The Mango Trees, Martinique is the most ambitious work that Gauguin produced during his campaign on the Caribbean island of Martinique. He stayed from mid-June until the end of October 1887 in this French colony, where he had gone in search of new, ‘exotic’ motifs and a ‘primitive’ way of life. As far as we know, he made seventeen paintings there. For The Mango Trees, Martinique, which is among the three largest paintings that Gauguin made in Martinique, he used the standard-size 50 figure canvas. Of these three works, however, this is the only one with large, elaborate figures; indeed, one of the spearheads of Gauguin’s Caribbean campaign was the production of an ‘exotic’ figure painting. In the months before his departure he had already painted several large figure pieces, including Breton Shepherdesses (1886, Neue Pinakothek, Munich) and Two Women Bathing (1887, Museo Nacional de Bellas Arts, Buenos Aires); in Martinique he continued in this direction with The Mango Trees, Martinique.
Shortly after his arrival in Martinique, Gauguin wrote a letter to Emile Schuffenecker (1851–1934) in which he expressed his enthusiasm for the Martinican people, particularly the female portion of the population, as a motif for his art: ‘What delights me the most are the figures, and every day there is a constant coming and going of black women, dressed up in coloured clothes, with graceful movements of infinite variety. […] While carrying heavy loads on their heads, they chat incessantly. Their gestures are very distinctive, and the hands play a great role in harmony with the swaying of the hips.’ Gauguin was describing the porteuses, the women who carried produce on their heads, day in and day out, from the plantations to the markets in the nearby harbour town of Saint-Pierre. The topos of the Black porteuse as a symbol of Martinican culture had appealed to the Western imagination since the eighteenth century. In the representation of Martinique in paintings, prints, photographs and travel accounts, the porteuse invariably plays a central role. So, too, in Gauguin’s figure painting: the most prominent figure in the composition is a porteuse, seen from the back.
Studies and other examples
Gauguin’s strategy for tackling his ‘exotic’ figure piece was to begin by making numerous sketches of the porteuses he saw coming and going every day on the footpaths of Martinique. After that, his plan was to ‘make them pose’ for larger, more detailed drawings. In Martinique, Gauguin produced three such drawings from a model. He used Martinican Women , the largest and most elaborate of the three, for The Mango Trees, Martinique. The figures on this large sheet were drawn in unerring, thick black contour lines, followed by subtle and meticulous colouring-in with pastel chalk. Gauguin then applied squaring lines to the sheet to enable the systematic transfer of the figures to the canvas. The sitting figure was transferred one-to-one; the porteuse is approximately one and a half times larger. Research into the material and technique has thus far been unable to show that a grid was applied to the canvas, but this does not mean that no squaring was used.
Other elements of the composition were also derived from studies. The goat at left, for example, is based on a drawing from the so-called ‘white sketchbook’ , one of the three sketchbooks that Gauguin had with him in Martinique. The dog and the cats were likewise based on examples from this sketchbook ( and ). The Mango Trees, Martinique also contains elements from canvases Gauguin had previously painted in Martinique. The slender tree at right, for instance, was taken from Martinique Landscape (1887, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen Munich – Neue Pinakothek, Munich), and the fruit-bearing papaya tree at left is loosely based on the specimen in Martinique Landscape (1887, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh).
Material and technique
Gauguin cut the canvas from a large roll of ungrounded canvas that he had taken with him to Martinique. He mounted it on the spot, on a stretcher of the standard format, size 50 figure. Standard-size stretchers could be purchased in Paris at shops selling artists’ supplies. Gauguin must have taken various sets with him to Martinique, because other paintings from the series also display standard formats. After mounting the canvas, Gauguin applied a very thin ground layer of animal glue and chalk. Such a ground dried quickly and was absorbent, which caused the oil paint to dry with a matte finish. On this ground layer, Gauguin transferred his figures from the large study sheet in clear lines of diluted blue paint. He also drew in other elements of the composition, such as the two figures in the background, the tree trunks and the dog at lower right. In this first phase, moreover, Gauguin already broadly indicated the areas of colour with a thin layer of diluted paint, thus laying in the orange in the foreground, the green of the grass and the dark green of the foliage. This underlayer can be seen fairly well with the naked eye. The colour of this layer is less saturated than the brushstrokes that Gauguin applied over it.
