Gauguin painted Nature morte aux tomates in 1883, at the height of his involvement with Impressionism. This table-top arrangement possesses a powerful sense of presence. Gauguin's treatment of this subject demonstrates a newfound clarity and firmness of form when compared to other still-lifes that he painted during the early 1880s, which suggests that he was already looking beyond the typically Impressionist concern for fugitive effects of light, toward a more substantial and consolidated understanding of visual phenomenon, and how this might be translated into a strongly defined and personally expressive pictorial reality. This painting reflects the considerable influence of both Pissarro and Cézanne, with whom Gauguin was in close contact during this period. These two older painters were seeking to retool Impressionist technique in order to create a more permanent art that could hold its own beside the achievements of the old masters. Gauguin, Pissarro and Cézanne were each concurrently approaching a critical juncture in their work, and the support these artists gave each other was instrumental in enabling them to enrich and ultimately transcend Impressionist methodology to arrive at an even more modern synthesis of subject and form.
Gauguin began to paint as an amateur around the same time he became a stockbroker in 1872. He was friendly with Claude-Emile Schuffenecker, a fellow broker, who had studied painting and offered useful advice. Gustave Arosa, a banker and family friend who had earlier been Gauguin's legal guardian, inspired in the young man a passion for collecting modern art, and within a few years Gauguin began to acquire canvases by the Impressionist painters. Gauguin showed one of his own paintings at the Salon in 1876. Degas and Pissarro took notice of his work, and invited the aspiring painter to show with the Impressionists in their fourth group exhibition in 1879. Gauguin thereafter contributed to each of the remaining four Impressionist group exhibitions, sending his own work, and lending paintings by fellow artists. His success in the stock market enabled him to invest 15,000 francs in his collection, a substantial sum at the time. Gauguin's holdings were most numerous in pictures by Pissarro (fourteen) and Guillaumin (eleven), but he owned as many as six paintings by Cézanne, at a time when few people were interested in this eccentric and willfully recalcitrant artist.
In the recent exhibition Gauguin and Impressionism, curators Richard R. Brettell and Anne-Birgitte Fonsmark re-assessed Gauguin's role in the Impressionist movement. Rather than viewing this period as being merely a preliminary phase or apprenticeship before Gauguin evolved his mature Synthetiste manner, they point out that Gauguin was in fact a major second-generation Impressionist in his own right, and that he made a significant contribution to the movement during the 1880s. Brettell has written: "If fidelity to the exhibitions was the criterion for membership, Gauguin was more Impressionist than either Pierre-Auguste Renoir or Alfred Sisley, each included in four, and as Impressionist as Claude Monet, who, like Gauguin, was included in five. Of the major artists, only Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot and Camille Pissarro exhibited more frequently that he did... Clearly Gauguin was among the handful of artists and collectors who were crucial to the very definition of Impressionism" (in Gauguin and Impressionism, exh cat., Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, 2005, pp. 4 and 7).
The 1879 Impressionist exhibition had been an eye-openng experience for Gauguin; Pissarro contributed 38 pictures, which the aspiring painter studied closely. Gauguin was then working at the Thomereau agency buying and selling insurance company stocks--in one year he realized the extraordinary sum of 30,000 francs--and he used his free Sundays and holidays to visit Pissarro in Pontoise. During the summer of 1881 Cézanne was also working nearby. The three painters, together with Guillaumin, worked side-by-side the following summer, as seen in a drawing by Pissarro's son Georges (fig. 1). At first Gauguin adopted Pissarro's small, comma-like brushstroke, working up an intricately stitched facture to create a vibrating, atmospheric effect. He also observed Cézanne's development of a larger and more systematic mark, which was applied in parallel series along a single direction, by which the artist constructed and defined his forms. Gauguin wrote to Pissarro in July 1881: "Has Mr. Césanne [sic] found the exact formula for work acknowledged by everyone? If he has found the secret of concentrating the exacerbated expression of all his feelings into one solitary procedure, I beg you, make him talk in his sleep" (quoted in D. Wildenstein, op.cit., 2002, p. 52). Gauguin's facetious tone only partly masks his sincere interest in the seriousness and novelty of Cézanne's evolving technique. He acquired one of Cézanne's finest still-life paintings from this period (Rewald, no. 418; fig. 2).
