The present work is one of about twelve canvases that Gauguin painted on Martinique in 1887. Although ill and desperately poor while on the island, Gauguin found his stay there enormously stimulating and his paintings from that journey mark a critical turning point in his career. It was on Martinique that the painter first embraced primitivism, setting the pattern for the rest of his career; and it was on Martinique that Gauguin broke free of Impressionism and began to work in a more vivid, more personal style. As Douglas Cooper has written,
[On Martinique] he managed to complete a small number of colorful,
lively, luxuriant, decorative, sun-drenched landscapes and scenes of local life, which radiate a mood of spiritual contentment. Gauguin had never painted anything like them before, and they mark the beginning of his creative liberation as an artist. (D. Cooper, "An Important Gauguin Discovery," Burlington Magazine, vol. 123, April, 1981, pp. 195-196)
Gauguin and his associates fully recognized the importance of this trip. Gauguin once stated,
I had a decisive experience in Martinique. 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 J. Rewald, Gauguin, Paris, 1938, p. 19)
And the artist's son elaborated,
The pictures he was able to paint in Martinique did satisfy...his longing to encounter the simple and primitive.... This [gave] him fresh impulses, and thereby his self-confidence was further invigorated to resume the struggle for his idea of depicting life in its nakedness, stripped of the atmosphere with which the age surrounds it.... It was the primeval force in life itself that he was in quest of. (P. Gauguin, My Father, Paul Gauguin, New York, 1937, p. 110)
Gauguin did not set out for Martinique, but was bound instead for Panama. At the beginning of 1887, he became determined to flee Paris, where he had been unable to sell his pictures and no longer enjoyed salaried employment. For the first time in his life, the painter sought to leave the West in search of an exotic and tropical land where he could live like a native and pursue his painting undistracted by material concerns. At that time, the French were trying to construct a canal across the Panama isthmus, and Gauguin imagined that this project would provide him with work when necessary. Gauguin convinced the painter Charles Laval (fig. 1) to accompany him and the two artists sailed for Colon on April 10, 1887.
Far from being the exotic and primitive land which Gauguin had dreamed of, Panama was then in the midst of rapid growth due to the canal project. This had led to rampant corruption and wild inflation, and the country was both unattractive to, and overly expensive for, the two painters. Although Charles Laval managed to do some portraits on commission, Gauguin was unable to secure work of any kind, and the artists soon found themselves strapped for cash; their lot further deteriorated when Laval fell ill with malaria. Desperate to escape Panama, Gauguin recalled how attractive Martinique had seemed when their boat docked there on the way to Colon.
In early June, the artists scraped together enough money to leave Panama. They sailed from Colon to Martinique, landing at Port-de-France and then traveling to the town of St. Pierre on the northwest coast of the island. They found lodging in a small hut on a plantation just outside of the town. In a letter to his wife Mette written on June 20, 1887, Gauguin expressed his delight with the place:
We are at present both lodging in a primitive hut and it is a paradise compared to the isthmus. Below us is the sea ringed with coconut trees, and above fruit trees of all kinds, we are 25 minutes from the town.... I cannot begin to describe my enthusiasm for life in the French colonies, and I am sure you would be equally enchanted. Nature at its most luxuriant and a warm climate with cool intervals.... We have begun to work and I hope to send back from time to time some interesting pictures. (P. Gauguin, La Correspondance de Paul Gauguin, Paris, 1984, vol. 1, pp. 154-155)
In July, he wrote to his friend Emile Schuffenecker,
We have been in Martinique, the country of the creole gods, for three weeks. It is true to say that we have found, two kilometers from the town, a primitive hut in the middle of a large estate. Below is the sea, with a sandy beach for bathing, and on each side there are coconut trees and other fruit trees that are wonderful for the landscape artist.
But what I find most attractive is the people's faces; each day there is a continual coming and going of black women dressed in colorful garments, with an infinite variety of graceful movements. At the moment I am confining myself to making sketch after sketch in order to get their characters firmly fixed in my mind, and then I shall have them pose for me. They chat incessantly while carrying heavy loads on their heads. Their gestures are quite extraordinary, their hands play an important role, in harmony with the swaying of their hips. (ibid., pp. 155-156)
As this letter indicates, Gauguin was fascinated with the native women of Martinique who served as porters to carry goods over the steep mountain paths of the island. He wrote,
The observant artist who visits Martinique will be especially struck by the upright carriage and the quick, irregular gait of the load-bearing women. His first impression will be colored by the sight of one of these women.... Some of the girls are veritable caryatids. (quoted in M. Hoog, Paul Gauguin, Life and Work, New York, 1987, p. 71)
Gauguin depicted these women repeatedly, in drawings (fig. 2) as well as in five of his Martinique paintings, including the present picture; and even after his return to Paris, Gauguin continued to portray them in his ceramics (fig. 3) and sculptures.
Unfortunately, while on Martinique, Gauguin fell ill with dysentry and malaria, and was unable to work for much of the summer of 1887. However, he had recovered sufficiently by October to complete twelve paintings, Huttes sous les arbres among them. He wrote to Schuffenecker,
I am limping along in an effort to make up for lost time and produce a few good canvases. I shall bring back a dozen canvases, four of which have figures far superior to those of my Pont-Aven period.... Despite my physical weakness, my painting has never been so light, with plenty of imagination thrown in. (P. Gauguin, op. cit., 1984, p. 161)
Later that month, Gauguin and Laval sailed from Martinique, arriving in France around the 13th of November. Gauguin returned to Paris, staying with Schuffenencker. In a letter to Mette dated November 24th he reported,
It is an artist's duty to improve his art; I have fulfilled that duty and everything I have brought back with me has met with nothing but admiration. (ibid., pp. 164-165)
One person who was certainly impressed by Gauguin's new pictures was Vincent van Gogh. When the two artists exchanged paintings in late November or December of 1887, van Gogh selected a little Martinique canvas (ed. Thames and Hudson, The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, London, 1958, LT571). Furthermore, Vincent arranged for his brother Theo to visit Gauguin's studio; Theo, who was the director of the Montmartre branch of Boussod et Valadon, selected several recent paintings for two successive exhibitions, one in late December and the second in January. In the spring of the following year Theo purchased several of the Martinique pictures for his own collection, including Aux mangos, now in the Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh in Amsterdam (fig. 4).
In a review of the January exhibition at Boussod et Valadon, Felix Fénéon commented on the "barbarian and bilious" character of Gauguin's Martinique paintings, and said that "these extraordinary paintings summarize the oeuvre of M. Paul Gauguin" (F. Fénéon, Revue Indépendante, Paris, Jan., 1880, p. 170). In 1891 Octave Mirbeau wrote of these works,
He brought back a series of dazzling and severe canvases, in which he has finally conquered his entire personality; they represent enormous progress, a rapid departure toward idealized art.... Dreams have led him, in the majesty of [his] strokes, to spiritual synthesis, to profound and eloquent expression. Henceforth, Gauguin is his own Master. (quoted in exh. cat., Gauguin, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1988, p. 60)
(fig. 1) Paul Gauguin, Nature morte au profil de Laval, 1886
(fig. 2) Paul Gauguin, Tête de Martiniquaise, 1887
Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam
(fig. 3) Paul Gauguin, Tête de Martiniquaise
(fig. 4) Paul Gauguin, Aux mangos, 1887
Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam