In October 1887, towards the end of his stay of over four months in Martinique, Paul Gauguin told his friend Emile Schuffenecker (1851–1934) what he had produced: ‘I will bring back a dozen canvases, four of them with figures superior to those of my Pont-Aven period.’ On the Banks of the River, Martinique is probably one of those four works with figures. After all, of the Martinique series, only The Mango Trees, Martinique and Tropical Conversation (1887, private collection) display more prominently portrayed figures. Together with these two works, then, Gauguin considered On the Banks of the River, Martinique to be better than what he had produced the previous year in Brittany. Even though it is less ambitious in execution than The Mango Trees, Martinique – for example, the canvas is smaller (standard-size 15 figure) and has fewer and less elaborate figures – Gauguin made similar preparations for this work: he based the figures on preparatory studies and took parts of the composition from his other Martinican paintings.
Recycling motifs is characteristic of Gauguin’s working method. He often based his figures on rapid sketches or elaborate preparatory drawings, and, as mentioned earlier, he even borrowed motifs from his previous paintings. In Martinique, he did this frequently, and as a result these works form a coherent network of figures and motifs that recur time and again. For example, Gauguin used a sketch of a squatting woman with her back to the viewer for no fewer than three paintings.
For the sitting woman in On the Banks of the River, Martinique Gauguin used two of the three detailed studies from life that he produced in Martinique: Study of Martinican Women for the body and Study of a Martinican Woman, for the head and the headdress. In doing so, Gauguin transferred the head and body to the canvas but reversed the image and reduced it in size. No worked-out preparatory drawing has yet been found for the boy standing opposite her, apart from a rapid exploration of the type, which appears at left on the sheet with the drawing of Martinican Women . He occurs a number of times in Gauguin’s Martinican paintings. In Near the Huts we see him holding a large sack and leaning against a tree, and in Tropical Conversation he stands in the grass with his back to the viewer. He is, moreover, the only male figure in the Martinique series. Remarkably enough, his face is never worked out and he therefore remains anonymous. The cow behind the boy might also be based on a sketch, one that has never been traced but which possibly dates from 1885 (or earlier), since it could have been used for the painting Cows at the Watering Place (1885, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam). Gauguin could also have used this unknown sketch for Martinican Meadow (1887, National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo), a scene featuring the same cow, which decorates a fan he designed after his return to Paris.
A well-considered composition
Gauguin presumably also made an exploratory sketch for the broad division of the foreground of the composition. The sheet Landscape with Trees, Cows and Two Women displays the same kind of bumpy riverbed, with a tree trunk in the middle of the composition. We also see in the sketch, at left, a cow with a seated woman, seen from her left side, just as in the painting. Furthermore, the design of the prominently placed tree in On the Banks of the River, Martinique corresponds almost exactly to the tree in Near the Huts , albeit the tree in this work is once again depicted in reverse.
A tree trunk placed prominently in the foreground is a compositional device that Gauguin used frequently from 1884 onwards. Trees at the front of a scene generate dynamism in an otherwise systematically laid out landscape. Moreover, they create a sense of depth because they function like the wings of a stage, beyond which the viewer catches sight of the landscape in the background. Gauguin had learned this trick from his teachers Camille Pissarro (1830–1903) and Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), who in turn had taken it from Japanese ukiyo-e prints. Gauguin owned landscapes with trees in the foreground by both painters, and these undoubtedly served as examples. In addition to On the Banks of the River, Martinique, many other paintings that Gauguin made in Martinique display one or more trees in the foreground.
Both the tree and the high, bird’s-eye viewpoint of On the Banks of the River, Martinique have their origins in ukiyo-e. Here, too, however, Pissarro no doubt set the example. At Pissarro’s solo exhibition at Paul Durand-Ruel’s gallery in 1883, Gauguin had seen the work Girl with a Stick (1881, Musée d’Orsay, Paris), depicting a girl sitting in the grass, portrayed from a high viewpoint, which causes the horizon to fall outside the picture. In On the Banks of the River, Martinique the elevated viewpoint has the same effect. It also compresses the perspective, so that there is little sense of depth, despite the tree in the foreground. The landscape is thus a decorative, visual play of the two green riverbanks, with the large purple zone of water in between, on which Gauguin suggests the reflection of the figures. Shortly before his Caribbean campaign, Gauguin had explored the contrast between purple river water and green banks in Two Women Bathing (1887, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires). In Martinique he used these contrasting colours not only for On the Banks of the River, Martinique but also for the large canvas Landscape on Martinique .
As he did in The Mango Trees, Martinique, Gauguin divided the broad areas of colour into clearly defined horizontal bands. He applied the green of the grass in vertical brushstrokes and laid in the purple-blue of the water in horizontal strokes. In the preliminary underdrawing – which Gauguin made, as usual, with diluted blue paint – he roughly indicated the riverbanks, after which he loosely coloured in the different areas. Compared with the neatly painted The Mango Trees, Martinique, the work is less disciplined in character. In various places in the composition, Gauguin left the canvas unpainted, and the blue contours of the underdrawing are also clearly discernible, primarily in the figures but also around the dark green foliage and the stones in the foreground. He probably painted this way in order to use as little of his materials as possible, knowing that if he ran short it would take a long time for new supplies to arrive from Paris. At the same time, this method of working ensured that On the Banks of the River, Martinique already inclined stylistically towards synthetism, the style of painting that Gauguin would develop, together with Emile Bernard (1868–1941) and Charles Laval (1862–1894), in the summer of 1888. This style is characterized by the use of contour lines and uniform areas of colour, the deconstruction of perspective and spatial perception, and a preference for decorative brushstrokes. These characteristics are all discernible in On the Banks of the River, Martinique, giving it a stylistically innovative appearance.