Gauguin painted Nature morte aux tomates in his Paris residence at 8, rue Carcel, possibly soon after spending three weeks with Pissarro at Osny during the early summer of 1883. Nevertheless, while a still-life such as Fleurs et livre japonais sur une table, which Gauguin painted the year before (Wildenstein, no. 95; fig. 3), clearly reflects Pissarro's approach, the present canvas is more Cézannesque in the hardness of its contours and the volumetric solidity of the objects, which have been observed in a harsher, less diffuse light. The larger parallel brushstrokes that Gauguin observed in the recent paintings of Cézanne are plainly in evidence in the background and elsewhere in this composition. Elements of the painting's design and palette may also reflect Gauguin's admiration for Manet (Wildenstein, no. 80; fig. 4), who died in May 1883, only a few weeks after Arosa had passed away. Gauguin may have adopted this unusually stark contrast of light and dark to express his mourning for both men, who as artist and collector had together personified the pioneering spirit of the new painting.
A still-life with tomatoes, and indeed one composed mainly of tomatoes, is an unusual subject in 19th century French painting. Among the upper classes the tomato still had a lingering reputation for being poisonous to consume, a problem caused when the acids of the fruit leeched into the lead content of the pewter flatware that well-to-do diners preferred to use. Working class families and peasants, who normally used wooden plates and bowls, faced no such danger, and consequently the versatile and nutritious tomato was prized in the rustic cuisines of Spain, southern France, and of course Italy. Gauguin's biography often figures into his choice of subject matter, and here one should note that Gauguin's mother Aline of was creole Peruvian descent, and the Gauguin family lived in Lima between 1849 and 1854. Gauguin was proud of his "Incan" heritage--he was fond of collecting Peruvian pottery and artifacts--and he was no doubt partial to the tomato because the plant, like himself, had its origins in this region of South America, from whence it spread throughout the continent and first made its way to Europe with returning conquistadors during the 16th century.
The dark tonality and austere qualities of Gauguin's treatment of this subject have a Spanish aspect, which may allude to a rather bizarre exploit in which Gauguin participated during August 1883. The crash of the Paris stock market in 1881, precipitated then as now by the failure of over-reaching banks, had undermined his success as a broker. Gauguin had a wife and four children to support--a fifth was on the way--and he had sold only three paintings thus far, to the dealer Durand-Ruel in 1881. To bring in some money, and to satisfy his growing desire for adventure, he put his fluency in Spanish to use by getting involved with a group of rebels led by Manual Ruiz Zorilla, who sought to overthrow the monarchy of Alfonso XII and establish a republic in Spain. Gauguin ran messages to the conspirators, remaining in the border region for the next several weeks, until the uprising began prematurely and was quickly suppressed by the Spanish government. Gauguin later claimed to have put Zorilla on a cart, hidden him under hay and then smuggled him past border guards into France. He remained in contact with the luckless revolutionaries well into the following year, until they were deported from France. The artist may have painted this still-life of tomatoes, the red fruit of the people and their revolutionary ardor, in anticipation of this scheme in late July or early August, or sometime following his return to Paris in September, when tomatoes were still in season.
Following the Zorilla affair, Gauguin ended his employment at the Thomereau agency, or more likely was asked to resign. During the year 1883 Gauguin had clearly begun to act out pent-up anti-bourgeois and non-conformist inclinations that would later drive his career as an artist. He was arriving at an inevitable conclusion, that fate would make him a painter and nothing else. During the fall of that year he investigated the possibility of relocating his family to Rouen, where he hoped to paint and deal in pictures to the sizable Scandinavian merchant community there, with whom his Danish wife Mette had connections. On 6 December his son Paul (Pola) was born in Paris. Gauguin, who had previously hesitated between his careers in finance and art, now resolutely stated his new calling--in the 15th arrondissement record of births he listed his profession as "artist-painter."
(fig. 1) Drawing by Georges Manzana-Pissarro, The Impressionist Picnic, showing from left to right: Guillaumin, Pissarro, Gauguin and Cézanne, painting together near Pontoise, summer 1881. Private collection. BARCODE: 24402293
(fig. 2) Paul Cézanne, Nature morte au compotier, 1879-1880. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Fractional gift of Mr. and Mrs. David Rockefeller, formerly owned by Paul Gauguin. BARCODE: 24402323
(fig. 3) Paul Gauguin, Fleurs et livre japonais sur une table, 1882. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. BARCODE: 24402316
(fig. 4) Edouard Manet, French, 1832-1883, Fish (Still-Life), 1864, Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Larned Coburn Memorial Collection, 1942.311, The Art Institute of Chicago. BARCODE: 24402309