PAUL GAUGUIN (1848-1903)
PAUL GAUGUIN (1848-1903)
PAUL GAUGUIN (1848-1903)
PAUL GAUGUIN (1848-1903)
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On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more Visionary: The Paul G. Allen Collection
PAUL GAUGUIN (1848-1903)

Maternité II

Details
PAUL GAUGUIN (1848-1903)
Maternité II
signed and dated ‘Paul Gauguin 1899’ (lower right)
oil on burlap
37 1/4 x 24 in. (94.7 x 61 cm.)
Painted in Tahiti in 1899
Provenance
The artist; Estate sale, Papeete, 2 September 1903, lot 104.
Jean Cochin, Paris (acquired at the above sale).
Denys Cochin, Paris (1906).
Galerie Bernheim-Jeune et Cie., Paris (acquired from the above, 28 February 1910).
Alphonse Kann, Paris (acquired from the above, 28 February 1910).
(possibly) Michel Manzi, Paris (circa 1915).
Dikran Khan Kélékian, Paris and New York (by 1920); sale, American Art Association, New York, 30-31 January 1922, lot 152.
Bourgeois Gallery, Paris (acquired at the above sale).
Adolph Lewisohn, New York (by 1926).
Sam Lewisohn, New York (by descent from the above, circa 1942).
Wildenstein & Co. Inc., New York (acquired from the above, 1942).
Mrs. Henry Huttleston Rogers Jr. (acquired from the above, 1943, until at least 1948).
Wildenstein & Co. Inc., New York (acquired from the above).
Edwin C. and Florence Vogel, New York (acquired from the above, 1952).
David Rockefeller, New York (acquired from the above, 1956).
John Seward Sr. and Barbara Piasecka Johnson, Princeton (acquired from the above, circa 1975, until at least 1990).
Nevill Keating Pictures, Ltd., London.
Private collection (acquired from the above, circa 1997); sale, Sotheby's, New York, 4 November 2004, lot 15 (world auction record for the artist at the time of sale).
Acquired at the above sale by the late owner.
Literature
Vizzavona, ed., Recueil: Oeuvre de Paul Gauguin; Photographies de E. Druet, Bretagne, vol. 1 (illustrated).
Vizzavona, ed., Recueil: Oeuvre de Paul Gauguin; Photographies de E. Druet, Œuvres diverses, vol. 8 (illustrated twice).
V. Segalen, "Gauguin dans son dernier décor" in Mercure de France, June 1904, no. 174, p. 682.
C.J. Holmes, Notes on the Post-Impressionist Painters: Grafton Galleries, 1910-1911, London, 1910, pp. 23-24, no. 41 (titled Négresses).
D. MacCarthy, "The Exhibition at the Grafton Galleries: Gauguin and Van Gogh" in Spectator, 26 November 1910, pp. 902-903.
M. Puy, "Paul Gauguin" in L'art décoratif: Revue de l'art ancien et de la vie artistique moderne, April 1911, no. 151, p. 183 (illustrated; titled Tahitiennes).
C. Morice, Paul Gauguin, Paris, 1919, p. 164 (illustrated).
A. Alexandre, Collection Kélékian: Tableaux de l'Ecole française moderne, Paris, 1920 (illustrated, pl. 41).
H.E. Field, "The Metropolitan French Show" in The Arts, May 1921, vol. I, no. 5, p. 2.
S. Haweis, "Paul Gauguin: Artist" in International Studio, May 1921, vol. LXXIII, no. 290, p. 95 (illustrated, p. 97; titled Natives of Tahiti).
Art in America, August 1921, vol. 9, no. 5, p. 213.
W.S. Blunt, My Diaries: Being a Personal Narrative of Events; 1900-1914: The Coalition against Germany, New York, 1922, vol. 2, p. 329.
F. Watson, "American Collections: No. 3; The Adolph Lewisohn Collection" in Arts, July-December 1926, vol. 10, p. 33 (illustrated, p. 33).
