It is with pleasure that the Institute announces this week to events of importance to all interested in the work and life of Paul Gauguin. The first is the purchase of one of his great canvases, Tahitian Landscape,
and the second the opening of a loan exhibition entitled Gauguin in Tahiti,
organized to provide a background for the newly acquired painting. A generous bequest made this acquisition possible. The will of Deborah B. Eliel provided a fund for the purchase of a single work of art as a memorial to her husband, Julius C. Eliel. Although this bequest was made some years ago, the conditions attached to it could not be fully complied with until recently.Tahitian Landscape
dates from Gauguin’s first trip to Tahiti, 1891-1893, the period during which he produced the majority of his masterpieces, and stands as a symbol of his new-found life and happiness in the South Seas. As one of the first works that he undertook in Tahiti, it is a key to the understanding of his highly personal style. This addition to the Institute’s growing group of nineteenth-century paintings may well be familiar to many museum visitors through frequent reproduction. Tahitian Landscape
was formerly in The Frick Collection in New York. Prior to that, it belonged to Mrs. Chester Beatty of London and to the famous art dealer, Ambroise Vollard of Paris, who, in all probability, purchased it from Gauguin himself when he returned to France.The chief events of Gauguin’s life are too well known and have been popularized too often to require more than the briefest review. His contemporaries were preoccupied with scientific investigation in every field. The inquiring spirit of the age is reflected in Gauguin’s personality, in his continual search for new horizons not only in his painting, but in his private life as well. His Peruvian ancestry and youthful trips to South America with his family and later with the French navy may account for his mania for change and stimulation.In 1873, he married and commenced a flourishing career as a stockbroker in Paris. Ten years later he abruptly abandoned this, deserting his business and, for all practical purposes, his family, to devote the rest of his life to painting. He had previously become a Sunday painter and as an amateur had exhibited five times with the Impressionists. In 1886 he joined members of that movement in Brittany for a few months for instruction. However, the most decisive factor in his development was a trip to Martinique in 1887, after which he was determined to seek a tropical Utopia where he could paint in peace. The trip to Martinique further convinced him that he could achieve any desired emotional effect in his painting through intensifying his use of color. The idea was not new, but was given new impetus and meaning by Gauguin. After a stormy visit to Van Gogh in Arles in 1888, he returned to Brittany, spending two years at Pont Aven. His friends there called themselves the Symbolists, and based their art on a careful and symbolic selection of subject matter and color.Gauguin finally secured enough funds through the sale of his personal collection and some of his own works to depart for Tahiti in 1891. This first sojourn lasted for two years. The change greatly stimulated him, and he undertook a prodigious amount of work. However, he soon fell ill, and suffered from countless disappointments. He returned to France in 1893 for two years. At the end of that time, as convinced as ever that he would find his Utopia in the South Seas, he again sailed for Tahiti. After six years there, he moved to the Marquesas in 1901, where he died in 1903. His writing tell us much of his romantic and tragic life in exile, but it is his paintings, less self-conscious and more reliable than his writings, that reveal the real man and his contribution to the art of painting.Upon his arrival in Tahiti, Gauguin settled in the town of Papeete, where he found little of inspiration and, among the colonial inhabitants, much that was too reminiscent of European life. Disappointed, he moved to the village of Mataieu, where he found his new surroundings completely exhilarating. It was doubtless here, in 1891, that he commenced painting Tahitian Landscape.
