Gouache and watercolour with pen and dark blue ink and gold paint. Collage, paper laid down on board. Titled in point of the brush and black and gold paint: Nègreries Martinique
Signed and dated lower right, in point of the brush and black ink: P. Gauguin 90
343 x 247mm. (13 ½ x 9 ¾ in.)
PROVENANCE: Alexei von Jawlensky, Munich (acquired by 1912); Galerie Thannhauser, Berlin (1928); Paco Francesco Durrio, Paris (acquired 1928); Mr. Margisson (acquired by 1931); Galerie Wilhelm Grosshennig, Dusseldorf (acquired by 1959); sale, London, Christie’s, 6 February 2001, lot 3; where acquired by Jan Krugier, posthumous sale, From Goya to Picasso, Works from the Private Collection of Jan Krugier, London, Sotheby’s, 5 February 2014, lot 29.
EXHIBITED: Cologne, Stadtische Ausstellungshalle, Sonderbund Internationale Kunstausstellung, 1912, no.158; Basel, Kunsthalle Basel, Paul Gauguin, 1928, no.151; Berlin, Galerie Thannhauser, Paul Gauguin, 1928, no.128; London, The Leicester Galleries, The Durrio Collection of Works by Gauguin, 1931, no.63; Paris, Krugier Poniatowski Collection, 2002, no.129; Madrid, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Gauguin y los origenes de Simbolismo, 2004-5, no.61, illustrated in colour in the catalogue; Vienna, Krugier Poniatowski Collection, 2005, no. 74; Munich, Krugier Poniatowski Collection, 2007, no.130; Madrid, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Gauguin y el viaje a lo exotico, 2012-13, no. 65, illustrated in colour in the catalogue.
LITERATURE: Georges Wildenstein, Gauguin, Paris 1964, vol.I, no.391, illustrated p.151; Robert Cucchi, Gauguin à la Martinique. Le musée imaginaire complet de ses peintures-dessins-sculptures-céramiques-les faux-les letters-les catalogues d’expositions, Vaduz 1979, no.391, illustrated p.50; Gauguin: Maker of Myth, (exhibition catalogue), Tate Modern, London 2010, illustrated in colour p.27, fig.16; this work will be included in the forthcoming Gauguin Catalogue being prepared by the Wildenstein Institute.
Though born in Paris, Gauguin’s peripatetic existence began at the tender age of 3 when his parents decided to escape the unsympathetic political climate in France by moving to Peru. Gauguin’s father died during the journey and the family struggled through the next four years before returning to France to live in Orleans. Gauguin became a successful student and prolonged his military service to spend three years in the Navy. On his discharge he moved to Paris, became a stockbroker and married a Danish woman, Mette-Sophie Gad. His overwhelming interest in painting, however, come to the fore through a friendship with Camille Pissarro and Gauguin was encouraged enough to set up a small studio. He spent a couple of summers painting with Pissarro and also with Cézanne and took part in exhibitions devoted to Impressionism. He visited Pont Aven to paint there in the company of the group of artists who were forming a new movement dedicated to colour and symbolist subjects. A brief attempt to live as a salesman in Copenhagen, with his by then growing family, was succeeded by a return to Paris alone, with the intention of establishing himself as an artist. His abandoned family were taken in by his wife’s parents. Gauguin, who had become disaffected with Impressionism, wished to forge a new style which would express the deep sympathy he felt with the arts of Asia and Africa. In 1888 Gauguin spent a couple of months staying with Van Gogh in Arles but relations between them became explosive and Gauguin left; that night Van Gogh cut part of his ear off with a razor.
