Paul Gauguin's habitual wanderlust led him to seek out a life of "ecstasy, calm and art", and in Tahiti he was finally freed from the realities of life in a newly industrialized age with which he struggled. The artist looked to the people and landscape of distant Tahiti as impetus for his creativity, producing works that infused his own eclectic knowledge of other cultures and ideals with a brillant palette. In the tradition of Delacroix and other Orientalist painters of the nineteenth century, Gauguin sought to record a pre-industrialized culture and landscapes, resulting in canvases from his first trip powerfully evokes the mythical spirit of Tahiti.
Gauguin, like his fellow symbolists, drew upon cultures and landscapes he idealized as "savage and primitive" to inspire his works. Among the symbolists, only Gauguin followed this idea to its logical conclusion. In separating himself from Western society, the artist immersed himself in the culture and traditions of indigenous inhabitants of a non-western society. He chose Tahiti as his destination because of its isolation and its reputation as a tropical paradise. As he wrote to his wife Mette, Gauguin aimed to be "far from the European struggle for money, there in Tahiti I will be able to listen to the silence of beautiful tropical nights, to the soft murmuring music of my heartbeats in loving harmony with the mysterious beings around me" (M. Malingue, Lettres de Gauguin à sa femme à ses amis, Paris, 1949, appendix C). While he would journey to Tahiti twice during the course of his life, Cabane sous les arbres was painted in the second year of his first expedition and manifests both the wonder and the tranquillity Gauguin sought in Polynesian society.
Arriving in Tahiti in 1891, Gauguin was immediately disappointed by the capital of Papeete, which he found to be heavily influenced by Europe. Quickly moving on to the rural province of Mataiea, Gauguin was overwhelmed by the lushness of the landscape and settled in this tropical paradise. Artistically, it was difficult for Gauguin to adjust to this new environment. He spent most of his first stay in Tahiti making sketches but producing few paintings. It took months of sketching before Gauguin mastered the handling of the light, colors and shading of his new Polynesian home. In his published memoirs of his first trip to Tahiti, Noa Noa, Gauguin exclaimed, "But the landscape with its violent, pure colors dazzled and blinded me. I was always uncertain; I was seeking, seeking... In the meantime, it was so simple to paint things as I saw them; to put without special calculation a red close to a blue. Golden figures in the brooks and on the seashore enchanted me. Why did I hesitate to put all this glory of the sun on my canvas? Oh! The old European traditions!" (P. Gauguin, Noa Noa, New York, 1957, p. 30). Gauguin kept in contact with his wife Mette and reported on his artistic progress. In a letter to Mette dated June 1892 Gauguin wrote, "I am fairly pleased with the most recent things I have done and I feel that I am beginning to grasp the Oceanian character" (D. Guérin, ed., Paul Gauguin, The Writings of a Savage, New York, 1996, p. 57).
Much of his artistic production after the first year in Tahiti was devoted to landscape painting. As in the present work, many of these landscapes have an anecdotal quality that recall his early genre scenes, and some even suggest a potential symbolism in their details. Indeed in not only the use of intense bands of yellow and orange and the strong verticality of the composition emphasized by the tall blue trunks across the composition of Cabane sous les arbres, but also the reduction of the importance of the figures in the landscape in both pictures, Gauguin draws on his celebrated earlier landscape Les Arbres bleus ("Vous y passerez, la belle!) (fig. 1), painted four years prior in Arles, November 1888.
It is acknowledged that Gauguin's later scenes of the countryside played down his customary narrative qualities: while many continue to include figures as elements within the landscape, they are no longer a primary focus of the compositions. In these paintings, Gauguin concentrates instead on a simplification and monumentalization of natural forms, as seen in the present work.
As he had done in Brittany, Gauguin idealized the religiosity and spirituality of the female members of his adopted society. In the same letter to his wife of June 1892 Gauguin stated that, "The women have an indescribable something which is infinitely penetrating and mysterious" (quoted in ibid., p. 57). By including female figures in his landscapes Gauguin deliberately drew corollaries between his ideals of womanhood and the fertility of nature, and in the present composition preserving a moment of serenity and contemplation in the tropics.
(fig. 1) Paul Gauguin, Les Arbres bleus ("Vous y passerez, la belle), Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen
(fig. 2) Photograph of La upa-upa, Georges Spitz.