M. Lévy (purchased at the above sale)
Galerie Druet, Paris (acquired from the above)
Dr Alfred Wolff, Munich (acquired from the above by 1905)
Moderne Galerie Thannhauser, Munich (acquired by 1928)
Etta Cone, Baltimore (acquired from the above through Galerie Rosengart, Lucerne, in 1936)
Justin K. Thannhauser, New York (acquired in March 1957)
Private Collection, Canada (by descent from the above in 1991)
Sale: Galerie Kornfeld, Bern, 18th June 2010, lot 38
Purchased at the above sale by the present owner
Bern, Kunstmuseum, Sammlung Justin Thannhauser, 1978, no. 10, illustrated in the catalogue
Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum & Fondation Corboud, 1912 Mission Moderne. Die Jahrhunderstschau des Sonderbundes, 2012, no. 25, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Georges Wildenstein, Gauguin, Paris, 1964, no. 543, illustrated p. 224
The present composition is a smaller version of a large painting of the same title – which can be translated as The Noble Woman or The King’s Wife – now in The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow (fig. 1), considered to be the first masterpiece of Gauguin’s second trip to Tahiti. In a letter to Daniel de Monfreid from April 1896 Gauguin described the scene: ‘A naked queen, reclining on a carpet of green, a female servant gathering fruit, two old men, near the big tree, discussing the tree of knowledge; a shore in the background… I think that I have never made anything of such deep sonorous colors. The trees are in blossom, the dog is on guard, the two doves at the right are cooing’ (quoted in Gauguin Tahiti (exhibition catalogue), Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris & Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2003-04, p. 147).
Gauguin’s treatment of paint and the dynamic, vibrant palette of the present oil reflect the richness of nature that excited the artist. The composition is dominated by the bright blue and green tones in the upper section punctuated by the brilliantly coloured mangoes, and the strong, flame-like reds and yellows in the lower half, clearly inspired by the sunshine that bathed everything around him. As the painter 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’ (M. Denis quoted in Charles Kunstler, Gauguin, peintre maudit, Paris, 1937, p. 151).
Having spent two years in Tahiti, in July 1893 Gaugin 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 to Papeete, where he had spent most of his time during his first stay on the island, but having found it increasingly Europeanised and colonised, moved to Punaauia, where he lived in a traditional Tahitian hut made of bamboo canes and palm leaves. Fascinated by the simple lifestyle of the island unencumbered by civilisation, Gauguin painted the world that surrounded him. Mango trees that were abundant in Tahiti certainly attracted the artist for their exotic appeal. As the fruit of the soil represented a part of everyday life of the islanders, it often appears as an integral part of larger compositions (fig. 2), usually depicting men and women fruit-picking or simply sitting or reclining in an outdoor environment, surrounded by attributes of nature as in the present work. Gauguin’s monumental Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? painted the following year is dominated by the central figure of a man stretching his arms up to pick a fruit.
While the subject of the present composition celebrates the artist’s exotic surroundings, it draws on the Western canon. The subject of a reclining female nude has many precedents in European Old Master paintings, particularly Diana by Lucas Cranach the Elder, of which Gauguin may have had a postcard, and Manet’s Olympia. A closely related image of a nude woman reclining under a tree appeared several years earlier in Gauguin’s wood panel Reclining Woman with a Fan in a Tropical Landscape (fig. 3). Comparing the painted and carved versions of this image, George T. M. Shackelford wrote: ‘the nude holds a circular red fan behind her head and covers her genitals with a cloth, which she fingers gingerly. As in Reclining Woman [fig. 3], figures appear in the background – here, in addition to the dog that “keeps watch,” are a mysterious pair of old men, “discussing the tree of knowledge” from the Garden of Eden, and a “servant picking fruit,” whose action inevitably suggests the Fall of Man. […] In the painter’s reference to the tree of knowledge, and in the serpentine vine encircling the trunk of the tree, there are intimations of good and evil that place his captivating nude in a biblical frame of reference that any Western viewer would have recognized’ (ibid., p. 148).
Françoise Cachin also commented on the amalgamation of Christian imagery into the composition: ‘The snake coiled around the treetrunk points to Gauguin’s intent: to paint Eve, but without implying original sin. “The Tahitian Eve is very subtle, very knowing in her naiveté. The enigma hidden deep in her childlike eyes remains incommunicable to me”’ (F. Cachin, Gauguin: The Quest for Paradise, London & New York, 1992, pp. 108-109). Stéphane Guégan explains that Gauguin’s ‘idea was to contrast two worlds and two conceptions of sexuality, the Eden of the Bible and the sinless Tahitian Eve. With her sidelong glance and irresolute smile, this woman is still untainted by Christian condemnation yet is threatened by it. […] She is the embodiment of the Tahitian woman of his dreams, of a morality anterior to that of the missionaries. And as the title tells us, she is also a queen, “the chief’s wife”, inaccessible to the common man’ (S. Guégan in Gauguin Polynesia (exhibition catalogue), Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen & Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, 2011-12, p. 244).
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 one to have ventured furthest in the quest for these ideals. A fascinating and highly accomplished image of harmony between man and nature, Te Arii Vahine is a powerful testament to not only Gauguin’s own creative vision, but also the artistic and spiritual ideal of his time.
The present work was sold from the artist’s estate in 1903 and shortly afterwards entered the collection of Dr Alfred Wolff, a German banker and art collector who amassed a highly important collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings including several other works by Gauguin. It was subsequently acquired by the celebrated Cone sisters, the majority of whose collection now forms the backbone of the Baltimore Museum of Art. The work remained in North America until 1991, and was sold at auction in 2010 when acquired by the present owner.
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