Chemin sous les palmiers epitomizes Gauguin’s fascination with the exotic and represents an enchanting vision of the artist’s life-long interest in depicting the unfamiliar. Part of a series of works Gauguin completed on his trip to the Caribbean island of Martinique, where the artist stayed from June until November 1887, the present work evokes the sensuous beauty and visual splendor of the tropics. Martinique was Gauguin’s initial experience as an artist living within an exotic island environment and foreshadowed the works he would later complete in Tahiti (see figs. 1 & 2). Enthralled by the tropical landscape and exotic people who inhabited it, Gauguin’s strong desire for a life outside Europe was born in Martinique and ultimately came to fruition with his departure for Polynesia in 1891.
Peripatetic by nature, Gauguin was drawn to exoticism of all kinds. Always eager for new experiences, his letters to his wife and friends were filled with notions of travel and exploration. The first journey to the island of Martinique was precipitated by the harsh conditions in which Gauguin found himself in 1887. Financially insecure and estranged from his wife, Gauguin was convinced that a bright future lay ahead of him in Panama. Accompanied by his friend Charles Laval, the pair sailed toward the Americas in April, briefly stopping on Martinique before continuing their voyage. Unfortunately for Gauguin, Panama’s purported charms were illusory; he and Laval decided to return to Martinique not long after they’d arrived. Gauguin’s return to the Caribbean island in June 1887 marks the beginning of his extraordinary association with the tropics. Martinique made a powerful impression on his art, as well as his sense of identity. The sixteen canvases and numerous drawings he brought back to France heralded a new direction in his work. Tamar Garb argues that: “Martinique was only the first of his painterly incursions into the far reaches of the French Empire, but it proved a decisive hinge for his complex self-construction as both ‘savage’ and ‘European’ and his ambivalent identification with and distancing from the ‘native’ people and foreign places he set out to paint. Although Gauguin’s disavowal of the modern and the metropolitan had begun closer to home, in Brittany, it was, by his own admission, only in the ‘tropics’ that he discovered ‘himself’” (T. Garb, in Gauguin: Maker of Myth (exhibition catalogue), Tate Modern, London & National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2010-11, p. 24).
Attracted by the freedom, wilderness and simplicity of this remote place, Gauguin produced sculptures, paintings and drawings in which the fluidity of line and extraordinarily rich tonality reflect his sense of artistic and social liberation. Kirk Varnedoe writes: “Paul Gauguin is the primitif of the modernist primitivism, its original, seminal figure. Other artists before may have known of the arts of Primitive societies, but Gauguin was the first to appreciate in such forms a significant, potentially transforming challenge to Western ways of depicting the world” (K. Varnedoe in ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, vol. I, New York, 1984, p. 179). Gauguin’s paintings of this Martinique period are intimately concerned with the everyday routine of rural life—the peasants that he saw working in the fields or the local women passing by on their route to the market (see fig. 3). The artist was fascinated not only by the foreign landscape of Martinique—as demonstrated in Chemin sous les palmiers, where the verdant greenery of the landscape and multicolored hues of the utopian atmosphere captured with rich coloration—but with the picturesque sight of islanders moving through the stylized landscape. The subject of indigenous life, viewed through the eyes of a European intellectual, would continue to be an important element of the artist's work, especially when he ventured to Tahiti several years later. Writing to Émile Schuffenecker, Gauguin expressed his reverence for the local women: “We have been in Martinique, home of the Creole gods, for the last three weeks…. The shapes and forms of the people are most appealing to me, and every day there are constant comings and goings of negresses in cheap finery, whose movements are infinitely graceful and varied. For the time being I have restricted myself to making sketch after sketch of them, so as to penetrate their true character, after which I shall have them pose for me. They chatter constantly, even when they have heavy loads on their heads. Their gestures are very unusual and their hands play an important role in harmony with their swaying hips” (quoted in The Art of Paul Gauguin (exhibition catalogue), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. & traveling, 1988-89, p. 80).
As seen in Chemin sous les palmiers Gauguin captured the rural landscape and indigenous populations of Martinique with bright colors and loose, horizontal brushstrokes that demonstrate the artist’s preoccupation with the art of Paul Cézanne (see fig. 4) and his friends within the Impressionist circle, mainly Camille Pissarro. When he returned to this urban European setting after several months in Martinique, Gauguin fantasized about his experiences abroad and yearned to set out again for another exotic location. Returning to the Breton communities of Northern France, Gauguin continued to focus on outdoor figural scenes, while developing his Post-Impressionist aesthetic of bold, saturated colors and flat forms. The artist's unmatched ability to create a harmony of form and color that is both lyrical in its fluidity and revolutionary in its palette is already in evidence in his Martinique works and would continue to develop throughout the 1890s when the artist once again took to the tropics to record some of his most celebrated canvases.
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