In general Gauguin applied his paint in parallel hatched strokes, with the direction of the strokes differing in each part of the composition. The seawater in the background, for example, is painted in horizontal brushstrokes, the foliage is diagonal and the grass vertical. Gauguin also integrated some diagonal strokes into this grass, which makes the rendering somewhat more dynamic. Applying paint in evenly spaced brushstrokes is a device that Gauguin probably borrowed from Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), by whom he owned six paintings. In 1884, Gauguin, following the example he saw in the paintings by Cézanne in his collection, began to employ parallel hatched brushstrokes. From 1885, his hatching displayed ever finer brushstrokes, which resulted in the style seen in The Mango Trees, Martinique.
When applying the uppermost layer of paint, Gauguin partly covered the blue lines of the underdrawing. He generally left some of these lines visible in the finished painting, so that the various parts of the composition retained obvious contour lines. The arm and the waist of the sitting figure clearly show how solidly laid in these lines initially were.
Cézanne, Pissarro and Degas
The clear division of the landscape of The Mango Trees, Martinique into three horizontal zones also ties this work to Cézanne, one of Gauguin’s most important sources of inspiration at this stage in his career. The painting The Chateau of Médan (c. 1880, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow Museums), which Gauguin had in his possession from at least 1883, must have provided an important example in this regard. The simple horizontal bands of which this work consists became a compositional model to which Gauguin often reverted. In a picture in which the figures feature prominently, this division provides a clearly defined compositional framework that does not distract from the main points of interest.
While Gauguin’s work is related to Cézanne’s as far as composition and brushwork are concerned, it was Camille Pissarro (1830–1903) and Edgar Degas (1834–1917) whose work informed the rendering of his figures. Gauguin saw many compositions by Pissarro that featured large figures in a landscape, which must have stimulated him to follow suit. His own collection boasted Pissarro’s Peasant Women Chatting (c. 1881, private collection, Switzerland), for instance. Nevertheless, both the poses of the two models in The Mango Trees, Martinique and the viewpoint bear a closer resemblance to the work of Degas, whom Gauguin saw frequently in 1886. That year he also saw Degas’s sensational series of ten nudes at the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition. The various poses of Degas’s models and the unusual perspectives he chose must have inspired Gauguin to make similar studies, first in Pont-Aven and subsequently in Martinique. In both locations he drew, in the manner of Degas, women seen from the back, in all kinds of seated poses. In contrast to Degas, however, Gauguin drew few nudes and was more interested in the local dress, which was a way of tying his work to the location and enriching it with couleur locale. After all, he sought out destinations with a supposedly ‘primitive character’ and wanted this to be reflected in his figures’ costumes.
Gauguin thus spent a great deal of time studying the clothing of the porteuses and the fruit-pickers in preparation for his painting The Mango Trees, Martinique. The two large figures in the foreground and the stooping woman behind them all wear a douillette, a wide, simple dress worn by many Black Martinican women. A belt or cloth served to hold the dress up, keeping the feet free. The women in the painting also wear headdresses of brightly coloured Madras fabric. The rearmost figure wears, over her headdress, a bakoua, a traditional Martinican sun hat made of the dried leaves of the bakoua tree. The porteuse seen from the back wears, moreover, a colourful silk scarf, which was often worn around the shoulders. This detail is not present in the study; Gauguin added it in the painting.
The fact that the figures in The Mango Trees, Martinique are based on carefully made preparatory studies means that they were not painted in situ. Just where the models did pose is unclear, though it was probably by the hut where Gauguin lived. After drawing the models, Gauguin integrated them into his methodically devised scene. Around the figures Gauguin grouped the vegetation in a very clear-cut, almost static arrangement. This mise-en-scène, in which the compositional elements seem to be pasted onto the landscape in the manner of a collage, recalls A Sunday on La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat (1859–1891) (1884–86, Art Institute of Chicago) or The Sacred Grove, Beloved of the Arts and the Muses by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824–1898) (1884, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon).