Gauguin situated the figures in the corner of his composition and portrayed them as though they are conversing. He had previously explored the theme of conversation in the large figure painting Breton Shepherdesses (1886, Neue Pinakothek, Munich). In Martinique, Gauguin painted the subject twice: in addition to On the Banks of the River, Martinique, the painting Tropical Conversation shows people conversing – the title of the latter says it all. Here, too, Pissarro may well have set the example, considering that Gauguin owned Pissarro’s Peasant Women Chatting (c. 1881, private collection, Switzerland). Similar in mood to Peasant Women, Gauguin’s On the Banks of the River, Martinique exudes a relaxed atmosphere, with people casually engaging in conversation. This alluring scene therefore seems like a snapshot of everyday life, with Martinicans as accessory characters.
Even though we know that Gauguin did not paint this picture from life, he could easily have witnessed such a scene by a stream near his abode on Martinique. He had probably found accommodation on a small fruit plantation on the beach of Anse Turin, barely two kilometres south of Saint-Pierre, then the capital of the island. The path to town crossed a shallow stream, which flowed into the small bay at Anse Latouche. The large sugar plantation Habitation Latouche, situated on this bay, used the water from this stream to produce rum. It is likely that Gauguin sat at this crossing to sketch the women passing by with their baskets of fruit, and at the same time he drew inspiration from the sight of the stream: he painted it twice, once in On the Banks of the River, Martinique and again in Landscape on Martinique .
However, despite its roots in real-life observations, On the Banks of the River, Martinique presents an idealized picture of the life of the Black population of Martinique. Like The Mango Trees, Martinique, this painting depicts a pleasant pastoral scene that evokes associations with the work of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824–1898). Gauguin thus ignored the actual living conditions of Black Martinicans, who appear peaceful and serene in his compositions. Although a casual conversation occurring on a path was certainly not an impossibility, the picture offers no insight into the hard work, the segregation or the exploitation that took place in Martinique, even after the abolition of slavery in 1848. The picture of a pleasant encounter, in which the characters apparently have all the time in the world to talk, gives rise to certain assumptions about life in Martinique that have a tenuous connection to reality. It perpetuates the clichéd image and pictorial tradition of Caribbean colonies such as Martinique, which invariably present an agreeably slow-paced way of life in a welcoming paradise. Standing in front of this picture, European viewers could imagine themselves to be colonial tourists, whose observations of the ‘other’ sparked ‘exotic’ fantasies. In presenting these visual staples of Martinique, Gauguin perpetuates the colonialist view of Caribbean island culture. But even so, this work stands out from the nineteenth-century exoticist canon, owing to its avant-garde style.
Traded for two Van Goghs
In December 1887, around a month after Gauguin’s return to Paris, he traded On the Banks of the River, Martinique for two of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings, namely Sunflowers (1887, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and Two Cut Sunflowers (1887, Kunstmuseum Bern). The exchange presumably came about during the exhibition organized by Van Gogh, Peintres du Petit Boulevard, in the Grand Bouillon-Restaurant du Chalet on the avenue de Clichy. It meant the addition of a second Martinican painting by Gauguin to Theo and Vincent van Gogh’s collection, after their purchase, at approximately the same time, of The Mango Trees, Martinique. Gauguin left On the Banks of the River, Martinique, intended for Van Gogh, with his frame-maker Pierre Cluzel, at 33 rue Fontaine-Saint-Georges, near Van Gogh’s address in Montmartre. Van Gogh was requested in turn to leave his paintings at the Montmartre branch of Boussod, Valadon et Cie, where Gauguin would collect them, because, as he wrote: ‘I am so rarely in your part of town.’
It is also clear from the letter in which Gauguin proposed this way of effecting the exchange that he had been the one to decide which work Van Gogh would get from him. It is not known if Van Gogh had previously seen the painting, but Gauguin said: ‘If it doesn’t suit you, let me know and come and choose one yourself.’ That proved not to be necessary: Van Gogh was satisfied and kept the work. Gauguin, in turn, was impressed with the works he had received from Van Gogh. His dealer Ambroise Vollard described in his memoirs the studio apartment in rue Vercingétorix where Gauguin stayed in the period between his two Tahitian campaigns (1893–95): ‘Three Van Goghs hung above his bed: in the middle a landscape in a mauve tonality; to right and left Sunflowers.’ Nevertheless, Gauguin capitalized on the paintings before his departure for Tahiti in 1895 by giving them on consignment to Vollard. By contrast, On the Banks of the River, Martinique was never resold and remained in the possession of the Van Gogh family.
Joost van der Hoeven