Captivated by the glorious representations of Tahitian women in the paintings of Paul Gauguin, Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur de Merpres followed in the footsteps of this Post-Impressionist artist and voyaged to Tahiti in 1929. Concomitantly, Le Mayeur also felt a natural inclination to depict the voluptuous female beauties that resided in this exotic island in French Polynesia. Upon viewing the present lot, it is indubitable that in the process of emulating the ways of his venerated mentor, Le Mayeur unleashed his own, unrivaled vision. Though there are no known letters from his time in Tahiti, a series of paintings executed there suggest that the Belgian-born painter had probably spent several months in this new Cythera[ii].
In Two Women on the Beach, Tahiti, a couple of Rubensesque young women seated in the foreground dominate the picture plane and flank another pair of girls who lounge by the beach in the background. In accordance with the habits of an Impressionist painter, Le Mayeur worked outdoors to capture sights bathed in his archetypal natural light. With a forceful color palette, he applies stark contrasts to juxtapose sun-kissed areas and umbral shadows. Upon viewing a similar painting by Le Mayeur (ref x) at an exhibition at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels, an art critic wrote: ‘When you see them, those beautiful, robust, broad-hipped girls, leaning on their muscular arms, you will certainly comment on the genuine quality of this painter’s observation of them, from the initial crayon line up to the final brush touch.[iii]’
Blanketed with a warm veneer of sunlight, the tanned maidens exude an orange glow that complements their bright pink, patterned garb. Upon close attention, it is noticeable that Le Mayeur draws a parallel between the white blossoms on their dresses and the dispersed, fallen flowers on the sand behind them. This way, he subtly and skillfully extends the pattern and symbiotically merges the women with their environment. These dresses are almost identical to the one adorning the girl in Paul Gauguin’s work Nave Nave Mahana, which was painted decades earlier. Le Mayeur’s curvaceous Tahitians are far more buxom and more magnified in the picture plane in comparison to those in Gauguin’s work. However, the overall ease and slow pace of life in the atoll are portrayed in both works through the unperturbed body language of the women. Even in the presence of their peers, the subjects appear lost in their own thoughts, and exude a sense of mutual rapport embedded in their silence.
After his stint in Tahiti, Le Mayeur journeyed to Indonesia, where he produced images of slender, Balinese dancers frolicking amid lush, brightly lit tropical landscapes. In contrast to these later representations, in which the ladies are captured from a distance, the present lot reveals the physical proximity of the artist and his model) space between the artist and his models. The passive women in the front retain their languid postures despite the fact that they are conscious of the artist’s intimate gaze, indicating their comfortable association with him. They are starkly different from the sprightly, enthusiastic Balinese dancers who command their own space, such as those featured in Ni Pollock by the Fish Pond.
The detached, elusive gaze in their eyes postulates an element of mystery in the genial Tahitian women. Though they bear a nonchalant and somewhat aloof expression on their faces, their demeanor suggests they are approachable and curious as they glance beyond the canvas barrier and into the viewer’s realm. The crouching figure on the right leans forward towards her observer, while the one on the left indolently stretches her leg as she basks in the scorching sunshine. The pose of the latter is comparable to that of the coquettish nude in Edouard Manet’s renowned oil painting, Luncheon on the Grass. Manet’s overtly seductive nude bears a piercing stare, while Le Mayeur’s Tahitian emanates with indifference. Regardless, it is evident that the theme of nature and the beauty of the female form enthralled these Impressionist painters, who consistently depicted their models against idyllic, bountiful landscapes.
Though the subject matter of this work, Two Women on the Beach, Tahiti, was unmistakably inspired by Gauguin’s paintings, the painterly style was disparate and distinctive. The composition of Nave Nave Mahana is meticulously delineated and neatly colored in, such that there is a sense of evenness to the painting. Analogously, there is an air of spontaneity exceptionally palpable and identifiable in Le Mayeur’s vigorous application of paint. These gestural, thick strokes mimic those employed in Claude Monet’s Woman with a Parasol – Madame Monet and Her Son and provide the painting with an element of texture. It is evident that Monet and Le Mayeur model their images on the foundation of natural light. They smear numerous layers of paint until they capture the apt colors that would imitate the effects of the natural light they witness before them.
It is truly the manner in which Le Mayeur applies pigment onto the canvas that makes him a feted artist. A review for the artist’s exhibition at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels in 1931 states: ‘When painting the women of Tahiti or Madagascar he does not incline towards the naive observation of the primitives. Rather he tries to express the sensations of an artist when confronted with the rhythms, the beauty and the nobility of people who have been contemplating since time immemorial that beauty of atmosphere and landscape which frames them, and that light which bathes them.[iv]’ An arresting picture, Two Women on the Beach, Tahiti is incandescent, warm and inviting. Moreover, it provides the viewer with a glimpse of an earlier excursion by the artist before he would discover his beloved island of Bali, which he would later call home. The present lot stands as a splendid rendition of the tranquility of the Pacific island and the Junoesque female forms he encountered there.
1 Gallery de la Toison d’Or, Porte de Namur du 6 au 16 Octobre 1931
2 Jop Ubbens, Cathinka Huizing, Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur de Merprès, 1880 - 1958: Painter - Traveller/ Schilder - Reiziger, Pictures Publishers, Wijik en Aalburg, The Netherlands, 1995, p. 74
3 ‘Les expositions d’Art’, in Le Soir, review by R.D., 21 January 1931
4 Refer to 2, p. 75
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