This brilliantly colored, enigmatic still-life, erroneously dated 1886, has been conclusively assigned by the Wildenstein Institute to the period after 1891, when Gauguin lived in the South Seas. Seeking creative inspiration from pre-industrial cultures, Gauguin had traveled during the 1880s to Brittany, Provence, Panama, and Martinique. In 1889, after viewing the displays of Pacific culture at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, he began to contemplate another voyage, envisioning a place where he could "work seriously as a savage" without material concerns (letter to Theo Van Gogh, July 1890; quoted in Gauguin Tahiti, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2004, p. 19). By the late summer of 1890, he had settled on Tahiti as a destination, explaining to the artist Odilon Redon, "Even Madagascar is too near the civilized world. I shall go to Tahiti and I hope to end my days there. I judge that my art, which you like, is only a seedling thus far, and out there I hope to cultivate it for my own pleasure in its primitive and savage state" (quoted in ibid., p. 19).
After several months of planning and two more of travel, Gauguin finally arrived in Tahiti in June of 1891. With the exception of a two-year interlude in Paris from mid-1893 until mid-1895, he remained in Tahiti for a full decade, living in a rural village called Mataiea on the banks of a blue lagoon. In 1901, he set sail for the even more remote island of Hivaoa in the Marquesas, where he died two years later. The works that Gauguin produced in Polynesia--well over a hundred and fifty paintings, along with scores of drawings, prints, and sculptures--are among the most renownded of his entire oeuvre. Discussing this seminal phase in the artist's career, Richard Brettell has concluded, "Gauguin went to the South Seas as much to escape the pressure cooker of Paris as to have time to create the major paintings of what was to be the last decade of his life. For these, he will never be forgotten. Had he stayed in Paris, the history of Western art would have been the poorer" (Gauguin, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1988, p. 302).
The present canvas is one of approximately twenty still-lifes that Gauguin produced during the Tahitian years. It depicts a vibrant bouquet of flowers in a rustic, earthenware pot, positioned on a table covered by a checked cloth. Beside the floral arrangement is a single piece of fruit, probably a mango, and an unusual curved implement, perhaps intended to peel or cut the fruit. At the far right edge, a dark-skinned female figure stands in heavy shadow, framed by a doorway. The compositional device of a figure silhouetted in an open door or window is one that Gauguin explored repeatedly in his paintings from Tahiti, including Le repas (Les bananas), 1891 (Wildenstein no. 427) and La théière et les fruits, 1896 (fig. 1). In the present painting, it serves not only to add an element of mystery to the scene, but also to heighten the spatial complexity of the composition. The loose brushwork, earthy coloration, and suggestion of depth in the right-hand zone of the painting form a clear contrast with the central part of the composition, with its vivid colors, flattened background, and subtle distortions of perspective. Analyzing a closely related still-life from Tahiti (fig. 2), Charles Stuckey concludes, "Given the discontinuities between its constituent parts, the painting might be understood as a statement of Gauguin's priority of relationships of color and form over logical subject matter. Several early still-lifes by Gauguin are charged with similar lapses in logic, and the resulting mood of mystery in all these paintings was among Gauguin's foremost goals" (ibid., p. 221).
Although the brilliant coloration and flattened forms of the present painting are characteristic of Gauguin's Tahitian work, other aspects of the composition look back self-consciously to earlier phases in the artist's career. The picture thus provides an extraordinary document of Gauguin's life, functioning as a contemplative meditation on various formative moments in his artistic development. Particularly noteworthy in this respect is the female figure, who wears a long-sleeved, calf-length white dress and a tightly wrapped head scarf. This costume is unusual in Gauguin's Tahitian oeuvre: the women in his paintings from Tahiti are typically clad instead in either a high-necked missionary dress or a brightly colored pareu. It appears repeatedly, however, in his work from Martinique, where he spent five months during 1887 (e.g. fig. 3). The journey to Martinique was central to Gauguin's creative development. Long after his return to Paris, he continued to feature imagery from the island in his new paintings, sculptures, and prints, explaining to his friend Charles Morice in 1890, "I had a decisive experience in Martinique. It was only there that I felt like my real self, and one must look for me in the works I brought back from there rather than those from Brittany, if one wants to know who I am" (quoted in C. Ives and S.A. Stein, The Lure of the Exotic: Gauguin in New York Collections, exh. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2002, p. 45). Gauguin's stay in Martinique has been called "the first concrete step toward the exoticism and primitivism which would flourish in his Tahitian works," and the inclusion in the present canvas of a figure in Martinique costume is testament to the continued importance that the island had for Gauguin even after his move to Polynesia (C. Frèches-Thory, in exh. cat., op. cit., Washington, D.C., 1988, pp. 59-60).
