Long before Gauguin arrived in Tahiti on June 9, 1891, he had been dreaming of escape. During the first decade of his life as a professional artist, he travelled to different destinations in search of a more authentic way of living than he felt could be found in Paris. Accompanied by Charles Lavalhe, he left for Panama in 1887, which served as a prelude to a stay on the island of Martinique from June to November. Closer to home, Brittany seemed a promising destination and fulfilled many of his expectations, as did Arles where Vincent van Gogh had been living since February 1888. The 1889 Universal Exhibition in Paris provided even clearer indications that a destination on the other side of the world might offer what he was looking for. At the Colonial Exhibition there were colorful displays of dwellings and artifacts from all the colonies, and Tahiti was represented by two native huts located between the central Palace of Tunisia and huts from Annam and Tonkin.
In order to finance the voyage to Tahiti, a sale of thirty of Gauguin's works was held on February 23, 1891. He summarized his motives in an interview with Jules Huret published in L'echo de Paris on February 23, 1891: "I'm leaving so that I can be at peace and can rid myself of civilization's influence. I want to create only simple art. To do that, I need to immerse myself in virgin nature, see only savages, live their life, with no other care than to portray, as would a child, the concepts in my brain using only primitive artistic materials, the only kind that are good and true" (quoted in George T. M. Shackelford & Claire Frèches-Thory, Gauguin Tahiti (exhibition catalogue), Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris & Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2003-04, p. 19).
Cabane sous les arbres was painted in 1892, the second year of Gauguin's first stay in Polynesia from June 1891 to June 1893. Not surprisingly, in view of his expectations, Papeete turned out to be a disappointment, a provincial outpost that aped many of the least appealing characteristics of the society he thought he had left behind. Expecting to reduce his expenses, he found that the cost of living was much higher than he anticipated and after several months left for Paea, a small village to the south of the capital and then to Maiteiea which was located about thirty kilometers further south. Here he was able to rent a fare, a bamboo hut beside a blue lagoon, and work in the idyllic atmosphere that he had imagined while living in France. For the first five months of his stay he had concentrated on drawing, familiarizing himself with his new environment. In a letter to Daniel de Monfreid on November 7, 1891, he wrote: "As yet I have done nothing striking, I am content to dig into myself, not into nature, and to learn a little drawing; that's the important thing. And then I am getting together subjects to paint in Paris" (ibid.,p. 25).
In works such as Ia Orana Maria (Hail Mary) of 1891 (fig. 1) and Te matete (The Market) of 1892, Gauguin approached his Tahitian subject matter through layers of cultural references, ranging from the use of a pose from a bas relief from the Buddhist temple of Borobudur in Java in the former to a Theban tomb of the Eighteenth Dynasty in the latter. In other less self-conscious canvases, he turned to the landscape itself for inspiration, as in the current work. During the formative decade of the 1880s Gauguin's style had evolved from his early Impressionist style to the extreme stylization characteristic of much of his work in Pont Aven. While continuing to develop this in Tahiti, however, Gauguin frequently modified it when documenting the daily life of the Tahitians or confronting the landscape, which differed so much from the Northern European environment in which he had felt so undernourished.
Here the focus is on the five large trees that dominate the composition with their spreading branches. The two figures to the left are walking towards the hut in the centre of the composition, emphasizing the remoteness of the location Gauguin has chosen to depict. In another painting of 1892, Fatata te moua (At the Big Mountain) a lone tree is the focal point, although in this case he has exaggerated the color contrasts and emphasized the decorative potential of the landscape (fig. 2). In the present work, he has reverted to a technique reminiscent of his Impressionist landscapes of the previous decade while emphasizing the brilliant colors characteristic of the tropical landscape of Tahiti.
This work has been requested for the forthcoming exhibition Paul Gauguin and the Gesamtkunstwerk at the Belvedere Vienna scheduled to take place from October 18, 2013 to February 9, 2014.
Oil on canvas
Madison, New Jersey, Drew University, 1958
28 1/2 by 17 1/8 in. 72.4 by 43.5 cm
Georges Wildenstein, Gauguin, vol. 1, Paris, 1964, no. 492, illustrated p. 199
Gabriel M. Sugana, L'opera completa di Gauguin, Milan, 1972, no. 316, illustrated p. 105
Dr. Georges Viau, Paris (sold: Galerie Druet, Paris, March 21-22, 1907, lot 33)
Carl Thédor Deichmann, Cologne (acquired by 1920)
Kunstsalon Hermann Abels, Cologne
Albert Otten, New Jersey (acquired from the above, circa 1920)
Otten Collection (by descent from the above and sold: Christie's, New York, November 6, 2002, lot 9)
Acquired at the above sale