H. Hertz, "Paul Gauguin" in Art in America and Elsewhere, April 1927, vol. 15, no. 3 , p. 150 (illustrated).
S. Bourgeois, The Adolph Lewisohn Collection of Modern French Paintings and Sculptures, New York, 1928, p. 162 (illustrated, p. 163).
S. Bourgeois, "The Passion of Art Collecting: Notes on the Adolph Lewisohn Collection" in Art News, 14 April 1928, vol. XXVI, no. 28, p. 64.
A. Alexandre, Paul Gauguin: Sa vie et le sens de son œuvre, Paris, 1930, p. 267 (illustrated; titled Pastorale Taïtienne).
F. Cossio del Pomar, Arte y vida de Pablo Gauguin, Madrid, 1930, p. 364 (illustrated, p. 325, pl. LV; titled Tahitianas/Escena Tahitiana).
R.H. Wilenski, French Painting, Boston, 1931, p. 289 (dated circa 1896).
S. Bourgeois and W. George, "L'art français du XIXe et du XXe siècles à la collection Adolphe et Samuel Lewisohn" in Formes: Revue internationale des arts plastiques, September-October 1932, no. 28-29, p. 303 (illustrated, p. 302).
C. Kunstler, Anciens et Modernes: Gauguin, Paris, 1934, p. 164 (illustrated, p. 77).
G.L. McCann Morley, "The Gauguin Exhibition" in San Francisco Art Association Bulletin, September 1936, vol. 3, no. 4, p. 5.
S.A. Lewisohn, Painters and Personality: A Collector's View of Modern Art, New York, 1937, pp. 61-62 (illustrated, p. 58, pl. 29).
"Gauguin et Victor Segalen" in L'amour de l'art, December 1938, no. 10, p. 384.
J. Rewald, Gauguin, Paris, 1938, p. 167 (illustrated, p. 141; dated circa 1896).
S.A. Lewisohn, "Four Memoirs of the Growth of Art and Taste in America: The Collector; Personalities Past and Present" in Art News Annual, 1939, vol. 37, no. 22, p. 154 (illustrated, p. 69).
R. Cogniat, Gauguin, Paris, 1947 (illustrated, pl. 94; dated circa 1896).
C. Kunstler, Gauguin: Peintre maudit, Paris, 1947 (illustrated, pl. 36).
L. van Dovski, Paul Gauguin oder die Flucht vor der Zivilisation, Olten, 1950, pp. 281 and 351-352, no. 332 (dated 1896).
J. Loize, De Maillol et Codet à Ségalen: Les amitiés du peintre Georges-Daniel de Monfreid et ses reliques de Gauguin, Paris, 1951, p. 133, no. 360 and p. 162, no. 553 (titled Trois Tahitiennes).
C. Estienne, Gauguin, Geneva, 1953, p. 84 (illustrated in color, p. 85; dated 1896).
A.M. Frankfurter, "Collectors and Modern Million-Dollar Taste" in Art News, March 1953, vol. 52, no. 1, p. 24 (illustrated in color, p. 24; dated 1889).
C. Chassé, Gauguin et son temps, Paris, 1955, p. 148.
B.H. Friedman, "Current and Forthcoming Exhibitions" in The Burlington Magazine, June 1956, vol. 98, no. 639, p. 212 (dated 1896).
H. Read, "Gauguin: Return to Symbolism" in Art News Annual, 1956, no. 25, pp. 125 and 145 (illustrated in color, p. 145; dated 1889).
R. Goldwater, Paul Gauguin, New York, 1957, p. 134 (illustrated in color, p. 135; dated 1896).
C. Sterling, Musée de l'Ermitage: La peinture française de Poussin à nos jours, Paris, 1957, pp. 132 and 134 (dated 1897-1899).
