Long before Gauguin arrived in Papeete on June 9, 1891, he had been dreaming of escape. During the first decade of his life as a professional artist, he traveled to several different destinations in search of a more authentic way of living than he felt could be found in Paris as the end of the nineteenth century approached. Accompanied by Charles Laval 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, and 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 and Claire Frèches-Thory, Gauguin Tahiti, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2003-04, p. 19).
Paysage aux trois arbres was painted circa 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 major 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 that: "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 (see fig. 1) and Te matete (The Market) of 1892 (see fig. 2), 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 work under discussion. 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 three large trees that dominate the composition with their spreading branches. The two figures to the right seem to have paused in order to enjoy a peaceful moment, emphasizing the remoteness of the location Gauguin has chosen to depict. In another painting of 1892, Fatata te moua (At the Big Mountain) (see fig. 3) 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. In the present work, on the other hand, 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.
Fig. 1, Paul Gauguin, Ia orana Maria (Hail Mary), 1891, oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Fig. 2, Paul Gauguin, Te matete (The Market), 1892, oil on canvas, Kunstmuseum, Basel
Fig. 3, Paul Gauguin, Fatata te moua (At the Big Mountain), 1892, oil on canvas, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
Oil on canvas
Basel, Kunsthalle, Gauguin, 1928, no. 62
24 by 36 1/4 in. 61 by 92 cm
Erich Weise, Paul Gauguin, Leipzig, 1923, illustrated pl. 24
Maurice Malingue, Gauguin, Paris, 1948, illustrated pl. 112 ( as Paysage de la Martinique and as dating from 1887)
Lee van Dovski, Gauguin, Zürich, 1950, no. 99, p. 342
Richard S. Field, Paul Gauguin: The Paintings of the First Voyage to Tahiti, New York, Ph. D dissertation, Harvard University, 1963, no. 46-A, p. 356
Georges Wildenstein, Gauguin, vol. 1, Paris, 1964, no. 489, illustrated p. 198
Georges Boudaille, Gauguin, London, 1964, illustrated p. 241
Claus Virch, The Adele and Arthur Lehman Collection, New York, 1965, illustrated p. 71
Charles Chasse, Gauguin sans Légendes, Paris, 1965, illustrated p. 71
G. M. Sugana, L'opera completa di Gauguin, Milan, 1972, no. 301, illustrated p. 104
Lee van Dovski, Die Wahrheit über Gauguin, Darmstadt, 1973, no. 99, p. 257
Ida Bienert, Dresden (by 1928)
Wildenstein & Co., New York (by 1954)
Adele and Arthur Lehman, New York (acquired from the above in 1955)
Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin J. Buttenwieser, New York