One of the icons of post-impressionism, Gauguin’s so-called Femme caraïbe features a stiffly posed fully-frontal nude non-European young woman, the color of fired clay, as a challenging affront to the submissive European nudes, lacking body hair and posing as Western allegories, that were celebrated by the Second Empire art world. Hardly seductive, the nudity of Gauguin’s mysterious figure is instead an image of female strength, possibly conceived in sympathy with the writings of his proto-feminist maternal grandmother, Flora Tristan. To show disdain for the coy perfection of nudes by Ingres and his many followers, Gauguin pretended to miscalculate the size of his figure in relation to the size of the panel, with the clumsy result that her raised left arm and her feet extend beyond the edges of his painting. But representing his figure at this scale endows it with a visual force quite literally beyond any frame. Even more obvious is Gauguin's miscalculating, or mismatching, the size of his dark bronze Eve against the vibrant golden background's three gigantic, fully opened sunflowers.
Starting in the late 1880s, Gauguin’s most ambitious works are based on a similar dissonance between his figures and their background settings, which the artist portrayed not as the space where the figures are physically located, but as a space where their thoughts and feelings are psychologically and mythically rooted, an often emphatically monochromatic space, saturated with evocative tones. Although Gauguin omitted any specific inscription on the oddly vegetal, green-tinted banderole that is unfurled behind his nude, its presence designates her as a mysterious symbol for which there are no words. Possibly intended to suggest blindness or some sort of supernatural visual capacity, her eye is left blank. The gesture of her right hand can be found in medieval Cambodian sculptures, replicas of which were on view in Paris at the 1889 Exposition universelle, where Gauguin could also have observed Javanese dancers using the same traditional hand movements. The left arm crooked over her head refers to the pose of Michelangelo’s Dying Slave in the Louvre, as if Gauguin wanted to synthesize Western and non-Western traditions in his modern transcendental nude (see fig. 1). Following the 1874 celebrations around the four-hundredth anniversary of Michelangelo’s birth, this gesture became widely, if not obsessively referenced by such artists as Paul Cézanne and Auguste Rodin—both venerated by Gauguin.
Its hypnotic visual impact aside, the full meaning of Gauguin’s mysterious nude with sunflowers involves its genesis in late 1889 as part of a remarkable ensemble of masterpieces, including Self-Portrait with Halo and Snake (see fig. 2), now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and Portrait of Meyer de Haan (see fig. 3) in The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
The title Femme caraïbe that has always been associated with this painting refers to the months-long trip that Gauguin made to Panama and Martinique in 1887, after abandoning his wife and five children in Copenhagen the previous year in order to fulfill his destiny as a visionary painter, sculptor and printmaker. Shortly after Gauguin returned from this adventure he allied himself with the dealer Theo van Gogh. Theo’s aspiring artist brother Vincent was already obsessed with emotionally charged still-life paintings of sunflowers and hoped to entice Gauguin into sharing a studio with him in the South of France by decorating that studio with such paintings (see fig. 4). Bankrolled by Theo, the destitute Gauguin agreed to join Vincent in Arles for the final months of 1888, where he portrayed him at work on one of his Sunflower paintings (see fig. 5). As is well known, their experimental art colony ended in calamity, when Vincent lost his mind and mutilated himself. Painted a year later, Femme caraïbe is obviously an homage to Vincent, a synthesis of their ideas about a modern art utopia, a "Studio of the South" or a "Studio of the Tropics." The haunting still lifes with sunflowers that Gauguin painted in 1901 on the remote island of Hiva-Oa testify to how this idea would remain on his mind for the rest of his life (see fig. 6).
The Dutch painter Meyer de Haan, a friend of Theo van Gogh, undertook a similar art partnership with Gauguin only months after his failed experiment with Vincent. Leaving behind the art scene and the World’s Fair in Paris, Gauguin and de Haan returned to Brittany in the fall of 1889 and settled at an inn in the remote seaside village of Le Pouldu. In November the artists began to collaboratively create an elaborate décor for the doors, walls and ceiling of the inn’s dining room (see fig. 7).
Installed in the lower panel of one of the doors, Femme caraïbe is partly visible (the figure’s head and the golden setting) in the background on the right side of a tabletop still life painted by Gauguin during the winter of 1889-90 (see fig. 8). Like Femme caraïbe, this slightly later still life features a floral bouquet and a non-European nude in the form of a small blackened terracotta statuette that Gauguin had made as part of the same dining room ensemble. Gauguin had begun to represent some of his ultra-modern ceramic sculptures in his paintings as early as 1886, whether in tabletop still-life arrangements or in the backgrounds of portraits. Considering this emphasis on his sculpture in his paintings, it is impossible not to wonder if the nude in Femme caraïbe, with its rigid anatomy, should be understood to represent a sculpture rather than any living model. An advocate for polychromy in modern sculpture, in 1890 Gauguin is known to have glazed another nude statuette in black, except for the hair which he painted an ivory hue. Whether or not he glazed the hair black, as it appears in Femme caraïbe, Gauguin did in fact make a terracotta statuette with the same pose, though the only document of this lost work is a photograph sent by Gauguin to his friend and fellow artist Émile Bernard in August 1890 (see fig. 9). Scolding Bernard for his preoccupation with Michelangelo, Gauguin explained how he had accidentally broken this sculpture, losing the left leg and with it the idea of the movement he had sought to capture. Remarkably enough, Gauguin also carved a wooden sculpture in an identical pose which also lacks a proper left leg, as if it was based on the broken terracotta (see fig. 10). The wood version holds a flower in her right hand, a counterpart to the sunflowers in the background of Femme caraïbe. With these closely related sculptures in mind, Gauguin’s painting may represent some stage in the dynamic evolution of his sculpture around 1889-90 as much as it epitomizes his pioneering transformation of the fundamental figure-ground relationship in modern painting from description to revelation.
Although it has not been possible to establish the exact sequence of closely related works, it is nevertheless clear that Femme caraïbe, with its frontal nudity and its hieratic pose, introduced an important new character into Gauguin’s repertoire as a painter and printmaker. The figure in Femme caraïbe is the prototype for the most daring nude that Gauguin made in Tahiti, Te Nave Nave Fenua, in which the flowers can be seen as accomplices to temptation (see fig. 11). Introduced with Femme caraïbe, Gauguin’s influential re-invention of the nude as a symbol of ancient and sacred power would immediately inspire a generation of artists across Europe, starting with Henri Rousseau and his champion Pablo Picasso. It was the spirit of Gauguin that seemingly guided Picasso in 1907-08, as he developed the strange beauty and otherwise unprecedented contortions seen in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and other monumental nudes from the series (see fig. 12).
Charles Stuckey is an independent scholar based in New York who was one of the curators for the 1988-89 exhibition The Art of Paul Gauguin held at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C, the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago and the Grand Palais, Paris.
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