G. Wildenstein, "L'idéologie et l'esthétique dans deux tableaux-clés de Gauguin" and "Vente des oeuvres d'art, livres et objets ayant appartenu à Gauguin: 2 septembre 1903" in Gazette des beaux-arts, special issue, Gauguin: Sa vie, son œuvre; Réunion de textes, d'études, de documents, 1958, p. 137 (illustrated, p. 152, fig. 19; dated 1896) and pp. 205 and 207, respectively.
R. Puig, Paul Gauguin, G.D. de Monfreid et leurs amis, Perpignan, 1958, p. 35 (titled Tahitiennes).
"Ausstellung Paul Gauguin" in Die Weltkunst, June 1959, no. 11, pp. 9-11.
M. Denis, Journal, 1921-1943, Paris, 1959, vol. 3, p. 241.
R. Huyghe, Gauguin, Paris, 1959, p. 75 (illustrated in color; dated 1896).
J. Richardson, "Shorter Notices: Gauguin at Chicago and New York" in The Burlington Magazine, May 1959, vol. 101, no. 674, p. 191, no. 61.
M. Malingue, "L'homme qui a réinventé la peinture" in Gauguin, Paris, 1960, p. 124.
M. Rheims, "La cote des Gauguin" in Gauguin, Paris, 1960, p. 221 (titled Les Trois Vahinées).
H. Perruchot, La vie de Gauguin, Paris, 1961, p. 334, note I and p. 386.
A. Langer, Paul Gauguin, Leipzig, 1963, p. 63 (illustrated in color, pl. 71; dated 1896).
G. Wildenstein, Gauguin, Paris, 1964, vol. I, pp. 245-246, no. 582 (illustrated, p. 245).
C. Chassé, Gauguin sans légendes, Paris, 1965, p. 141 (illustrated, p. 140; with incorrect support).
B. Danielsson, Gauguin in the South Seas, London, 1965, p. 211.
A. Kantor-Goukovskaïa, Поль Гоген Жизнь и творчество, Leningrad, 1965, p. 162 (dated 1896).
P. O'Reilly, Catalogue du Musée Gauguin: Papeari, Tahiti, Paris, 1966, p. 128.
P.C. Nicholls, Gauguin, New York, 1967, p. 30 (illustrated in color, pl. 65).
W.V. Andersen, Gauguin's Paradise Lost, New York, 1971, p. 248 (illustrated, p. 345, fig. 131).
G. Mandel Sugana, L'opera completa di Gauguin, Milan, 1972, p. 112, no. 403 (illustrated, p. 110).
L. van Dowski, Die Wahrheit über Gauguin, Darmstadt, 1973, pp. 220-221 and 273, no. 332 (dated 1896).
B. Danielsson, Gauguin à Tahiti et aux îles Marquises, Papeete, 1975, p. 221.
P. Leprohon, Paul Gauguin, Paris, 1975, pp. 271 and 317.
E. Fezzi, Gauguin: Every Painting, New York, 1980, vol. II, p. 76, no. 561 (illustrated, p. 77).
Z. Amishai-Maisels, Gauguin's Religious Themes, New York, 1985, pp. 288, 305-308, 325, 333, notes 67, 68 and 72, and p. 546 (illustrated, fig. 138).
R. Goldwater, Primitivism in Modern Art, Cambridge, 1986, p. 77 (dated 1896).
M. Malingue, La vie prodigieuse de Gauguin, Paris, 1987, p. 303.
R. Brettell, F. Cachin, C. Frèches-Thory and C.F. Stuckey, The Art of Paul Gauguin, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1988, p. 423.
J.B. Bullen, ed., Post-Impressionists in England, London, 1988, pp. 113 and 127.
F. Cachin, Gauguin, Paris, 1988, p. 239.
A. Kantor-Goukovskaïa, A. Barskaïa and M. Bessonova, Paul Gauguin: Musée de l'Ermitage, Musée des Beaux-Arts Pouchkine, Paris, 1988, p. 144 (illustrated).
