The present work, painted in 1899 while Gauguin was living in the Punaauia district of Tahiti, is an ode to fertility. The subject of this painting is maternity, and the artist has rendered this time honored-theme with a rich and highly personalized interpretation. The painting was completed around the time that Gauguin’s 17-year-old Polynesian mistress, Pahura, gave birth to the couple’s son in April 1899. The figure nursing the baby at the bottom-right of the composition symbolizes this event, while the two attendants holding their bounty of maiore fruit and flowers reiterate the beauty and abundance of nature. Gauguin also completed another slightly larger related composition, Maternité (I) (W. 581, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, see fig. 1), which is also known as Femmes sur le bord de la mer and was titled as such when it was exhibited at Ambroise Vollard’s gallery in 1903. In that picture, Gauguin includes the characters of fishermen and a dog, the latter being a symbol of the artist’s alter-ego. In the present work, however, the composition excludes these narrative details and is pared down to images of the three women, creating a bolder statement about the importance of motherhood.
Richard Brettell has pointed out that the title Maternité was probably not given to these pictures by Gauguin, but instead, by art historians who have admired these paintings for over a century. Brettell has also discussed the stylistic differences of these two works, noting how the present work presents a much greater realization of Gauguin’s interest in vibrant color. He writes that Maternité (II) “is much more brilliant in hue. It is signed, but not dated, and we know it was kept by Gauguin because it was included in the sale of his estate in Tahiti. The smaller version has a light-struck background of acid yellow-green, and a salmon-pink cloud floats behind the figures. Here, the women recline in the shade. This smaller painting has never been adequately explained. While Gauguin had painted two versions of several earlier compositions, none but this is known from the last decade of this career. For that reason, his motivation in translating the composition into another language of color is not clear. That he was deeply concerned with the expressive and pictorial power of color is evident, for he had sent an essay on that subject to Morice for publication in 1898” (Richard Brettell, et al., op. cit., p. 423). Recent technical analysis of this picture has shown that, contrary to Brettell’s observation, Maternité (II) is indeed dated, and the date 1899 appears faintly above the signature in the lower right corner of the painting.
The subject of women and newborn children had factored into several of Gauguin’s compositions of this time, and some of these works made pronounced references to Christianity, such as Nativité, 1899-1900 (see fig. 2). Ziva Amishai-Maisels has discussed the religious iconography in Gauguin’s work, calling the present picture and the related work “a Madonna and Child with believers.” She points out, however, that Gauguin did not have to go to great lengths to invest these pictures with blatant spiritual meaning and could elevate “normal life activities to a symbolic level, creating a symbol of motherhood that has religious significance even without its reminiscence of the Madonna” (Ziva Amishai Maisels, 1985, p. 306).
Maternité (II), however, is much more than a modern reinterpretation of Christian imagery and is known to have been of great personal significance for artist. At the time of Pahura’s pregnancy, Gauguin was already in his early fifties and had not seen his European family since he first left France for Tahiti in 1891. The artist’s absence from his children, two of whom died while he lived abroad, and his relative isolation in Polynesia, made him long for familial relations. Despite his willful renunciation of his bourgeois life in France and his desire to place his art above all else, he missed his children, naming his new Tahitian son ‘Emile’ after his first son, born in 1874, with his wife, Mette. Robert Goldwater hypothesized that this picture enunciated the values of family and love that were important to the artist at this point in his life. He emphasizes that while Gauguin’s Tahitian companions may have offered him a certain kind of domestic contentment, “Maternity is no genre anecdote of the primitive, full of realistic detail and incident. On the contrary, it has been stripped of all but its essential symbols of love and care: the nursing mother, guarded, as it were, by watchful and protective sisters; the fruit, of abundance; and the flower, of beauty. We do not know where they are, except that it is in some tropical garden of Arcady (and Poussin would indeed have recognized the group). Earth and sky (distinguishable only in color), move upward behind the group in soft, rounded shapes that echo the flowing contours of the figures. The warm colors of the foreground in close harmony, suggest the warmth and contentment of the human scene, and close it in, yet open out into the note of gaiety of the brilliant hues of the sky beyond” (Goldwater, op. cit., p. 134).
