In April 1887, Gauguin left Paris aboard a steamer bound for Panama, accompanied by the artist Charles Laval. After working in Colon as a navvy on the construction of the Panama canal for fifteen days before being laid off, he left in June with Laval for Saint-Pierre, Martinique.
'In spite of his apparent moral heartiness, Gauguin was of a troubled nature, tormented by the infinite. Never satisfied by what he produced, he continually searched for something higher. He sensed that he had not given all he was able. Confused feelings arose in his soul; vague but strong aspirations pulled his spirit toward more abstract paths, more abstruse forms of expression. And his thoughts brought him back to the lands of light and mystery that he had once traversed. It seemed to him that there were there, sleeping, unviolated, elements of a new art that conformed to his dream. Then there is the solitude that he needed so much; he needed peace and silence so that he could listen better, so that he could better feel himself living. He left for Martinique' (O. Mirbeau, On Gauguin's Progress, 16 February 1891).
This short trip fuelled Gauguin's desire to explore further the primitive cultures of the South Seas and represents a period of transition in his pictorial approach. In the two years following his return, he based himself largely in Pont-Aven where he continued to study Breton landscape and peasant themes in the Synthetist vocabulary he had explored earlier. In the Spring of 1889, he returned to Paris to personally oversee the exhibition he had organised at the Café Volpini, an exhibition that marked the emergence of the movement of the Pont-Aven school.
Gauguin urged his followers to abandon academic restraints and explore a new style of painting. Nègreries Martinique displays the artist's emerging interest in flat planes, harmonious colours and rhythmic patterns. 'But what I find most attractive is the people's faces; each day there is a continual toing-and-froing of negro women dressed in colourful rags, with an infinite variety of graceful movements...Their gestures are quite extraordinary; their hands play an important role, in harmony with the swaying of their hips...' (P. Gauguin, letter to Emile Schuffenecker, Fort-de-France, 14 July 1887)(fig. 4). Inspired by the faces and gestures of the negro women, Gauguin explores a planar structure, accentuated by the linear border which intrudes on the composition in a serpentine line that traces the contours of the central figure.
Executed in 1890, three years after his return to France and a year before he left for Tahiti, Nègreries Martinique, like two of the eleven zincographs Gauguin exhibited at the Café Volpini (fig. 3), is a retrospective portrayal of his experiences in Martinique. Gauguin harboured continuing dreams of emigrating to the South Seas to 'live there alone for several years, to build himself a hut and to begin work anew on those things that haunt him. The case of a man fleeing from civilization, voluntarily seeking obscurity and silence the better to understand himself...' (O. Mirbeau, op. cit.). In its sensual lines and elegant and supple rhythms of movements and postures, it displays Gauguin's synthetic notions fused with the radiant light and lively colours of his Martinique experiences.
'Paul Gauguin has not painted from nature since the trip to Martinique that gave us, at Boussod and Valadon's, the series of paintings in which all the qualities of a rare artist converged, in which the line maintains a pleasing gentleness, tapers with so much grace, that one is reminded on seeing it as much of Hokusai as of Tanagra' (A. Séguin, 'Paul Gauguin', L'Occident, March-May 1903).
According to Wildenstein, one of the earliest recorded owners of the piece was the Blaue Reiter artist Alexej Jawlensky (fig. 5). Jawlensky always professed his admiration for Gauguin's vibrant colourism and for his brave perspectival conceits. The present picture was exhibited along with other Gauguins belonging to Jawlensky at the pivotal Sonderbund Austellung in Cologne in 1912. Broadly acclaimed as the most important single exhibition of the German Expressionists, the show included works by all the great young Brücke and Blaue Reiter painters and was one of the most celebrated exhibitions held in pre-war Germany. As a tribute to their most influential predecessors, the young expressionists chose to exhibit a series of major works by Edvard Munch and Paul Gauguin alongside their own paintings.
Another owner of the present work was the Spanish sculptor and ceramicist Paco Francesco Durrio (1876-1940). Durrio was greatly influenced by Gauguin when they met in Paris in the 1890s and was to remain a life-long admirer of his art. As he wrote in 1903, following Gauguin's death, 'My affection for the man was profound, my admiration for the artist, absolute' (C. Morice ed., 'A Few Opinions about Paul Gauguin', Mercure de France, November 1903). Durrio's collection of Gauguin's work, largely formed before 1895, was exhibited at the Leicester Galleries in London in 1931. Nègreries Martinique was included in the exhibition as no. 63.