P. Daix, Paul Gauguin, Paris, 1989, pp. 304, 354 and 356.
G. Manceron, "Segalen et Gauguin" in Gauguin: Actes du colloque Gauguin; Musée d'Orsay, 11-13 January 1989, Paris, 1991, pp. 41 and 47, note 51.
C. Christensen, "The Painting Materials and Technique of Paul Gauguin" in Studies in the History of Art, 1993, vol. 41, p. 94.
Paul Gauguin e l’avanguardia russa, exh. cat., Palazzo dei Diamanti, Ferrara, 1995, pp. 120 and 126.
N. Margolis Maurer, The Pursuit of Spiritual Wisdom: The Thought and Art of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, Madison, 1998, pp. 171-172 (illustrated in color, fig. 373).
S.A. Stein, "From the Beginning: Collecting and Exhibiting Gauguin in New York" in The Lure of the Exotic: Gauguin in New York Collections, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2002, pp. 166-168 and 230, note 83 (illustrated in situ at the Lewisohn apartment, p. 160, fig. 62; illustrated again in situ at the 1921 exhibition, p. 167, fig. 64).
P. Laudon, Tahiti-Gauguin: Mythe et vérités, Paris, 2003, p. 120.
G. Manceron, "Koké et Tépéva: Victor Segalen dans les pas de Gauguin" in Gauguin Tahiti: L'atelier des tropiques, exh. cat., Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, 2003, pp. 325 and 330, note 26.
K. White, "Parvenir à la béatitude" in Paul Gauguin: Héritage et confrontations; Actes du colloque des 6, 7 et 8 mars 2003 à l'Université de la Polynésie Française, Papeete, 2003, pp. 225-226 (titled Femmes sur le bord de la mer).
A. Gruetzner Robins, "'Manet and the Post-Impressionists': A Checklist of Exhibits" in The Burlington Magazine, December 2010, vol. CLII, no. 1293, p. 787, note 54.
M. Jakobi, Gauguin-Signac: La genèse du titre contemporain, Paris, 2015, p. 191, no. 143 (illustrated).
M. Stone, "The Most Expensive, Over-The-Top Pieces of Art Owned by Tech Billionaires" in Business Insider France, 9 May 2015 (illustrated in color).
P. Zegers, "Gauguin, Cat. 102, The Rape of Europa, from the Suite of Late Wood-Block Prints" in Gauguin Paintings, Sculpture, and Graphic Works at The Art Institute of Chicago, 2016 (illustrated in color, fig. 1.28).
D. Wildenstein, S. Crussard and R.R. Brettell, Gauguin: Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, 1891-1903 (digitalprojects.wpi.art/artworks/gauguin/introduction), no. W582 (illustrated in color).
Exhibited
Paris, Grand Palais des Champs-Elysées, Société du Salon d’Automne, 4me Exposition, October-November 1906, p. 201, no. 213.
London, Grafton Galleries, Manet and the Post-Impressionists, November 1910-January 1911, p. 19, no. 41 (titled Négresses).
The Brooklyn Museum, Paintings by Modern French Masters Representing the Post-Impressionist and their Predecessors, March-April 1921, no. 119 (illustrated; titled Natives of Tahiti).
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Loan Exhibition of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Paintings, May-September 1921, p. 12, no. 48 (illustrated).
New York, Union League Club, Exhibition of ‘Modern’ Pictures Representing Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, Expressionist and Cubist Painters, April 1924, no. 17.
Cleveland Museum of Art, Fifty Years of French Art, October-November 1926.
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Summer Exhibition: Painting and Sculpture, July-September 1933.
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Modern European Art, October 1933, p. 3.
San Francisco Museum of Art, Paul Gauguin: Exhibition of Paintings and Prints, September-October 1936, p. 17, no. 19 (illustrated).
The Brooklyn Museum, Gauguin Prints and Drawings, June-October 1938.
San Francisco, Treasure Island, Masterworks of Five Centuries: Golden Gate International Exposition, February-October 1939, no. 148 (illustrated, pl. 148; dated circa 1896).