The practical, well-ordered construction of the picture indicates that it was painted from the imagination. Gauguin himself was very satisfied with the result; near the end of his campaign in Martinique he wrote to Schuffenecker: ‘I’ve never painted so clearly and so lucidly (a lot of imagination, for example).’ By ‘imagination’ Gauguin was referring to the painting of scenes that had not been observed in reality but which had been constructed – as he had constructed The Mango Trees, Martinique – by combining imagined elements with motifs taken from studies, sketches and his own previous paintings. The fantasy world that Gauguin thus created was that of a fertile, tropical paradise.
Gauguin studied the women with an analytical gaze before incorporating them into the ‘tropical paradise’ of The Mango Trees, Martinique. Their identity thus changed from Martinican women posing to ‘exotic sirenes’ who imagined themselves to be in a ‘tropical Eden’. The women were thereby situated in a context that reflected the Western, exoticist view of the Caribbean colonies. Gauguin’s choice of fruit-picking as the subject of the painting makes the message even more explicit. The association with the Garden of Eden is unmistakable, and Martinique is thus presented as an unspoilt paradise.
Gauguin’s painting makes us feel as though we are witnessing everyday activities in Martinique. The relative inaccessibility of the women in the foreground – one stands with her back to the viewer, the other looks dreamily into the distance while eating a mango – gives the scene a voyeuristic touch. In creating this picture, Gauguin ignored the real-life status of the women who posed for him. After all, porteuses were the descendants of the enslaved African population of Martinique: though free since 1848, their structural underpayment kept them dependent on the plantation owners and they enjoyed little real freedom. They belonged to Martinique’s lowest social class and had few rights. Gauguin omitted these aspects in favour of an inviting, picturesque image of Martinique. Although dedicated to a modern style of painting, Gauguin was well aware that such portrayals of the colonies were in great demand on the Paris art market, and he wanted to return with colourful, ‘exotic’ and marketable canvases.
Gauguin returned to Paris on 14 November 1887 and soon afterwards succeeded in selling The Mango Trees, Martinique to Theo van Gogh, who paid 400 francs for the canvas. It was one of Theo’s most expensive acquisitions ever. The transaction possibly came about during a visit by the Van Gogh brothers to Gauguin, who was then staying in Schuffenecker’s apartment. Perhaps Gauguin showed them some of his Martinique canvases, from which the brothers chose the most ambitious, or Gauguin might have praised it himself as the most successful work of the campaign. But however it happened, on 4 January 1888, Gauguin sent Theo a note confirming receipt of 400 francs for the painting.
Before parting with the painting, however, Gauguin made several rapid sketches of the figures, not only of the woman sitting in the foreground – of whom he already had a large study – but also of the women in the background . Gauguin often made sketches of works he sold or otherwise parted with, so that he could reuse the motifs later on. For example, after the Impressionist exhibition in 1886, he hastened to make a sketch of his sculpture La toilette, which was the property of Pissarro and would go back to Pontoise after the exhibition. Gauguin also decorated a fan with the motif of the sitting Martinican woman eating a mango . For this design he did not use the sketch after his painting; instead, he based it on his large study sheet, where the figure displays exactly the same details, right down to the shadows and the shape of the mango. These details were not included in the sketch after the painting.
It was a smart move on the part of Gauguin to form a bond with Theo and Vincent van Gogh by selling them The Mango Trees, Martinique. Theo, a dealer with an eye for avant-garde art, was charmed by Gauguin’s Martinican work, and after this transaction he acted as his dealer. Although the market for Gauguin’s work was still very limited, Theo did what he could for him. In December 1887, for example, he exhibited work by Gauguin at Boussod, Valadon & Cie, including a painting from the Martinican series. Theo did this again in April 1888, and afterwards he continued to be of great value to Gauguin. Both exhibitions at Boussod’s garnered words of praise from the critic Félix Fénéon.
