Lot 33
  • 33

Paul Gauguin

4,000,000 - 6,000,000 USD
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  • Paul Gauguin
  • Nativit√©
  • Signed Paul Gauguin and dated 1902 (lower right)
  • Oil on canvas
  • 17 3/8 by 24 5/8 in.
  • 44.1 by 62.5 cm


Ambroise Vollard, Paris

Jos. Hessel, Paris

Marcel Kapferer, Paris

Wildenstein & Co., Ltd., New York (acquired from the above)

Oliver B. James, New York (acquired from the above in 1950 and sold: Sotheby Parke Bernet, New York, October 19, 1955, lot 54)

Wildenstein & Co., Ltd., New York (acquired at the above sale)

Acquired from the above in 1960


Paris, Ambroise Vollard, Gauguin, 1903, no. 47

Portland, Portland Art Museum, 50th Anniversary Exhibition, 1942, no. 102

New York, Wildenstein & Co., Ltd., Gauguin, 1946, no. 40

New York, Wildenstein & Co., Ltd., Six Masters of Post-Impressionism, 1948, no. 21

Syracuse, Syracuse University, 15 Impressionists, 1949, no. 22

Minneapolis, Minneapolis Art Institute, Gauguin in Tahiti, 1950

New York, Wildenstein & Co., Ltd., The Woman in French Painting, 1956, no. 23

Coral Gables, Lowe Gallery, Paul Gauguin, 1956, no. 16

Palm Beach, Society of the Four Arts, Paul Gauguin, 1956, no. 16

New York, Wildenstein & Co., Ltd., Gauguin, 1956, no. 52

Stockholm, Nationalmuseum, Fem Sekler Fransk Konst: Bilder fran Utställningen, 1958, no. 162

Munich, Haus der Kunst, Paul Gauguin, 1960, no. 74, illustrated in the catalogue


Lionello Venturi, de Manet à Lautrec, 1953, fig. 179, illustrated p. 236

Georges Wildenstein, Gauguin, Paris, 1964, no. 621, illustrated p. 264

Daniel Wildenstein & Raymond Cogniat, Gli Impressionisti Gauguin, Milan, 1971, illustrated p. 81

The Art of Paul Gauguin (exhibition catalogue), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1988, illustrated p. 466

Gauguin Tahiti. L’atelier des tropiques (exhibition catalogue), Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, 2003, illustrated p. 284

Gauguin Tahiti. The Studio of the South Seas (exhibition catalogue), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2004, illustrated p. 239


Very good condition. The work is lined. Under UV light, a small spot of retouching to the hair of the figure in the left and some retouching on the extreme framing edges.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

In 1902 Gauguin decided to distance himself from the French colonial life that dominated on the Society Islands and withdraw to the relative isolation of Hiva Oa in the Marquesas. Painted in the same year that he arrived there, Nativité is a striking reimagining of a traditional subject and a powerful expression of his increasingly ambivalent relationship with the French establishment. In this vision of the Virgin Birth Gauguin transposes elements of the conventional iconography into a Polynesian setting. This cultural amalgam was not new in his work; as Elizabeth C. Childs observes: "This creative oscillation reflects his particular brand of modernist primitivism, a rich and intuitive amalgam of the European and the Polynesian, the Catholic religion and the many spiritual traditions of the non-European world" (E. C. Childs, “Catholicism and the Modern Mind”: The Painter as Writer in Late Career, in Gauguin Tahiti. The Studio of the South Seas (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., p. 224). However, in Nativité Gauguin was not only bringing together these dual influences as part of a new aesthetic, but also using it to explore the relationships between these two cultures.

Nativité is one of only a handful of works in which Gauguin directly addresses a Christian subject and it belongs to a body of work from this period in which Gauguin used explicitly Christian allusions to address wider cultural tensions. In Ia orana Maria (Hail Mary) he takes a similar approach to that of the present work, transposing a biblical subject into a Polynesian setting and specifically subverting the iconic imagery of the Virgin and Child by showing the Virgin with the baby Jesus hoisted onto her shoulders. In L’invocation he explores similar tensions in a contemporary context, juxtaposing an image of a Polynesian religious ceremony with the stark white cross of the local Catholic cemetery visible on the hillside. These works were deeply rooted in his continued experiences in Polynesia when, following his retreat to the Marquesas, he began increasingly to align himself with the indigenous population in opposition to the ruling French – and Catholic – colonial government. At the same time he was working on the text that would become the clearest expression of his personal philosophy. L’Esprit moderne et le catholicisme is primarily a critique of the Catholic Church in which Gauguin compares Christianity with other major religions of the world, but he also used the text to explore theories on the origins of life, women’s rights and the institution of marriage, "expressing issues of theology and social criticism that [he] would not, or could not, express directly in his visual art" (E. C. Childs, ibid., p. 229).

The present work is a rare example of Gauguin directly articulating his thoughts in visual form. The work is a more fully developed counterpart to the transfer drawings of nativity scenes that Gauguin provided as an accompaniment to the manuscript of L’Esprit moderne. Gauguin often produced preparatory transfer drawings for important paintings although it seems likely these drawings were made in conjunction with the present work as part of a wider project; like the present work they present the subject in an entirely new and unconventional manner. As Peter Zegers writes: "Gauguin seemed to revel in breaking the proper codes of representation of the Virgin birth just as he gloried in denigrating the Catholic Church in his L’Esprit moderne et le catholicisme. Not only is the Virgin in a cave rather than the 'correct' stable, but she is surrounded by nude female attendants who would seem more appropriate in a harem or Turkish bath than in a traditional Nativity scene… The primitive grandeur and clarity of Gauguin’s religious fantasy makes most viewers realise that, by undercutting the codes of representation approved by the official Catholic Church, the artist was denying neither the reality nor the importance of the birth of Christ. Indeed, Gauguin’s various Nativities succeed in reinvigorating the story by altering absolutely the conventions of its representation" (The Art of Paul Gauguin (exhibition catalogue), National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., 1988, p. 469).