New York, Wildenstein & Co. Inc., A Loan Exhibition of Paul Gauguin, April-May 1946, p. 63, no. 7 (illustrated, p. 21).
New York, Wildenstein & Co. Inc., Six Masters of Post-Impressionism, April-May 1948, p. 27, no. 17 (illustrated, p. 34; dated 1896).
New York, Paul Rosenberg & Co., Collector’s Choice: Masterpieces of French Art from New York Private Collections, May-April 1953, p. 66, no. 27 (illustrated, p. 67; dated 1896 and with incorrect support).
Paris, Musée de l’Orangerie, De David à Toulouse-Lautrec: Chefs-d’œuvre des collections américaines, April-July 1955, no. 30 (illustrated, pl. 76; dated 1896).
New York, Wildenstein & Co. Inc., Gauguin: Loan Exhibition for the Benefit of the Citizens' Committee for Children of New York City, Inc., April-May 1956, p. 19, no. 45 (illustrated, p. 57; dated 1896).
The Art Institute of Chicago and New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gauguin: Paintings, Drawings, Prints, Sculpture, February-May 1959, pp. 56-57, no. 61 (illustrated in color on the frontispiece; dated circa 1896).
New York, M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., Impressionist Treasures from Private Collections in New York, January 1966, p. 18, no. 10 (illustrated; dated 1896).
Stockholm, Etnografiska Museet, Nationalmuseum, Gauguin i Söderhavet, March-April 1970, pp. 94-95, no. 53 (illustrated, p. 74).
Tokyo, The National Museum of Art and Aichi Prefectural Art Gallery, Paul Gauguin, March-June 1987, p. 142, no. 120 (illustrated in color, p. 141).
Warsaw, Royal Castle, Opus Sacrum: From the Collection of Barbara Piasecka Johnson, April-September 1990, pp. 278 and 280-281, no. 49 (illustrated in color, p. 279; detail illustrated in color, p. 281, fig. 2).
Seattle, Experience Music Project, DoubleTake: From Monet to Lichtenstein, April 2006-January 2007, pp. 6-7 and 17 (illustrated in color, p. 16).
Seattle Art Museum, Gauguin and Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise, February-April 2012, pp. 297 and 368, no. 296.
Seattle, Pivot Art + Culture, A Closer Look: Portraits from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection, December 2016-March 2017.
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Lot Essay

“I have come to an unalterable decision,” Paul Gauguin wrote in the autumn of 1894, a year after his inaugural exhibition of Tahitian works in Paris had been met with outrage and satire. “—to go and live forever in Polynesia without this eternal struggle against idiots” (quoted in G.T.M. Shackelford and C. Frèches-Thory, Gauguin Tahiti: The Studio of the South Seas, exh. cat., Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, 2003, p. 89). Existing in dire financial straits and unable to find a receptive audience for his art, he decided to leave France again and return to the South Seas. After organizing a sale of his works at Hôtel Drouot in an attempt to gather funds for his trip, in July 1895, he traveled to Marseille where he boarded a steamer and set sail to French Polynesia. He would never again return to France.
While Gauguin’s letters from his second stay in Tahiti tell of a life marked by constant ill health—he was suffering early symptoms of syphilis—as well as of his never ending financial woes, it was during this time that he created some of the finest works of his career, including the famed D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous? of 1897-1898 (Wildenstein, no. 561; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Gauguin’s mastery of the figure depicted in evermore fantastical, decorative settings enabled him to create compositions permeated with mystery and magic, his experimental use of color and arabesque lines further infusing these works with a daring level of abstraction.
As Richard Brettell has written, “… the paintings of late 1898 and much of 1899 are of fabulous quality. In them, perfectly realized human forms move effortlessly through pulsating, colored realms. Trees and shrubs occasionally define stately spaces. Yet, more often, colored areas become landscapes without the distracting presence of bark, leaves, or roots… [A] sense of fullness and metaphysical clarity persists in most of the great paintings produced by Gauguin in the last year of the nineteenth century. And, almost as if he were unable to carry this perfection forward, no paintings survive from the year 1900” (The Art of Paul Gauguin, exh., cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1988, p. 393).
The monumental and mysterious Maternité II, painted in 1899, dates from this miraculous moment of Gauguin’s career. It is one of a closely related group of works that depict often classically posed, Tahitian women within paradisical settings—the rest of which are now in museum collections. Here, three women are pictured within a verdant, yet abstracted, Edenic realm. Seated on the ground is a mother nursing her baby. She is flanked, or perhaps protected, by two standing figures, one of whom holds a basket of fruit, the other a chain of flowers, offerings perhaps for their kneeling, Madonna-like companion. They both look outwards to meet the viewer, as if questioning their presence in regarding this quiet, intimate scene of motherhood.
Taking the theme of maternity, a subject rich in art historical precedent, Gaugin masterfully transformed this motif into an exotic idyll, both personal and transcendent of a specific time and place. With this work Gauguin offers a timeless vision of femininity and motherhood, a verdant ode to fertility. A reflection of the importance it held for the artist is the fact that he chose to keep it in his possession until his death.
This is one of two versions of this composition. The first, Maternité I (also known as Femmes au bord de la mer) (Wildenstein, no. 581), was acquired by Sergei Shchukin and is now housed in the State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg. In this work, Gauguin included more anecdotal detail to the same trio of figures—a dog stands next to the mother, while fishermen and figures are seen in the background. In the present, more closely cropped painting, Gauguin expunged these quotidian elements. With the palette heightened into tones of acid yellow and pink, a more daring, highly dreamlike, spectral atmosphere pervades.
Gauguin had first realized his longing to escape the staid conventions and decadence of Europe for a simpler existence when he first ventured to the South Seas in 1891. Disappointed by his lack of recognition in the Parisian art world, he had first thought about traveling to Madagascar, before settling on Tahiti as the place to realize his unfulfilled artistic desires. He was deeply inspired by the Exposition Universelle of 1889, in which a colonial exhibition featured reconstructions of France’s colonies across the globe, as well as by Pierre Loti’s popular contemporary novel, Le Mariage de Loti, which told the story of a sailor’s love affair with a native Tahitian. As a result, Gauguin was filled with idyllic visions of life in an exotic, far away paradise. “My entire life,” he wrote to his friend Émile Schuffenecker in 1890, “is now spent in the hope of this promised land” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 2003, p. 20).
Gauguin set sail for Tahiti in April 1891. He was initially disappointed: the country was far from his dream of an uncivilized “primitive” land. Eleven years prior to his arrival, the country’s capital, Papeete, had submitted to colonial rule, essentially becoming a French enclave in the South Seas, governed with the same laws and rules, and filled with the same class hierarchies and conventions as France itself; a far cry from the Maori idyll that the artist had envisioned.
Traveling further afield to another, more remote village, Mataiea, Gauguin found a place that was more reflective of his imagined version of Tahiti. He remained there until August 1893, immersing himself in local life. He was fascinated by the appearance, daily rituals, gestures, language and lives of Mataiea’s inhabitants. This combination of wonder and isolation is encapsulated in many of the works Gauguin created during this first Tahitian sojourn, the artist’s enthrallment reflected in the saturated colors and arabesque lines that define these works.
When Gauguin arrived in Papeete for the second time two years later, he found the town even more developed—there was now electricity—and more French than when he had left. He immediately wanted to travel to the more remote Marquesas Islands, though, after participating in an official two month voyage to the Leeward Islands, decided to stay in Tahiti. He settled in Punaauia, south of the capital, on the coast.