The further life of The Mango Trees, Martinique
After Theo had acquired The Mango Trees, Martinique, Vincent had two months to enjoy the painting before leaving for Arles. In this period he studied the work carefully, and he subsequently wrote about the painting often in his letters, such as this one to Emile Bernard: ‘Ah, you do darned well to think of Gauguin – they’re high poetry, his negresses – and everything his hand makes has a sweet, heart-rending, astonishing character.’ Van Gogh and Bernard had admired the painting together in Theo’s apartment, where it hung above the sofa; both men knew it well. Bernard later wrote, in 1904, that the work ‘may be the best that Gauguin painted at that time’.
In a letter to his sister Willemien, Van Gogh compared the painting to the Pierre Loti’s exoticist novel Le mariage de Loti. This connection shows that the ‘exotic’, ‘paradisaical’ overtones of The Mango Trees, Martinique had not escaped Van Gogh’s notice. Loti’s writings were an expression of the same romantic colonial fantasy as the pictorial culture to which Gauguin subscribed with his representations of Martinique. Van Gogh was gripped by that book, which he read just after the purchase of The Mango Trees, Martinique. After finishing it, he could well ‘imagine that a painter of today might make something like one finds described in the book by Pierre Loti, Le mariage de Loti’. Gauguin’s painting and Loti’s book had aroused Van Gogh’s interest in ‘exotic’ art and literature. Later in 1888, when Gauguin was with him in Arles, the two men talked a lot about Martinique, and Van Gogh declared that the art of the future would have ‘the tropics as its homeland’.
That Gauguin himself was satisfied with the work is apparent from the fact that he selected it for two exhibitions in 1889: the VIme Exposition des XX in Brussels and the Exposition de Peintures du Groupe Impressionniste et Synthétiste, better known as the Volpini Exhibition, held just outside the grounds of the Exposition Universelle in Paris. In Brussels, The Mango Trees, Martinique was one of two Martinican works among a total of twelve paintings by Gauguin; in Paris it was the only one in the selection of fourteen paintings. Gauguin’s efforts to assume the image of a ‘wild’ and ‘primitive’ artist must have played a part in the selection of this ‘exotic’ work. No less important was the fact that The Mango Trees, Martinique was the property of Theo van Gogh, which meant that the catalogue would show, in the provenance listing, that Gauguin’s work had already been bought by a collector. In the catalogue of Les XX, the painting was called Aux Mangos (Tropiques) and in the Volpini catalogue Les Mangos – Martinique. The present title of the work is based on these two early catalogues.
The reviews of Les XX took little notice of the paintings submitted by Gauguin; not once was The Mango Trees, Martinique commented upon individually. The progressive critics were very enthusiastic about the neo-impressionist work of Seurat and Pissarro but paid little heed to Gauguin’s paintings. Still, the painting can be seen in a satirical print ridiculing the work of the Vingtists . After the Volpini Exhibition, the critics were more positive about Gauguin’s work, and The Mango Trees, Martinique was referred to by name in reviews. For instance, Jules Antoine wrote that Gauguin ‘already enjoys a certain reputation, which I find deserved, with mild reservations. It is certain that Dancing a Round in the Hay […] The Mangoes – Martinique, etc. are the works of a painter.’ Felix Fénéon observed that ‘for him [Gauguin] reality was no more than a pretext for exotic creation; he reorganizes the material with which it provides him’. Fénéon could not have given a more accurate description of the artistic process that led Gauguin to create The Mango Trees, Martinique and other, later works that were shown at the Volpini Exhibition.
The Mango Trees, Martinique retained its value for Gauguin. In 1894, when he was in France between his two Tahitian campaigns, he even tried to get the work back from Jo van Gogh-Bonger. Jo and her son Vincent Willem had inherited the painting after Theo’s tragically early death in 1891. Gauguin possibly hoped to profit from the knowledge that had died with Theo, for he now wanted to ask 1,500 francs for the painting, a considerably higher price than the 400 francs for which he had sold it to Theo. Jo, however, would not dream of parting with the painting. She, too, recognized its artistic value, and just as her late husband had done, she had it hanging above the sofa .
Joost van der Hoeven