Paul Gauguin's noted 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 high-keyed 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 that exert 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 venture to Tahiti twice during the course of his life, Femmes au bord de la rivière was painted in the second year of his first expedition and expresses 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. As in the present work, many of these landscapes allude to a long-past golden age which combined Gauguin's experience in Tahiti with a mix of Classical art, nineteenth century European art and Asian sculpture. Many of these influences were represented in a collection of photographs of artworks that he carried with him from France.
As he had done in Brittany, Gauguin idealized the religiosity and spirituality of the female members of Tahitian 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.
Gauguin produced sixty-six paintings during his first stay in Tahiti. When Gauguin returned to Paris in 1893, he once again found himself painting in a studio environment and certainly looked to Femmes au bord de la rivière as inspiration for Nave Nave Moe (Delightful Drowsiness), 1894, now in the collection of the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Although Nave Nave Moe was painted in France, it preserves the same sense of tranquility Gauguin captured in the present painting.
Gauguin also used Femmes au bord de la rivière as inspiration for one of his most celebrated woodblock prints. To accompany his book Noa Noa, Gauguin produced a number of woodblock prints including Auti Te Pape (fig. 2) in 1893-1894. The pose of the figure in the foreground closely echoes that of the seated figure in the painting (a mirror image created by the print technique). The woodcut also exhibits a similar interest in the river, which, in this case, has an exaggerated ferocity rather than the serene landscape portrayed in Femmes au bord de la rivière. This exaggeration echoes that of Gauguin's own tales in the text of his book.
(fig. 1) Paul Gauguin, Nave Nave Moe, 1894.
The Hermitage, St. Petersberg.
(fig. 2) Paul Gauguin, Auti Te Pape, 1893-1894.
Ulmer Museum, Ulm.