The exhibition of 2010 at Tate Modern, Gauguin, Maker of Myth, brought to the fore the way in which Gauguin deliberately reinvented himself as an artist and a ‘symbolist/savage’1 in the late 1880s. Rejecting Paris and its urban values, first for Brittany, Gauguin soon turned to further-flung travelling to fuel his artistic imagination and took himself to Martinique. He had huge self-belief: ‘I am a great artist and I know it. It is because I am that I have endured so much suffering’2 and others quickly came to see him in the same light. Pictorially, Gauguin had begun to paint Breton peasants in the northern landscape of meadows, woods and beaches and in Martinique, over a period of four months, in which he lived, as he had dreamt of doing, in a very basic way benefiting from the lush fertility of the island, he depicted the porteuses and blanchisseuses, the carriers and laundresses, who negotiated the winding paths around his hut, dressed in their distinctive bright headdresses. He described this ‘Pastorale Martinique’ in a letter to his wife: ‘Right now we are living in a Negro hut and it’s a paradise compared to the isthmus [Gauguin had first landed in Panama]. Below us is the sea, bordered by cocoanut palms, above us, all kinds of fruit trees.. Negroes and Negresses go about all day with their creole songs and their constant chatter; don’t think its monotonous, on the contrary it is very varied .. Nature is at its richest..’2 In his work from this time, using informal compositions, linear forms, brilliant colours and a layered depiction of perspective Gauguin weaved his fascination with primitive forms of art into a new pictorial language and an evocation of a tropical paradise.
Vincent van Gogh wrote to his sister in 1888 describing two of Gauguin’s Martinique paintings which his brother Theo, the art dealer, had bought; he writes of intense colour, ‘the pure cobalt blue of the sky, green grass’ both elemental ingredients of the present archetypal work which, with its dancing colours and inventive use of collage, acts as a window offering a glimpse of that vivid world. Painted two years after his journey to Martinique, this work is a distillation of Gauguin’s aesthetic response to the experience: the bony, angular form of the boy speaks of the simple poverty in which the Martiniquan peasants lived and though patterned as if in layers, the composition is also spontaneous; the boy scratches his neck, the figure in profile turns to look at something, her mouth open and the round eyed girl in the background looks directly at the viewer. The gently curving lines of shoulder, collar bone, cheek bone and profile are drawn in a fine blue pen, the patterned dress is described in splashes and washes of watercolour and the girls faces are given a dusky matt blue-green tone against which their red mouths glow. The profile figure recalls the features of a young Martiniquan woman drawn by Gauguin in pastel – this work also belonged to Van Gogh and is now in the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam - while the shirtless boy could be based on studies of a thin child, usually seen with a hat, who appears in at least three of the Martinique paintings: Near the Huts, Negresses Chatting and Riverside. In volume II of the catalogue raisonné, quoting the artists’ words about the enchantment of the Martiniquaises: ‘Currently I’m doing no more than make sketch after sketch so as to soak in their character and then I shall get them to pose’, Daniel Wildenstein speculates on the possibility that many of Gauguin’s drawings made in Martinique and bought back to France were destroyed after his death, possibly even by Luc-Olivier Merson who sorted through and cleared the studio3. Painted the year before Gauguin left for Tahiti and the year after his sojourn with Van Gogh in Arles, this remarkable object combines the Martiniquan colours and the particular figure types that he studied with such relish with a relief like style which echoes that of a polychrome wood panel, he made in 1889, now in Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, bearing a title Soyez amoureuses vous serez heureuses carved into the wood in similar lettering to that seen here. It seems most likely that Gauguin intended this work as a frontispiece or album cover to a collection of his Martinique drawings.
The earliest recorded owner of Nègreries Martinique was the expressionist painter, Alexei Jawlensky who spent time in France in 1905 and 1906 and was deeply influenced by his encounters with the work of Van Gogh, Matisse and Gauguin, whose cloisonné technique of using bold flat forms and dark outlines, became central to his developing abstraction. Jawlensky came to know the artist Wilibrod Werkade who was a close friend of Gauguin’s and it may have been through this connection that the present work came into his possession. Though a very small number of other works in watercolour and gouache exist from this early and critical period in Gauguin’s career, principally fan shaped scenes, the form and medium of Nègreries Martinique, make it a uniquely fascinating expression of Gauguin’s intense reaction to the island and its people and Martinique’s huge meaning in the development of his work.
1. See exhibition catalogue, 2010, Gauguin Maker of Myth, London, p.12.
2. See exhibition catalogue, op. cit., p.13, from a letter to his wife of 1892.
3. See Daniel Wildenstein, Gauguin, A Savage in the Making, Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings (1873-1888), vol.II, P.343.