‘Everything in the landscape blinded me, dazzled me. Coming from Europe I was constantly uncertain of colour… and yet it was so simple to put naturally on to my canvas a red and a blue. In the brooks, forms of gold enchanted me – 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’ (Gauguin, Noa Noa: Voyage to Tahiti, trans. J. Griffin, Oxford, n.d., p. 20). A magical vision of a paradisiacal, far-away land, Te Fare (La maison) was painted in 1892, during Paul Gauguin’s first, seminal sojourn to Tahiti. Colour bursts from every corner of this exotic landscape: the painting, one of the most richly coloured of Gauguin’s Tahitian landscapes, is filled with delicate strokes of greens of all hues, soft purples, deep blues and startling bursts of orange and yellow. Saturated and liberated from a solely descriptive function, these colours conjure not only a heady sense of exoticism, but evoke the intensity of the heat, blazing light and enveloping humidity of this tropical land, transporting the viewer into the dazzling, verdant and fragrance-filled landscape of the Polynesian island. A paean to the spectacular Tahitian landscape, Te Fare (La maison) presents this far-off corner of the world as an exotic Arcadia, one in which man and nature exist in simple harmony, the very embodiment of the primitive idyll that Gauguin had long dreamt of finding in the South Seas.
Gauguin produced over sixty paintings during this first 18-month stay in Tahiti; paintings that, with their novel subjects, radical style, and compelling fusion of myth and reality, were to both redefine modern art and inspire future generations for decades to come. However, it was 1892 that saw Gauguin paint some of his greatest masterpieces, major works on which his reputation was founded and for which he remains best known to this day. After he returned to Paris in 1893, Gauguin included Te Fare (La maison) in his breakthrough one-man exhibition at the Galerie Durand-Ruel. A year later, in 1894, this painting was one of only five works that Gauguin chose to include in La libre esthétique, an exhibition held in Brussels. The following year, in a bid to raise money for his second and final voyage to Tahiti, Te Fare (La maison) was sold in his own sale at Hôtel Drouot, and was bought, at the encouragement of Edgar Degas, by Daniel Halévy. Since then, this painting has been rarely seen.
Gauguin had arrived in Papeete, the capital of Tahiti, in 1891, the year before he painted Te Fare (La maison). Departing from Marseille on 1st April 1891, Gauguin was finally realising a long-felt desire to escape Europe and its decadent culture and staid conventions, returning instead to a more primitive and primal existence, in which he believed his art could truly flourish. After receiving official sponsorship from the authorities for his artistic mission to record the landscape and customs of Tahiti, Gauguin set sail for what he believed would be an artistic paradise in which he could rejuvenate himself and his art. ‘I’m leaving so that I can be at peace and can rid myself of civilisation’s influence,’ Gauguin stated in an interview before he left Paris. ‘I want to create only simple art. To do that, I need to immerse myself in virgin nature, see only savages, live their life, with no other care than to portray, as would a child, the concepts in my brain using only primitive artistic materials, the only kind that are good and true’ (Gauguin, quoted in G.T.M Shackelford & C. Frèches-Thory, exh. cat., Gauguin Tahiti: The Studio of the South Seas, Paris & Boston, 2003-4, p. 19).
After a sixty-nine day voyage, Gauguin landed in Tahiti on 9th June 1891. Soon, however, he discovered that this colonial town did not live up to his idealised dream of an uncivilised, primitive land. ‘The Tahitian soil is becoming quite French,’ he wrote to his wife Mette in Copenhagen, ‘and the old order is gradually disappearing. Our missionaries have already introduced a good deal of Protestant hypocrisy and are destroying a part of the country’ (Gauguin, quoted in Paul Gauguin: Letters to his Wife and Friends, ed. M. Malingue, trans. H.J. Stenning, London, 1966, p. 163). Just a few months later, Gauguin decided to leave Papeete and travel further afield to Mataiea, a smaller, more remote village to the south. Here, he found the Tahiti of his dreams. Living in a small hut situated next to a stream, he was quickly embraced by the local residents and he immersed himself entirely in their simple, rural existence. Finally, he was living the primitive life he had so long desired. ‘Every day gets better for me’, he wrote in Noa Noa, his memoir of this first Tahitian stay, ‘in the end I understand the language quite well, my neighbours… regard me almost as one of themselves; my naked feet, from daily contact with the rock, have got used to the ground; my body, almost always naked, no longer fears the sun; civilisation leaves me bit by bit and I begin to think simply… every morning the sun rises serene for me as for everyone, I become carefree and calm and loving’ (Gauguin, Noa Noa: Voyage to Tahiti, op. cit., p. 23).
