Colonel & Mrs Edgar W. Garbisch, New York (acquired from the above in 1971. Sold: Sotheby's, New York, 12th May 1980, lot 40)
Purchased at the above sale by the father of the present owners
Maurice Malingue, Gauguin: Le peintre et son œuvre, Paris, 1948, illustrated p. 33
Lee van Dovski, Paul Gauguin oder die Flucht vor der Zivilisation, Zurich, 1950, no. 214, listed p. 346 (with incorrect measurements)
The Lure of the Exotic. Gauguin in New York Collections (exhibition catalogue), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2002, illustrated in colour p. 186
(Charlotte Hale in The Lure of the Exotic. Gauguin in New York Collections (exhibition catalogue), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2002, p. 183)
Dating from 1890, Nature morte aux pommes was executed shortly before Gauguin first travelled to Tahiti the following year. Reflecting the experience of his visit to Martinique in 1887, it epitomises the artist’s life-long search for the primitive and anticipates the bright, warm palette that would characterise his celebrated Tahitian landscapes and still-lifes. Like Impressionist painters before him, Gauguin was attracted to the genre of still-life and pastoral themes as emblems of a pristine past, free from the complications of modern civilised life. This uncomplicated subject-matter allowed the artist to focus on his technique and on use of colour and form.
The present work was painted while Gauguin lived in Brittany. He first went to Pont-Aven in Brittany in 1886, leaving Paris in his pursuit of unspoilt scenery and a simple way of life away from the metropolis, and in 1889 moved to the small fishing village of Le Pouldu. For Gauguin and a number of his contemporaries, the appeal of this part of France, virtually untouched by the effects of progress, was in the raw originality of its landscape and the traditional way of life of its inhabitants. In a letter to his friend Claude-Emile Schuffenecker, Gauguin wrote: ‘I love Brittany which I find savage and primitive. When my clogs ring on the granite ground I hear the dull and powerful sound that I am looking for in painting’ (quoted in Victor Merlès (ed.), Correspondence de Paul Gauguin, Paris, 1984, letter 141, p. 172).
Nature morte aux pommes exemplifies an important shift that took place in the artist’s painting during this period, as he gradually moved away from the Impressionist style to embrace a radically new direction in art. In January 1885, Gauguin wrote a letter to Schuffenecker that revealed the philosophical direction that would lead him away from Impressionism towards his unique Post-Impressionist style. This important transition owed much to the significant influence of Cézanne, several of whose pictures Gauguin owned. In 1881 Gauguin had joined Cézanne and Pissarro, painting en plein air in the area around Pontoise. In a letter to Pissarro written several years later, in July 1884, Gauguin described Cézanne’s painting as ‘marvels of an essentially pure art’ (quoted in Charlotte Hale in The Lure of the Exotic. Gauguin in New York Collections (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., p. 183). Nature morte aux pommes brilliantly illustrates the power that Gauguin found in Cézanne’s technique and his ability to translate that into his own pictorial vocabulary.
Writing about the three artists’ joint painting expeditions, Richard Shiff commented: ‘Observing Cézanne’s technique on those occasions changed the trajectory of Gauguin’s aesthetic life. He resolved to achieve a comparable directness. By 1884, he was also among the most active of Cézanne’s handful of collectors. His purchases included a still life that he would make famous by featuring it in impromptu demonstrations offered to fellow painters, explaining the naïve genius of Cézanne’s accents of bold color, applied as discrete, parallel strokes of the brush [fig. 1]. Around 1890, Gauguin incorporated the image of this work into the background of one of his portraits […] In general, when Gauguin followed what he perceived as Cézanne’s method – primarily the use of blunt strokes that remained visually distinct – he showed more respect for the inherent form of objects than his aesthetic model did’ (R. Shiff in The World is an Apple: The Still Lifes of Paul Cézanne (exhibition catalogue), The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia & The Art Gallery of Hamilton, Ontario, 2014-15, pp. 150 & 154).
In the present composition, the apples are scattered along a table-top which fills the width of the canvas, with a folded cloth and patterned wall behind them. While the flattened perspective and colour contrasts are certainly influenced by similar compositions by Cézanne (fig. 2), the bright, vibrant colouration of the apples is unique to Gauguin, as is the otherworldly, spiritual note with which he imbues his subject. Comparing works of the two artists, Charlotte Hale wrote: ‘Gauguin’s Cézannesque still lifes, such as the Metropolitan Museum’s little Still Life with Teapot and Fruit, 1896 [fig. 3], are measured and beautifully orchestrated compositions that show an intuitive understanding of the master’ (C. Hale, op. cit., p. 183). Despite the compositional and thematic similarities between the two giants of Modernism, Gauguin’s Nature morte aux pommes exudes a vibrant, exotic quality entirely his own, which anticipates the dramatic change in the artist’s life and art that would follow several months later with his departure to the South Seas.
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