His letters of that year are full of descriptions of the scenery near his native hut. He noticed contrasts everywhere. He mentioned that on one side he saw deeply fissured mountains, palms, and mangoes forming arabesques with woods hanging over dark waters, and, on the other, a magnificent stretch of beach and sea beyond. Temporarily, at least, Gauguin found the peace for which he had been searching. At that time he wrote to his friend, Charles Morice, “I escaped from the false and have entered into nature confident that tomorrow will be as free and lovely as today. Peace wells up in me.” In the Institute’s new painting we see tangible evidence of the painter’s joy in his tropical surroundings.Tahitian Landscape
is symbolic of the serenity that Gauguin found in Tahiti. In it we see no trace of the disillusionment that he was soon to experience. This landscape is exceptionally objective for Gauguin. Nevertheless, it is as dramatic as any of his more subjective paintings. It is rare in the sense that it is one of the painter’s few pure landscapes, for Gauguin has introduced only a single figure and a dog as secondary accents. Some portions of the landscape appear again in his later paintings, as contrasting background, but always subordinate to his concentration on the human figure.In style, Tahitian Landscape
is closely related to the landscapes that Gauguin painted in Brittany and is more naturalistic that Gauguin’s later works. He chose as his point of departure Impressionism, employing the evanescent effects that Pissarro had perfected and the paralleled hatchings of color that Cézanne had developed. His selection of color for its emotional effect was part of the Symbolist doctrine. However, Gauguin went one step beyond any previous effort and here intensified his color to heighten the beauty that he saw around him.Gauguin has conceived this landscape as a series of flat planes, superimposed rhythmically, one upon the other, and differentiated by color contrasts; green, pink, and heliotrope. As in some of his earlier works, he has abandoned conventional perspective without sacrificing the illusion of three-dimensional space. Gauguin’s rich use of color and masterly composition communicate his highly personal feelings to the spectator.The exhibition Gauguin in Tahiti,
organized to feature the new painting, provides the museum visitor with an opportunity to trace Gauguin’s development from the year in which he painted it, 1891, to 1903. In addition to Tahitian Landscape,
the Institute’s other canvas, I Raro Te Oviri
(Under the Pandanus), has, of course, been included. It provides an interesting contrast to Tahitian Landscape.
In it, Gauguin has treated the background of the sea breaking on the coral reef in much the same manner in which he handled his color in Tahitian Landscape.
However, he has concentrated, in Under the Pandanus,
on the native figures that he has used as symbols of the basic life he found in Tahiti and that he has worked into a magnificent arabesque.The Sulking Woman
which the Worcester Art Museum has generously lent to the exhibition brings out another striking contrast to Tahitian Landscape.
This is primarily a figure painting. Gauguin has focused attention on the main actor in this little drama by placing her solidly in the center of the composition and creating a figure as solid as an abstraction in marble. Here the color areas are flatter.Gauguin’s first years, after his return to Tahiti, were not as productive as 1891 and 1892. Paintings of this period are scarcer, and, if anything, over-sentimental. But his move to the island of Santo Domingo in the Marquesas in 1901 stimulated him to a final outburst of brilliant production. The Cleveland Museum of Art has lent us the outstanding example of Gauguin’s painting of this period. This canvas, The Call,
painted in 1902, is reminiscent of the Institute’s new landscape and exemplifies the same handling of color and contrasting planes to denote space. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts has lent an important work, Three Women and a White Horse,
completed shortly before Gauguin’s death. In it, Gauguin reiterates the bold experiments that he included in Tahitian Landscape.
The obvious appeal of Gauguin’s subject matter and the romantic aspects of his life have clouded the chief significance of his contribution to painting. However, the objective spectator will study Gauguin’s paintings and understand why René Huyghe, the Director of the Louvre, has called him “the creator of modern painting.” Comparisons with the work of the Fauves, the Cubists, and the Expressionists point out, better than words, Gauguin’s tremendous influence on the twentieth century. The use of abstract pattern and of color for its emotional effect are usually considered Gauguin’s chief contributions, but perhaps more influential than either has been Gauguin’s spirit of experimentation, which his friend Daniel de Monfried described as “the right to dare anything.” Gauguin, through such masterpieces as the Institute’s Tahitian Landscape
and I Raro Te Oviri (Under the Pandanus),
has shown the painters of our own time the extent to which they can go. Gauguin understood his own position as a painter and wrote with justification at the end of his life that “the painters who reap benefits of this liberty today owe me something.”Referenced Works of Art
- Tahitian Landscape (detail) by Paul Gauguin
French, 1848-1903. Julius C. Eliel Memorial Fund
- Tahitian Landscape. An early painting from Gauguin’s first Tahitian period, 1891-1893
- I Raro Te Oviri (Under the Pandanus) by Paul Gauguin
Painted in 1891. Purchased through Dunwoody Fund, 1942
- The Call. Painted by Gauguin in 1902
Lent by The Cleveland Museum of Art