The fruit in the present still-life also has its origins in Gauguin's work from Martinique. Its shape and color suggest that it is a mango, although the pulpy red flesh is more in keeping with a tropical gourd. Gauguin's hut in Martinique was near the footpath regularly traveled by local porteuses carrying baskets of freshly-picked mangoes to the nearby market. His most ambitious canvas from the island depicts a group of women harvesting mangoes (W. 224), and the only still-life that can be securely dated to the Martinique period likewise takes a plate of mangoes as its primary subject (W. 238). With their exotic connotations, mangoes became a ubiquitous component of Gauguin's imagery following his move to Tahiti, appearing both in still-life compositions (e.g. fig. 1) and large-scale figure paintings. In Vahine no te vi of 1892 (W. 449), for instance, Gauguin portrays his Tahitian mistress, Tehamana, holding a mango in her hand, and Te arii vahine of 1896 (fig. 4) depicts a reclining female figure in the pose of Manet's Olympia, with a cluster of ripe, red mangoes on the ground beside her.
The floral arrangement in the present painting, in contrast, appears to feature a combination of tropical and European species. The large red blossoms that anchor the bouquet have the same narrow, pointed petals as the yellow flowers in the background of Te arii vahine (fig. 4) and likely represent a native Tahitian variety. The blue and lilac flowers, on the other hand, may be ones that Gauguin cultivated from seeds that his friend Daniel de Monfreid sent him from France. Notably, the two types of bloom are painted in obviously contrasting styles: bold, flat passages of pigment for the red flowers, versus looser, more Impressionist strokes for the blue ones. The result is a nuanced visual dialogue between East and West, comparable to that of Te tiare farani (The Flowers of France), 1891, which depicts a massive bouquet of European oleander incongruously positioned within a Tahitian interior (fig. 2).
Besides recalling his trip to Martinique, the present painting also pays homage to two artists who deeply influenced Gauguin in the years preceding his move to Tahiti: Cézanne and Van Gogh. With its shallow, frieze-like space and upward-tilted tabletop, the painting draws heavily upon the compositional innovations of Cézanne's still-lifes from the later 1870s. Gauguin owned at least five paintings by Cézanne, including Nature morte au compotier of 1880 (Rewald no. 418). Shortly before his departure for Tahiti, a period of considerable financial hardship, Gauguin refused an offer of three hundred francs for this picture, writing to Emile Schuffenecker, "It's the apple of my eye, and except in case of dire necessity, I'll keep it until my last shirt's gone" (quoted in F. Cachin and J.J. Rishel, Cézanne, exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1996, p. 28). Such was Gauguin's admiration for the painter from Aix, in fact, that he reportedly told Paul Sérusier when he was in the mood to paint a still-life, "Let's do a Cézanne!" (quoted in C. Chassé,Gauguin et son temps, Paris, 1955, p. 50).
The acidic greenish-yellow that forms the background of the present painting also suggests a reminiscence of Gauguin's old friend Van Gogh, who had died the year before the start of the Tahitian sojourn. This distinctive color appears repeatedly in Van Gogh's work from Arles, including several of his celebrated portraits of Madame Ginoux or L'Arlésienne (see lot 19). In October of 1888, Gauguin had traveled to Arles to live and work alongside Van Gogh. The nine weeks that he spent there were a period of intense aesthetic exploration and unprecedented productivity for both painters. On the occasion of a recent exhibition devoted to this interlude, Douglas Druick and Peter Zegers explained, "The collaboration proved pivotal for each, in different ways. For Van Gogh the 'Studio of the South' was a destination, the personal and professional haven he had sought for years; for Gauguin it was a point of departure, instrumental in helping him chart his future course. The legacy of their time together served as a mutual reference that continued to motivate both artists after the Arles experiment had ended" (Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South, exh. cat., Art Institute of Chicago, 2001, p. 1). Notably, one of Gauguin's final essays in still-life painting--a series of four canvases of sunflowers that he made in 1901, shortly before leaving Tahiti for the Marquesas (W. 602-604, 606)--also represents an homage to Van Gogh, who had decorated his studio at Arles with painted sunflowers in anticipation of Gauguin's arrival.
(fig. 1) Paul Gauguin, La théière et les fruits, 1896. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. BARCODE 24771481
(fig. 2) Paul Gauguin, Te tiare farani, 1891. Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow. BARCODE 24771474
(fig. 3) Paul Gauguin, Pastorales Martinique, from Dessins lithographiques, 1889. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. BARCODE 24771467
(fig. 4) Paul Gauguin, Te arii vahine, 1896. Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow. BARCODE 24771450
Vase de fleurs et gourde
Oil on canvas
PROPERTY FROM A DISTINGUISHED NEW YORK COLLECTION
Signed and dated 'P. Gauguin 86' (lower left)
Amsterdam, Stedelikjsmuseum, Un siècle d'art français, 1938, no. 122b.
The Art Institute of Chicago; and New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gauguin, February-May 1959, pp. 28-29, no. 7 (illustrated).
IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART
22¾ x 28¼ in. (58 x 72 cm.)
G. Wildenstein, Gauguin, Paris, 1964, vol. I, pp. 77-78, no. 210 (illustrated, p. 77).
G.M. Sugana, L'opera completa di Gauguin, Milan, 1972, p. 89 (illustrated).
O. Federer, Czechoslovakia.
Confiscated from the above by the German occupying forces.
Restituted to O. Federer, Czechoslovakia, circa 1946.
Justin K. Thannhauser, New York.
Mrs. H. Harris Jonas, New York.
By descent from the above to the present owner.