This work will be included in the forthcoming Paul Gauguin catalogue raisonné being prepared by the Wildenstein Institute.
Les grands arbres is an exciting rediscovery, a painting that was last exhibited over forty years ago and which has hardly been seen at all in public, having been in the same private Scottish collection for at least 70 years. Dated '1887', the Wildenstein Institute has in fact assigned this painting to 1889, indicating that it was executed after two of the most momentous watersheds in his career-- his 1887 journey to Martinique, and his stay with Vincent van Gogh in Arles.
Gauguin's works from the late 1880s had several consistent threads while also ranging widely in terms of palette and experimentation. Thus one finds that there are landscapes from a period covering several years, and including a couple from the more tropical Martinique, that bear strong resemblances to Les grands arbres. Indeed, some of the foliage in this painting appears to resemble the more exotic foliage of the trees out there, rather than those of Brittany. Yet the scene breathes with the atmosphere of the Breton scenes, a factor that is accentuated by the incorporation in the background of small figures, at least one of whom is shown wearing the traditional Breton costume, a characteristic that fascinated Gauguin, featuring in many of his paintings, and that was indeed one of the reasons that he had chosen to spend so much time in Pont-Aven and Le Pouldu.
Gauguin had sought out Brittany as a place to work in 1886, drawn there by several factors, one of which was budgetary. But he was also fascinated by the landscape and by Brittany's unique-- and uniquely enduring-- culture. The dress, the language, the traditions-- all these combined to tempt Gauguin there in order to distil his own new art, as he intended to strip away the cosmetic and confected aspects of painting and aesthetics, instead harnessing something rawer and authentic, tapping into the ancient savagery of the world. He was seeking out a more honest manner of representing the world, of conveying emotional and spiritual rather than merely visual content, and the extant folklore and culture in Brittany helped him to harness it. He felt that he was more likely to find such qualities away from the industrial revolution, in a place that still had some of the traditions and indeed superstitions of the Middle Ages. It was this same urge that would come to drive him further and further afield, to Martinique, to Tahiti and finally to the Marquesas.
The air of mystery with which Les grands arbres is imbued hints at the role that Gauguin and his fellow artists in Pont-Aven were to have in influencing Symbolist painting in France and beyond. There is something dreamlike to this work, both in the deliberately hazy rendering of the landscape and in its stillness. The characters in the background recall one of Gauguin's other Breton scenes from 1889, the Promenade nostalgique. In that work, the pair of figures on the titular promenade are subsumed by the landscape, appearing minuscule even in comparison to the animals in the foreground. There is something dreamlike about the scene, with the animals taking on an almost symbolic appearance. Likewise in Les grands arbres the figures by the water are tiny, subsumed by nature and their setting. They appear to be incidental yet Gauguin has nonetheless crafted a composition and sense of perspective that draws our eye to them. Are they bathing, washing or doing their laundry? Regardless of whatever everyday task they may be in the process of completing, Gauguin has managed to instil a hieratic atmosphere, a sense of the mythical, these traditional Breton figures recalling ancient legends of Diana as much as the landscapes of Pissarro.
With the predominance given to the trees and foliage that surrounds the small human figures, and the lack of manmade constructions that are featured, it is clear that Les grands arbres is primarily a poetic celebration of nature, of the verdure, and of the spirit of the woodland and of Brittany itself. The picture reflects Gauguin's acute sensitivity to nature, and his determination to depict its unspoilt character:
'Wherever I go I need a certain period of incubation, so that I may learn every time the essence of the plants and trees, of all nature, in short, which never wishes to be understood or yield herself' (P. Gauguin, Paul Gauguin's Intimate Journals, trans. Van Wyck Books, New York, 1936, p. 31).
This had been sharpened by his 1887 journey to Panama and Martinique, and was all the more vivid on his subsequent return to Pont-Aven and the more remote Le Pouldu, to which he retreated in order to escape the ever-burgeoning artists' colony of the former town.
With his interest in channelling nature and a sense of dreamlike vividness, Gauguin began to deliberately discard many of the more Impressionist lessons that he had learnt from his former mentor, Camille Pissarro in order to create a picture that itself evoked mystery. The feathered brushstrokes that he had initially inherited from the arch-Impressionist have been turned to a new purpose, drawing the viewer's attention to the picture surface. There is a deliberate lack of perspective in the green field that occupies so much of the lower right of the painting. These strokes, and many others in the foreground in particular, recall Cézanne and more particularly Degas, yet have been used here to add an oneiric haze to the landscape. At the same time, these carefully-built-up areas of oil paint recall the flatness of Le Talisman, the 1888 painting that Sérusier had painted under Gauguin's influence in Brittany and which was considered the inspiration and starting point for the Nabi movement. In this, it can be seen that there is a discreet Symbolism at play in Les grands arbres, an arcane sense that there is far more to this scene than meets the eye, and this is accentuated by Gauguin's deliberate use of colour, a process that he discussed in a letter to Vincent van Gogh:
'you're right to want painting with colouring suggestive of poetic ideas, and in this sense I agree with you, with one difference. I don't know any poetic ideas; it's probably a sense I'm lacking. I find Everything poetic, and it's in the corners of my heart, which are sometimes mysterious, that I perceive poetry. Led harmoniously, forms and colours in themselves produce poetry' (Gauguin, quoted in M. Prather & C.F. Stuckey (ed.), Gauguin: A Retrospective, New York, 1987, p. 83).
This search for the poetic through a colour, almost regardless of motif, would come more and more to the fore in the pictures that Gauguin created over the forthcoming years while myth, tradition, folk tales and the exotic, be it in Tahiti or Brittany, took increasingly central roles as themes in his work.
Gauguin's confidence in his painting and the ideas behind it had been hugely increased not only by his trip to Martinique, but also paradoxically by his abortive attempt to set up a Studio of the South with his former friend Van Gogh at the end of 1888. The high tensions that grew between them, culminating in the infamous incident in which Van Gogh sliced off a part of his own ear, are well documented. It has also been observed how much of an influence the presence of the older artist had on the more impressionable though manic Van Gogh. In stylistic terms, this was a fairly one-way process, with Gauguin's art changing little in superficial terms; yet even he was later to admit that the way in which Van Gogh had accepted some of Gauguin's views had greatly increased his confidence and certainty in his own art, and this legacy would be felt in his paintings from 1889 onwards, as is clear in the discreet yet engaging atmosphere of Les grands arbres.