Gauguin’s art from this second trip differed from his first. While the essential motifs remain the same—native figures in luscious, often fantastical settings—his abiding artistic concerns had changed in the intervening years. Instead of scenes of daily life, a kind of ethnographic diary of the world he encountered and the life he lived in Tahiti at this time, his works from 1896 onwards are less descriptive, increasingly imaginary, and more transcendent of a specific time or place. Brettell describes, “His late work is more obviously mediated than the earlier, and he created works of art as if to decorate a new mythic universe” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1988, p. 391).
Gauguin also brought more reference imagery with him on this trip, including numerous reproductions of artworks, including what would become a key influence on his art of this period: a photograph of the Javanese temple of Borobudur. Monumental figures, such as those in Maternité II, preside over Gauguin’s art, often referencing both classical compositions and in some cases more contemporary references.
After a period of intense despair and ill health at the end of 1897 and beginning of 1898, which culminated in a failed attempt to end his life, Gauguin entered a period of heightened creativity. Following the completion of the ambitious, self-conscious masterpiece and great summation of his artistic and philosophical beliefs, D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous?, in 1899 he painted another monumental canvas, Ruperupe (Wildenstein, no. 585; The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow)—itself derived from Faa Iheihe of the previous year (no. 569; Tate, London). The present work and a number of others from this year are closely related to this most mystic and paradisical of canvases. It is possible that Gauguin painted this group with the intention of including them in the 1900 Exposition Universelle. In September 1899, he wrote to Daniel de Monfreid that he planned to send “about ten canvases” for the show (Letters de Gauguin à Daniel de Monfreid, Paris, 1950, p. 150). He had left this endeavor too late however, and the works did not arrive in time to be included.
In paintings such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Les seins aux fleurs rouges (no. 583), Trois Tahitiens (no. 573; National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh), and Te Ave No Maria (Le mois de Marie) (no. 586; The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg)—as well as Maternité I, Gauguin employed the same cast of characters which he recomposed in different works. The central, flower-bearing figure of Maternité II, likely taken from the frieze of the Borobudur, itself derives from the left figure of the three grace-like trio of Ruperupe. She appears in each of the other works of this closely related group. Similarly, the figure holding what appears to be a basket of mangos, turning away from the viewer, can be seen again in Trois Tahitiens. While the essential pose of the character is similar, Gauguin adjusted their gestures or expressions, moving their gaze to impart varied emotions or imply different relationships within the context of the composition.
The present work and the rest of this small series can be seen as meditations on the nature of femininity and female beauty. Filled with flower or fruit bearing women, a sense of abundance and plenty pervades. Gauguin had long been enthralled by the women he encountered in Tahiti, conveying his captivation as well as his inability to fully comprehend his new neighbors. “…as rigid as statues,” he described in a letter of 1899, in words that perfectly describe the figures of Maternité II, “something indescribably ancient, august, religious in the rhythm of their pose, in their singular immobility. In dreaming eyes the blurred surface of an unfathomable riddle” (quoted in The Lure of the Exotic: Gauguin in New York Collections, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2002, p. 132). In his art of this time, Gauguin often reinterpreted traditional female icons—Venus, Eve or the Madonna—into Tahitian figures and settings. In the present work, the trio of women is reminiscent of Renaissance depictions of the Virgin, Christ and Saint Anne. Gauguin had already painted a Tahitian Madonna scene in 1891, La orana Maria (no. 428; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Like Maternité II, the Tahitian figure of the Virgin Mary, together with her child, are flanked by two worshipful attendants.
Though known as Maternité, there is no evidence to suggest that Gauguin himself gave the present work and its companion piece this name (R. Brettell, exh. cat., op. cit., 1988, p. 422). Indeed, the Hermitage’s version has also been referred to as Femme au bord de la mer. Nevertheless this title has led to interpretations of Gauguin’s personal life at this time. In April 1899, his vahine, Patura had given birth to a son, whom they named Emile, the same name as the artist’s first born son with his wife, Mette. It remains unknown why exactly Gauguin produced two versions of this same subject. Though he had employed this practice earlier in his career, Brettell has noted that this was rare in the latter decade of his life.