Having acclimatised to his new life on the island, Gauguin began making sketches and studies of the landscape and Mataiea’s inhabitants. Turning his back to the sea and coastline, he depicted the simple dwellings of the village surrounded by verdant thickets and trees, framed by towering blue mountains beyond. By the spring of 1892, he was happily immersed in his work and had finished around thirty paintings and a number of carvings; as he wrote to Mette: ‘I am in the midst of work, now that I have got to know the soil and its odour, and the Tahitians, whom I draw in a very enigmatic manner, are very much Maoris for all that and not Orientals from the Batignolles’ (Gauguin, quoted in B. Thomson, Gauguin, London, 1987, p. 154).
His work of this prolific period is dominated by intensely coloured, richly detailed and experimental landscapes such as Te Fare (La maison). In the present work, Gauguin has clearly relished the depiction of his new home, capturing the fora and fauna, as well as the inhabitants of this magical land. A large hibiscus tree dominates the composition, its rich emerald green leaves and just visible orange blossoms obscuring the purple-roofed house situated behind it. This wooden hut could, it has been suggested, be the artist’s own rented home in Mataiea, which he poetically described in Noa Noa. Rendered with a series of fine, angular brushstrokes reminiscent of his own earlier Martinique paintings, in this work, Gauguin articulates in vivid yet subtly changing detail and a myriad pattern of foliage, animated and shimmering in different shades and colours.
Amidst the luscious foliage, three figures inhabit Te Fare (La maison). Dressed in a pareu – a cloth wrap that both men and women wore around their waists – two of these figures stand motionlessly amidst the vegetation, turning towards the dwelling and the seated, Buddha-like figure that sits silently on the veranda in front of it. It was the Polynesian natives and their rituals and customs, both mundane and mystic, which held the most interest for Gauguin. As he had previously done in Martinique and Brittany, he focused on intimate, rural scenes, capturing the indigenous inhabitants and their distinct physiognomy, dress and poise. Simultaneously, he distilled the essence of their surroundings, endowing nature with the same importance as the figures themselves as he sought to render a primitive idyll of man and nature existing in perfect harmony. ‘Wanting to suggest a wild and luxuriant nature, and a tropical sun which makes everything around it blaze, I had to give my figures an appropriate setting’, Gauguin explained. ‘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 the fabulous colours, this fiery, yet soft and muted air’ (Gauguin, quoted in R. Goldwater, Gauguin, New York, 1928, p. 112).
In the greatest of these Tahitian landscapes, the inhabitants populate the composition in pairs, groups or alone. In Te Fare (La maison) a quiet, enigmatic narrative seems to veil the scene; the figures appear to be waiting or listening, as if poised on the brink of a dramatic occurrence. This feeling of suspense imbues the composition with a deeper, psychological dimension, a reflection of Gauguin’s Symbolist involvement. The standing figure on the left of the scene can be seen in almost identical form in two other landscapes of the same time: Parau Parau (Les mots chuchotés) (Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven), and Taper a Mahana (Le coucher de soleil) (Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg). Similarly, the solitary seated figure on the veranda was one that recurred in a number of Gauguin’s works of 1892, the embodiment of his poetic observation of the silence that shrouded the island: ‘Always this silence,’ he wrote to his wife just after his arrival in Tahiti. ‘I understand why these individuals can rest seated for hours and days without saying a word and look at the sky with melancholy’ (Gauguin, quoted in R. Brettell et. al., exh. cat., The Art of Paul Gauguin, Washington D.C., Chicago & Paris, 1989, p. 231).
In contrast to the more anecdotal landscapes of the previous year – the Art Institute of Chicago’s Te raau rahi (Le grand arbre), or the Cleveland Museum of Art’s work of the same name, for example – in Te Fare (La maison) Gauguin has increasingly simplified and monumentalised the landscape.
Neither solely descriptive nor documentary, the landscape is instead a synthesised vision of the real and the imagined; the composition most likely made up of a combination of invented and real motifs, colours and forms. Stimulated by the luscious, exotic landscape and the enigmatic natives, as well as by books that described their ancient, pagan rituals, Gauguin created imaginary images that amalgamated a host of visual sources – art historical, religious and mythological. Turning his back on naturalism, and on the Impressionists’ objective, observational rendering of the landscape, Gauguin infused his depiction of the landscape with symbolism and myth, distilling the essence of his exotic home and turning the natural world into a mystic vision of colour, line and form.
