, this painting demonstrates his enduring ties to European art, while underscoring his urgent need to connect with something completely foreign,” Ann Temkin has written. “The final painting’s palette and iconography are the result of the artist’s trips to Martinique and Tahiti in search of what he imagined to be a pure, primitive art. In the process of transforming the work, Gauguin self-consciously translated his still life, a genre born of European tradition, into a new visual language of vibrant hues and unfamiliar subjects” (G. Lowry, intro., op. cit., 2015, pp. 39-40).
When Gauguin painted the preliminary version of the still-life in 1886, he was still working in a broadly Impressionist manner. In composition, the painting in this first phase seems to have corresponded quite closely to what we see now, a schema that Gauguin derived from one of his most treasured possessions—Cézanne’s Nature morte au compotier, 1879-1880, subsequently in the Peggy and David Rockefeller Collection (Rewald, no. 418; The Museum of Modern Art, New York). As in the Cézanne, the tabletop is partially covered with a textile and tilted slightly upward, while the background wall runs parallel to the picture surface, creating a compressed, frieze-like space. The palette and handling of the painting, however, were radically different in 1886 than they are today. The background wall was initially dark blue, as visible in the leaf-like forms to the left of the vase. Conservators’ examination has revealed that the tablecloth and bouquet were originally more subdued as well, with broken touches of pink, blue, and violet still preserved beneath the later layers of pigment.
The only hint in the original composition of Gauguin’s mounting interest in exotic cultures is the tropical gourd on the table and the unusual curved peeling implement beside it. A similar fruit appears in Nature morte au profil de Laval, one of Gauguin’s most aesthetically advanced works of 1886, painted late in the year following his return to Paris from Pont-Aven (Wildenstein, no. 238.; Indianapolis Museum of Art). In both cases, the gourd probably alludes to Gauguin’s dreams of escape in search of a new life, preceding the trip to Martinique that he undertook the next year with the painter Charles Laval. “I had a decisive experience in Martinique,” Gauguin would later recount. “It was only there that I felt like my real self, and one must look for me in the works I brought back from there rather than those from Brittany, if one wants to know who I am” (quoted in The Lure of the Exotic: Gauguin in New York Collections, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2002, p. 45).
Upon his return to Paris from Martinique in November 1887, Gauguin appears to have taken up the present canvas anew. At the far right, he opened up the composition by creating a view through a doorway to a room beyond, where a female figure, dark-skinned and barefoot, stands in shadow. She wears a long-sleeved, calf-length white dress and a tightly wrapped head scarf, a costume that appears repeatedly in the paintings that Gauguin brought back from Martinique. The addition of this figure subverted the originally unitary space of the picture, creating a tension between the tabletop still-life arrangement, with its roots in Dutch and French tradition, and the explicitly non-European realm beyond. “Several early still-lifes by Gauguin are charged with similar lapses in logic,” Charles Stuckey has written, “and the resulting mood of mystery in all these paintings was among Gauguin’s foremost goals” (Gauguin, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1988, p. 221).
Gauguin’s sojourn in Martinique represented the first concrete step toward the exoticism and primitivism that would flourish in his Tahitian work. In 1889, after viewing the displays of Pacific culture at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, the artist began to contemplate another voyage, envisioning a place where he could “work seriously as a savage” without material concerns. By the following summer, he had settled on a destination. “I shall go to Tahiti and I hope to end my days there,” he wrote to Odilon Redon. “I judge that my art, which you like, is only a seedling thus far, and out there I hope to cultivate it for my own pleasure in its primitive and savage state” (quoted in Gauguin Tahiti, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2004, p. 19). In April 1891, after dividing the contents of his studio—including the present painting—among his friends Daniel de Monfreid and Émile Schuffenecker and the dealer Alphonse Portier, Gauguin embarked on the steamship Océanien, bound for Papeete.
Gauguin remained in Tahiti for a transformative two years, returning penniless to France on 30 August 1893. After such a long absence and with finances so dire, reclaiming his place on the metropolitan stage was a matter of great urgency. Within days, he persuaded Durand-Ruel to give him a solo show, which opened on 10 November. He selected for inclusion forty-two paintings that he had brought back from Tahiti, as well as three Breton canvases and several sculptures. Yet while press coverage abounded, only eleven works sold. Gauguin was devastated, attributing the commercial failure of the show to widespread incomprehension of his Polynesian adventure. “In the vast gallery, where his painted vision blazed forth, he watched the public, and listened,” recounted the poet Charles Morice, who wrote the catalogue preface for the exhibition. “Soon there could be no doubt: they did not understand” (quoted in, ibid., p. 85).