What is clear is that in the present work Gauguin was keen to further heighten the expressive potential of color. Upon first arriving in Tahiti at the beginning of the 1890s the vibrant tones of the tropical landscape had deeply affected the artist. “Everything in the landscape blinded me, dazzled me,” he described in Noa Noa, his autobiographical writing of this first visit. “Coming from Europe I was constantly uncertain of color… and yet it was so simple to put naturally on to my canvas a red and a blue… Why did I hesitate to pour that gold and all that rejoicing of sunshine on to my canvas? Old habits from Europe, probably—all this timidity of expression” (Noa Noa: Voyage to Tahiti, trans. J. Griffin, Oxford, n.d., p. 20). By the time that he painted the present work, Gauguin’s handling of color had developed to reach a new level of potent visual expression. More vibrant in hue than its companion piece, the present work dazzles. An abstract, cadmium yellow sky streaked with a pink cloud serves as the backdrop to the trio of colors—intense blue, crimson red and emerald green—that structure the foreground. These bold tones impart a sense of majesty and monumentality to this scene, elevating it from a quotidian image of Tahitian daily life to a mythical vision of femininity.
This radical use of color had a deep impact on the young Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso when they saw the first iteration of Maternité exhibited at the gallery of Ambroise Vollard in Paris in the autumn of 1903. The flatness of color, the decorative lines and the narrative enigma, as well as the embrace of an alternate civilization would play a defining role in the work of both artists. In Matisse’s Le Luxe of 1907, a similar trio of women—one of whom crouches down, and another presents a bouquet of flowers to their standing idol—is set within an expansive, timeless landscape. Constructed with planes of flattened forms, this work owes a debt to Gauguin’s Tahitian work, bearing a striking compositional resemblance to Maternité II. Gauguin remained a central influence to the great French master throughout his life, so much so that in the 1930s he made his own voyage to the tropics.
While he sent Maternité I back to Paris in a consignment in 1900, Gauguin chose to keep the present Maternité II in his own collection. After the artist’s death in May 1903, the entirety of his possessions, including this painting, were sold in an auction in Papeete. This work was acquired from the sale for 150 francs by Jean Cochin, possibly for his father, Denys, a French naval officer, into whose collection it entered in 1906. “[...] At the Papeete sale, Cochin told me, ‘I bought for one hundred and fifty francs (the amount of my pay that I had just received and that I had on me) the painting of the “Three Vahines” that we also called Maternité; Governor Petit, my competitor, had only offered one hundred and thirty-five. As Morillot had a room ashore; I left the painting with him during my stay in Oceania; when I returned to Europe, I brought it home between two shirts; Maurice Denis re-lined it for me after my return to France’” (C. Chasse, Gauguin et son temps, Paris, 1955, pp. 147-148, quoted in D. Wildenstein, Gauguin, Paris, 1964, p. 245).
Four years later, Cochin sold the canvas to Bernheim-Jeune, from which point onwards, it entered a number of highly distinguished collections which continued to the present day. From the collection of the Lewisohn family, to that of Edwin Vogel and David Rockefeller, this painting has a particularly esteemed provenance.
In addition, the painting also has a rare exhibition history. In 1906, it was included in the artist’s major retrospective at the Salon d’automne at the Grand Palais, Paris. The great collector of modern art, Alphonse Kann, who bought the work from Bernheim-Jeune in 1910—the same year that he also acquired Georges Seurat’s Les Poseuses in the present collection—lent it to the landmark London show, Manet and the Post-Impressionists, a critical moment in the dissemination of avant-garde art in the United Kingdom.
Eleven years later, it was included in another watershed exhibition. Loan Exhibition of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Paintings held at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1921 was a critical moment in the introduction of French modernism to American audiences. Though met with widespread disdain, this show was a crucial catalyst for some of the leading figures in the city’s art world, including John Quinn and Alfred H. Barr, Jr., among others. The work was latterly included in the large scale retrospective of the artist held in the Art Institute of Chicago and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1959.

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