Lot 11
  • 11

PAUL GAUGUIN | Les Pivoines II

2,000,000 - 3,000,000 USD
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  • Paul Gauguin
  • Les Pivoines II
  • Signed p Gauguin, dated 1884 and indistinctly dedicated mon ami Theodore (lower center)
  • Oil on canvas
  • 21 5/8 by 26 in.
  • 55 by 66 cm
  • Painted in 1884.


Georges Bernheim, Paris

Ralph Harman Booth, Detroit (acquired from the above on July 9, 1926)

Thence by descent


(possibly) Paris, 1 rue Lafitte, 8ème exposition de peinture [impressioniste], 1886, no. 54 (titled Fleurs, fantaisie)

Detroit, Detroit Institute of Art, An Exhibition of Modern French Painting, 1931, no. 43


Georges Wildenstein, Gauguin, Paris, 1964, no. 132, illustrated p. 50

Richard R. Brettell & Anne-Birgitte Fonsmark, Gauguin and Impressionism, Fort Worth & Copenhagen, 2005, illustrated p. 206

Daniel Wildenstein, Gauguin, vol. I, Paris, 2010, no. 146, illustrated p. 164

Catalogue Note

A bold and enigmatic still life by one of history’s greatest Modern masters, Les Pivoines II presents a work rich in color and pattern and daring in its execution. Held in the same private collection for nearly a century and previously known only from a black and white photograph published in the artist’s catalogue raisonnée, the present work provides a rare glimpse into one of Gauguin’s most challenging periods. By 1884, Gauguin had grown weary of his work as a stockbroker, and as a husband and father of four young children, acutely felt the economic constraints of the time. Despite having shown his paintings in the Impressionist exhibitions in the years prior, Gauguin was still trying to make his name as an artist and had to continue in business to make ends meet. A bustling metropolis with a lengthy artistic tradition, Rouen held great appeal for Gauguin, who viewed the industrial city—somewhat naively—as the answer to his financial troubles. Inspired by his mentor Pissarro (who first visited Rouen in 1883 and remained captivated by the area’s natural beauty and industrial bounty throughout his career), Gauguin moved his family from Paris to the northwest of France in January of 1884 with a plan to cultivate new business connections and curb his living expenses.

By spring Gauguin had acclimated to life in Rouen, writing to Pissarro that he was “far more satisfied with my work at the moment. I’m beginning to get going and am more used to the nature here. Whether or not it’s the effect of spring, I’m in far better form” (quoted in R.R. Brettell & A.-B. Fonsmark, op. cit., p. 200). Soon though the optimism of the early months in Rouen receded, and Gauguin faced new trouble at home. “His attempts to make his way in business came to naught, and generally his paintings were not selling… Gauguin’s finances dried up, his marriage was in difficulties, and at the end of July [his wife] Mette went home to Denmark to explore the possibility of establishing the family there” (ibid., p. 203; see fig. 1). Though his two younger children, Clovis and Jean René, remained in Rouen with Gauguin, the ensuing period proved quite lonely for the artist, whose invitations to his friend and tutor Pissarro were continually declined. This solitude did, however, afford Gauguin ample time to focus on his growth as an artist. By July he wrote: “Now I am painting only for myself, without rushing, and I can assure you that it is extra strong this time. I think it will be very good for me, and even though I might make mistakes (it is even probable that I shall make mistakes), I will always be able to learn something” (quoted in ibid., p. 203).

It is in this “extra strong” period that the present work was painted. A kaleidoscopic mélange of color, Les Pivoines II flouts convention, presenting an image which confronts the academic standard of the still life by abandoning traditional perspective. The blue vegetal tapestry of the background melds with the table upon which the vase of lilting peonies sits, effectively flattening the planes within the composition—a technique most stridently asserted in the works of Cézanne. With the influence of Pissarro diminishing, Gauguin increasingly turned to the works of the Provençal master for guidance and technical inspiration. “Almost all the paintings he made during his stay in Rouen confront, to a greater or lesser extent, the fundamental challenge of Cézanne and his enigmatic ‘formula.’ The accumulation of structured material in the landscapes, the dense network of motifs across the surface, the systematic and parallel brushstrokes, all reveal his intense study of the Cézannes hanging on his walls. Through his own work Gauguin sought to penetrate the nature and essence of his Cézannes and to coax their secrets from them” (ibid., p. 207; see fig. 2). Like Cézanne, Gauguin harnessed a directionality in his brushwork that endows the work with a sense of dimension and texture achieved without the use of thick impasto or linear perspective. 

The dating of this work to the late spring or early summer of 1884 is reinforced by Sylvie Crussard’s seasonal approximation of a related work now in the National Gallery of Art (see fig. 3) which shows the same vase and nearly identical positioning of the flowers as the present work. The royal blue tapestry in the background of Les Pivoines II also reappears in a painting of Gauguin’s sleeping son Clovis, which may in turn suggest a date from late July onward, after Mette had departed to Denmark (see fig. 4).

Even before the artist’s peregrinations to Pont-Aven, Martinique and French Polynesia in his ongoing quest for the unknown, Gauguin revealed a proclivity for the exotic, infusing the traditional still life genre with Japanese patterns and striking chromatic juxtapositions (see fig. 5)—themes which also pervaded the works of fellow artists like Degas and van Gogh in keeping with French trend of Japonsime after the reopening of trade routes to the West in 1853.

Like the related work in the National Gallery, this canvas appears to have been intended for Gauguin’s brother-in-law, Johan Theodor Gad, though the inscription was perhaps painted over after their falling out not long after the work was completed (see figs. 6 & 7). According to Daniel Wildenstein, this work may have been included in the eighth Impressionist exhibition in 1886, presented under the title Fleurs, fantaisie—speaking once again to the myth-making quality for which the artist is best remembered.