To show his latest work to best effect, Gauguin clearly needed a new strategy. With the meager proceeds from Durand-Ruel, he rented a sprawling studio in a ramshackle building at 6, rue Vercingétorix. In short order, he transformed the place into a glowing exotic fantasy, covering the walls with inexpensive chrome-yellow paper and painting over the windows with the same color, so that the room seemed to emanate an intense, tropical light. He hung his own paintings from floor to ceiling, and he filled the interior with flea-market exotica, Tahitian curios, and his uncle Zizi’s ethnographic collection. A new model called Annah la Javanaise moved in, along with her pet monkey Taoa; over the door, Gauguin painted the words Te faruru—“Here one makes love.” As soon as he was settled, the artist began to host a regular Thursday soirée, at which he showed his work, told stories of his travels, played music, and fostered a spirit of licentious revelry. “Once inside, the visitor was transported away from the grey city below into the exotic paradise of Gauguin’s imagination,” David Sweetman has written (Paul Gauguin: A Life, New York, 1995, p. 373).
It was very likely at the rue Vercingétorix studio, within this encompassing decorative environment, that Gauguin brought the present canvas to its definitive state. Surrounded by his boldly colored Tahitian production, the original Impressionist still-life composition, now seven years old and retrieved from safe-keeping, must have struck the artist as a relic of an older era—muted, cautious, and altogether too French. He covered the dark blue background with a bright lemon-yellow that matched the walls of the studio, and he re-painted the tablecloth in vivid hues of orange and pink to rival this new ground color in intensity. Atop the lavender-colored flowers of the existing bouquet, Gauguin superimposed several brilliant red poinsettia-like blossoms with contrasting green foliage; he elaborated the gourd with crimson forms that suggest the pulpy flesh of a tropical fruit, creating a visual rhyme with the red underside of the tablecloth. Virtually the only passage of the painting that he seems to have left untouched was the Martinique figure at the far right.
Notably, however, Gauguin did not endeavor to conceal the discontinuities in the finished composition, but rather called attention to the various phases of its making. In the bouquet, he retained the loose, Impressionist treatment of the lilacs, a native European species, while painting the exotic red flowers in a contrasting mode comprised of flat fields of bright color. He left tantalizing passages of the original dark-blue ground visible, and he even preserved the older signature and date on the table’s edge. The result is an aesthetic bridge between the artist’s European and Polynesian experience—an East-meets-West hybrid, comparable to Te tiare farani (Fleurs de France) (Wildenstein, 1984, no. 426; The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts), the still-life masterpiece of Gauguin’s first Tahitian journey, with its massive bouquet of European oleander. Following his return to Polynesia in 1895, this synthesis would become the abiding theme of Gauguin’s work in still-life, from La théière et les fruits, 1896—a veritable translation of his beloved Cézanne painting into a Tahitian idiom—to the quartet of canvases from 1901 depicting sunflowers cultivated in tropical exile.
After a promising start to the year 1894, Gauguin’s stint in France took a dramatic turn for the worse in the spring. With Annah in tow, the artist traveled to Le Pouldu in late April to recover the paintings that he had left with the innkeeper Marie Henry. When she refused to return them, he sued her and lost. In May, while he was still in Brittany awaiting his day in court, he was attacked by a group of sailors, who fractured his leg and left him unable to paint for two months. He was recovering at the Hôtel Gloanec in Pont-Aven, heavily drugged and virtually immobile, when Annah returned to Paris and pillaged his studio, leaving only the paintings. “I have come to an unalterable decision—to go and live forever in Polynesia,” he wrote to Monfreid in October or November. “Then I can end my days in peace and freedom, without thought of tomorrow and this eternal struggle against idiots” (F. O’Brien, ed., Gauguin’s Letters from the South Seas, New York, 1992, p. 36).
Back in Paris, Gauguin began to prepare for his departure. To raise funds for steamer passage, he held a week-long exhibition at the rue Vercingétorix studio in early December and an auction of his work at the Hôtel Drouot on 18 February 1895. In April, still short on cash, he submitted to the Salon his ceramic masterpiece Oviri, which he had crafted during the preceding months at Ernest Chaplet’s studio. When the jury rejected the savagely nude figure, it marked for Gauguin the final split with the West. He left his unsold paintings with a dealer named Lévy and an aspiring artist, Georges Chaudet, who agreed to act as his agents while he was away. On 28 June 1895, he took the train from Paris to Marseille, and from there boarded a boat to Polynesia, this time never to return.