Michael Stewart, London (by inheritance from the above in 1948)
Collection Laroche, Paris
Private Collection, Switzerland
Sale: Sotheby’s, New York, 15th May 1984, lot 36
Private Collection, USA (purchased at the above sale. Sold: Sotheby’s, London, 20th June 2005, lot 12)
Purchased at the above sale by the present owner
Paris, Hôtel de la Curiosité et des Beaux Arts, 1re exposition de collectionneurs, 1924, no. 139
Paris, Le Portique, Gauguin, 1931, no. 17
Paris, Galerie Alfred Daber, Natures mortes françaises du XVIIe au XXe siècles, 1959, no. 36
London, The National Gallery, 2007-2015 (on loan)
Herbert Furst, The Art of Still-Life Painting, London, 1927, illustrated
Lee Van Dovski, Paul Gauguin oder die Flucht vor der Zivilisation, Zurich, 1950, no. 216, listed p. 346 (titled Nature morte aux fruits and as dating from 1890)
Jean Taralon, Gauguin, 1953, fig. 59, illustrated p. 9
Georges Boudaille, Gauguin, Paris, 1963, illustrated in colour p. 229
Georges Wildenstein, Gauguin, Paris, 1964, no. 555, illustrated p. 228
Gabriele Mandel Sugana, L’Opera completa di Gauguin, 1972, no. 359, illustrated
Ingo F. Walther, Paul Gauguin, Cologne, 1988, illustrated in colour p. 70
Gauguin was initially attracted by the freedom, wilderness and simplicity of this remote place far removed from the Western world, stating in an interview: ‘I’m leaving so I can be at peace and can rid myself of civilisation’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 care other than to portray, as would a child, the concepts in my brain’ (quoted in Gauguin Tahiti (exhibition catalogue), Musée d’Orsay, Paris, 2003-04, p. 19). Arriving in Papeete in Tahiti on 9th June 1891, he took some months to accustom himself to his new surroundings; dismayed at first by the colonial influences he observed in Papeete he decided to go in search of more remote and untouched surroundings, settling in the small village of Mataiea. There Gauguin was able to observe the Tahitian way of life and, as he had anticipated, this new environment provided him with a wealth of inspiration.
As Isabelle Cahn describes: ‘At Mataiea, Gauguin lived in a fare in close proximity with the village’s inhabitants. He observed their daily life, noted their gestures, studied their language, steeped himself in the rhythm of their daily life and savoured an existence entirely devoted to his art’ (I. Cahn, ‘The First Stay on Tahiti, June 1891-June 1893’, in Gauguin Polynesia (exhibition catalogue), Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, 2011-12, p. 164). The works that he painted there reveal a fluidity and expressiveness in the brushstrokes that reflect this sense of artistic liberation. According to the artist’s own account, ‘Everything I do springs from my wild imagination. And when I am tired of painting human figures […], I begin a still life, which I finish, by the way, without a model’ (letter to Ambroise Vollard, January 1900).
Having spent two years in Tahiti, in July 1893 Gauguin returned to France, in order to sell his paintings and raise funds for subsequent travels. After twenty-two months of energetic and intense activity of self-promotion, the artist left Marseille on 3rd July 1895. In September he arrived once again Papeete; finding the town even less agreeable than on his first trip, he quickly moved on, renting a small plot of land in Punaauia where he lived in a traditional Tahitian hut made of bamboo canes and palm leaves. During this second – and ultimately enduring – stay, Gauguin once again became immersed in the colourful culture and rituals of Tahiti. Fascinated by the simple lifestyle of an island unencumbered by civilisation, Gauguin painted the world that surrounded him.
To a traveller from Europe, mangoes – which grew in abundance in Tahiti – must have seemed symbolic of the rich and colourful landscape of these islands. The fruit of the earth represented a part of the everyday life of the islanders, not only as a source of food but as an offering to the gods, and this is reflected in Gauguin’s work. Mangoes and other fruit often appear as an integral part of larger compositions, sometimes in the scenes that depict men and women picking or eating the fruit (figs. 1 & 5), but also in a decorative context, accompanying figures sitting or reclining in an outdoor environment, surrounded by attributes of nature (fig. 2). Gauguin’s monumental Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? of 1897 is dominated by the central figure of a man stretching his arms up to pick a fruit.
In Nature morte aux mangos, however, mangoes become the main motif of the painting. Still-lifes of fruit and flowers appear in Gauguin’s œuvre from his early days in Brittany, executed in a more classical style influenced by Cézanne’s treatment of the subject. The tilted perspective of the present work, however, also echoes Cézanne’s more experimental approach to form and shape (fig. 6), imbuing the work with a remarkable energy and dynamism. In the sun-drenched environment of the South Seas, the simplicity of the life that surrounded him liberated the artist’s technique and palette, resulting in the wild, vivid compositions like the present work and his La Théière et les fruits (fig. 4). Ingo F. Walther described this effect when discussing the present work, writing: ‘He presents flowers and fruits in the same way as people, with vivid immediacy and a sensuous fascination; whether animate or inanimate, everything in creation is a part of nature’ (I. F. Walther, op. cit., p. 73).
Gauguin’s treatment of paint, applying the colours in thick brushstrokes to build the round, voluminous shapes of the fruit, is reminiscent of his depiction of nudes, while the combination of warm yellows and pinks with cooler blue and green tones resembles his handling of the island’s abundant landscape. The dynamic, vibrant palette of the present painting reflects the richness of nature that excited the artist, dominated by strong, flame-like reds and yellows and clearly inspired by the sunshine that bathed everything around him. As Maurice Denis observed, Gauguin strove ‘to create the most sumptuous color harmonies in order to represent sunlight.’ In his work, ‘instead of bleaching the color out of objects, [sunlight] exalts their hues, pushes them to the bursting point; it favors the art of painting, and authorizes any excess of color’ (quoted in Charles Kunstler, Gauguin, peintre maudit, Paris, 1937, p. 151).
Whilst Gauguin shared the obsession with the ‘primitive’ and ‘savage’ with a number of leading artists – from nineteenth-century Symbolists to Fauve and German Expressionist painters – he was the artist who ventured furthest in the quest for these ideals. A fascinating and highly accomplished image of the harmony between the natural and the man-made, Nature morte aux mangos is a powerful testament not only to Gauguin’s own creative vision, but also to the artistic and spiritual ideal of his time.
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