In the present work, it is with colour that Gauguin transcended reality, allowing him to imbue the landscape with a spiritual, mystic dimension. For Gauguin, colour was, ‘the language of the listening eye… suited to help our imaginations soar, decorating our dream, opening a new door onto mystery and the infinite’ (Gauguin, quoted in Shackelford & Frèches-Thory, op. cit., p. 163). No longer descriptive and naturalistic, in Te Fare (La maison), Gauguin has exaggerated the colours of the landscape, creating a saturated, dreamlike vision of colour. The trunks of the trees are transformed into fattened, curving purple arabesques, their leaves depicted in shades of electric green, golden yellow and orange. In the immediate foreground, larger daubs of vibrant green dazzle next to the hues of orange, pink and purple that border them; an explosion of fattened, near abstract colour. Although this use of heightened colour was not new to Gauguin’s work – in some of his Breton landscapes of the previous years, he had depicted the rural landscape of France in intensified, abstract colours – it was in Tahiti, completely immersed by nature, that his imagination took fight as he transformed nature into a sensual and semi-abstract paradise of rich colour and form. ‘Colour!,’ he later proclaimed, ‘What a deep and mysterious language, the language of dreams’ (Gauguin, ‘Miscellaneous Things’, in Shackelford & Frèches-Thory, ibid., p. 162).
Gauguin’s use of colour was one of the many radical aspects of his oeuvre that had a major impact on the generation of artists that followed him. As the Twentieth Century dawned, a group of artists built upon Gauguin’s radical use of expressive, subjective colour to create works that irrevocably emancipated this pictorial component from its centuries-old descriptive and illusionistic function. Led by Henri Matisse, the Fauves, as they became known, were enormously influenced by Gauguin. As Matisse later explained, ‘At this point there was also the influence of Gauguin… These were the ideas of the time: construction by means of coloured planes; a search for intense colour independent of the subject; a reaction against the breaking up of local colour in light; light that was not eliminated but was expressed through the harmony of brightly coloured planes… “Fauvism”… also undertook the first search for an expressive synthesis’ (Matisse, quoted in R. Bouvier & M. Schwander, eds., exh. cat., Paul Gauguin, Basel, 2015, p. 32). Depicting a highly coloured, imaginary Arcadia, Matisse’s great, early masterpiece of 1905-6, Le bonheur de vivre (The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia) can be likened to a number of Gauguin’s Tahitian pictures. Like Te Fare (La maison), Le Bonheur de vivre depicts an exotic, paradisiacal land in which figures and nature exist in harmonious accord. In these works, the traditional form of the landscape has been reconfigured, used as the basis for a new type of art in which a harmonious interplay of undulating lines and areas of luminous colour transform nature. A lifelong admirer of Gauguin, many years later Matisse followed his example and set sail for Polynesia, seeking as his predecessor had before him, fresh inspiration.
Gauguin returned to France in August 1893. Arriving with just four francs in his pocket, he immediately set about capitalising on the work he had produced in Tahiti. He approached the impressionist dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel and successfully persuaded him to hold a one-man show of his recent work. The exhibition opened a few months later, in November, and included forty-four paintings from both his Tahitian sojourn, as well as his earlier Breton period. Framed in white and given titles in Tahitian, Te Fare (La maison) and other paradisiacal landscapes adorned the walls, next to monumental Tahitian nudes and portraits. The effect was dramatic. The public of Paris was shocked, scandalised, entranced and confounded by Gauguin’s radical vision of Tahiti. Camille Pissarro, Gauguin’s first mentor, described, ‘Gauguin’s present show is the admiration of all the men of letters. They are, it appears, completely enthusiastic. The collectors are baffled and perplexed. Various painters, I am told, all find this exotic art too reminiscent of the Kanakians. Only Degas admires, Monet and Renoir find all this simply bad’ (Pissarro, quoted in Shackelford & Frèches-Thory, op. cit., p. 86). Though commercially the exhibition was not a success with only eleven paintings selling, Gauguin remained unabashedly optimistic. ‘The most important thing is that my exhibition has had a very great artistic success, has even provoked passion and jealousy’, he wrote to Mette. ‘The Press has treated me as it has never yet treated anybody, that is to say, rationally, with words of praise. For the moment I am considered by many people to be the greatest modern painter’ (Gauguin, quoted in Shackelford & Frèches-Thory, ibid., p. 86).
By the autumn of the following year, Gauguin decided once more to leave France and return to the South Seas. In order to fund his journey, he organised a sale of his work at Hôtel Drouot. Held on 18th February 1895, the sale was not a success and Te Fare (La maison) was one of the few works that sold. Seated in the audience was the impressionist master, Edgar Degas. Attempting to drum up enthusiasm for the artist’s work, Degas bought eight works from the sale, including Vahine no te vi of 1892 (Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland) and Gauguin’s copy of Manet’s Olympia from 1891. Sitting next to him at the sale was the twenty-three year old and Daniel Halévy, whose family was great friends with Degas. At Degas’ encouragement, Halévy purchased Te Fare (La maison) for 180 francs. This work captivated the artist for many years to come: Halévy recalled that as Degas aged and his eyesight deteriorated, he constantly returned to the painting, scrutinising it closely, and even on one occasion remarking, ‘Ah, even Delacroix never painted quite like that’ (Halévy, quoted in J. Sutherland Boggs et al., exh. cat., Degas, 1834-1917, Paris, Ottawa & New York, 1988-1989, p. 568).