As Goldwater points out, Maternité (II) had several formal precedents, including the work of artists like Nicholas Poussin and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (see fig. 3). The work also influenced numerous compositions in various media that Gauguin completed around the same time. The figure on the left holding the flowers was inspired by the Javanese frieze of Borobudur and appears in several of Gauguin’s paintings from the late 1890s, including Trois Tahitiens, 1899 (W. 573, Alexander Maitland Collection, Edinburgh, see fig. 4), Faa Iheihe, 1898 (W. 569, Tate Modern, London, see fig. 5), Rupe Rupe, 1899 (W. 585, Pushkin Museum, Moscow), Te Avae No Maria, 1899, (W. 586, The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, see fig. 6) and Les Seins aux fleurs rouges (W. 583, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, see fig. 7). Gauguin also used the head and shoulders of the two standing figures for a title plate of his Tahitian newspaper, Le Sourire, and incorporated the figures in a wood relief, War and Peace and in a woodcut, Rape of Europa, all completed around the same time as the present work. The cropping of the flowering branch that extends from the top right edge of the oil is similar to that of the decorative compositions of Japanese ukiyo-e prints, with which Gauguin had been familiar since his days working in Brittany in the 1880s. The dramatic color and amorphous forms that represent sky and earth are also reminiscent of the Symbolist pictures that he completed in Le Pouldu and Pont Aven a decade earlier. But unlike those pictures, which focused on religious themes and the lives of the Breton peasants, this work emphasizes the overwhelming presence and physical desirability of the women of the South Pacific.
Gauguin was enthralled by the sensual power of these women, whose nudity was unabashed and whose physical availability was in stark contrast to the behavior of the more reserved women of Europe. He was also impressed by the independence and strength of the Tahitian women whom he encountered, many of whom would be considered under-aged by Western standards. The artist’s interactions with these young women thrilled him and ultimately enriched his art. Living outside of the influence of the Catholic Church, he was free to explore a sensual freedom that would not have been condoned by the mores of traditional Western society. He found great value in these experiences, and they profoundly influenced his progressive social philosophies at this time of this life. In 1902, the artist wrote in his journal, “…woman, who is after all our mother, our daughter, our sister, has the right to earn her living. Has the right to love whomever she chooses. Has the right to dispose of her body, of her beauty. Has the right to give birth to a child and to bring him up – without having to go through a priest and a notary public. Has the right to be respected just as much as the woman who sells herself only in wedlock (as commanded by the Church) and consequently has the right to spit in the face of anyone who oppresses her” (quoted in The Lure of the Exotic, Gauguin in New York Collections, op. cit., p. 124).
Many of Gauguin’s oils of Tahitian women did not survive the inhospitable climate and transport conditions from the South Pacific or were destroyed by European officials who deemed them morally reprehensible. Maternité (II) is a rare example of one that escaped this fate. Upon Gauguin’s death in 1903, this picture remained in the artist’s studio and was later offered at the auction of his estate in the Tahitian capital of Papeete. At that sale, the picture was purchased by a French naval officer, Commandant Cochin, for 150 francs. According to Cochin, the underbidder on the picture, Governor Petit, had only bid up to 135 francs. Cochin brought the painting back to France “between two shirts” and had it relined by Maurice Denis. In 1910, it was acquired by the great collector of Modern art, Alphonse Kann, and it was eventually sold to Dikran Khan Kelekian. Kelekian, a dealer and collector living in Paris, exhibited this work at important exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1921 (see fig. 8) before selling it for $7000 at the New York auction house (and corporate predecessor of Sotheby’s, New York), American Art Galleries in 1922. After that sale, it was eventually acquired by the prestigious New York collector, Adolph Lewisohn, who hung this work in his home on Fifth Avenue alongside some of the greatest works in his collection (see fig. 9), including Gauguin’s Ia Orana Maria (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). In 1948, Lewisohn’s son, Sam. A. Lewisohn, wrote the following about his father’s prized Gauguins: “Something in Gauguin’s complicated Catholic soul seems to have demanded inner appeasement. In the ‘Ia Orana Maria’ or ‘Maternity,’ there is a Sabbath calm that is impressive and that repeats the achievements of the Italian masters of the fourteenth century. The contrasting curves repeated with rhythmic insistence give a sense of Handel’s Largo – possibly a little sweet, but most arresting. In a curious way, the first, ‘Ia Orana Maria,’ reminds one of the Florentine master Gentile da Fabriano – the second, ‘Maternity,’ because of its simpler construction, of Fra Angelico” (Sam A. Lewisohn, op. cit., p. 61).
Fig. 1, Paul Gauguin, Maternité (I), 1899, oil on canvas, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
Fig. 2, Paul Gauguin, Nativité, circa 1900, monotype on paper, pencil highlighting, Private Collection, Paris
Fig. 3, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, L’Automne, 1864, oil on canvas, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon
Fig. 4, Paul Gauguin, Trois Tahitiens, 1899, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh
Fig. 5, Paul Gauguin, Faa Iheihe, 1898, oil on canvas, Tate Gallery, London
Fig. 6, Paul Gauguin, Te Avae No Maria, 1988, oil on canvas, The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
Fig. 7, Paul Gauguin, Les Seins aux fleurs rouges, 1899, oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Fig. 8, Installation view of 1921 exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The present work is on the far wall, fourth from the left.
Fig. 9, Lewisohn apartment, 881 Fifth Avenue, New York City, circa 1939. The present work is on the right.
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