In a letter written not long after his arrival in Martinique on 11 June 1887, Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) told his friend and fellow artist Emile Schuffenecker (1851–1934) that, artistically speaking, he was most captivated by the Black porteuses he saw on the island. These women carried on their heads large baskets of sugar cane and other produce from the plantations to the markets and the harbour of Saint-Pierre, then the capital of the French colony. Gauguin soon set to work and made many sketches of the porteuses ‘in order to absorb their character’. He intended, after this exploratory phase, to ‘make them pose’ for more detailed studies. This resulted in three large chalk drawings made from life, one of which is Study of a Martinican Woman. The other two drawings are Martinican Women and Study of Martinican Women .
Gauguin used these three studies for two paintings: the figure painting The Mango Trees, Martinique is based on Martinican Women, while the painting On the Banks of the River, Martinique is composed of elements from Study of Martinican Women (from which Gauguin took the body, albeit in reverse) and Study of a Martinican Woman (from which he took the head and headdress, also in reverse). Both paintings became the property of Theo and Vincent van Gogh at the end of 1887.
Material and technique
Like the other two large studies, Study of a Martinican Woman was drawn on high-quality laid paper of the type known as ‘Lalanne’, produced by the firm Berville. Gauguin had already used this paper the previous year in Pont-Aven. He had probably bought a large sketchbook with sheets that could be torn out, which he took along to Martinique. The chain lines in the paper are clearly visible because Gauguin drew on the sieve side of the sheet. He did not use the smoother side, which was actually intended for drawing. The lines are particularly evident where the chalk was applied thickly, such as on the model’s wrist. The edges of the sheet were deliberately torn to make them look ragged. This was done after the drawing was finished (possibly even after Gauguin’s departure from Martinique), as is apparent from the chalk that runs to the bottom and sides of the sheet. Gauguin did this with other drawings too, such as his Study for the painting Breton Girls Dancing, Pont-Aven (recto), Sketch of a Flower Still Life (verso). In his eyes, their irregularly torn edges gave them an archaic, ‘primitive’ appearance.
Gauguin first laid in the contours of the head, headdress, body and arm with a thick piece of black chalk, which he applied very lightly. These exploratory lines are clearly visible in the places where Gauguin did not accentuate the contours, such as at the left edge of the headdress. At this early stage he also indicated a few shaded passages in black, as seen in the headdress and on the back. He then used black chalk to accentuate heavily most of the contour lines – those of the arm in particular. After applying these lines, Gauguin put on the colour, working precisely and with discipline up to the lines. Only in a few places does the colour impinge on the contour lines; at the end of the sleeve, for example, a bit of light blue chalk overlaps the black. When painting Gauguin worked in the same way, laying in the contour lines before applying the colour.
The model is wearing a traditional Martinican dress known as a douillette, worn by many Black Martinican women. Over her dress, she seems to be wearing a wide collar. Examination of this collar under a magnifying glass reveals a smooth and shiny surface that differs from the matte surface of the rest of the sheet. On this part Gauguin probably applied a fluid medium, such as a fixative or coloured ink, which later faded. This is also indicated by the traces of dripped medium to the left of the model’s raised arm. The medium Gauguin applied probably did not produce the desired effect, because he later coloured in the area with chalk. The light pink chalk visible in the collar, as well as in other parts of the dress and headdress, appears to have faded.
A type rather than an individual
Of the larger drawings from models that Gauguin made in both Martinique and Brittany, Study of a Martinican Woman is one of the few that depict a woman from the shoulders up. Gauguin’s other drawings focus on the pose of the body. They display the models either seated or standing, in full or three-quarter length . Even so, the Study of a Martinican Woman cannot be seen as a portrait. The cursory rendering of the facial features and the thickness of the lines prevent the figure in this drawing from being seen as an individual. Instead, Gauguin shows us a stereotype of a Martinican woman, with her characteristic dress and headdress of Madras cotton both depicted with a great eye for detail. In a letter to Schuffenecker, Gauguin praised the decorative quality of the ‘coloured clothes’ of the women of Martinique. As already shown by the work he produced in Pont-Aven, Gauguin paid close attention to local dress.
By depicting his model as a type rather than an individual, Gauguin complied – whether or not he was aware of it – with the way Martinican women were depicted in nineteenth-century colonial photography. Just as in Gauguin’s drawings, the Black women of Martinique were often photographed with their standard attributes – headdress and douillette – so that they were recognizable as Martinicans. Many photos of women were printed as postcards with inscriptions such as Martinique – Type et Costume Créole . The woman in this photograph was presented as typical of the female population of Martinique. Such photos served to praise Martinique to a white, male, mainly European public as a possible destination on a distant journey or even a place to which one might emigrate.
The fruit of Martinique
In addition to their colourful costumes, fruit often featured prominently in portrayals of Martinican women . This might have been a reference to the fertility of the island. Yet such attributes could also symbolize temptation, availability and the fertility of the woman herself. In this drawing Gauguin toyed with this symbolism, too, by having his model hold a mango close to her head. In a letter to his wife, Mette, Gauguin alluded to the connection between temptation and fruit, telling her that he had narrowly escaped eating a bewitched fruit that had been offered to him by a young Martinican woman. He had been saved from eating it by a bystander who told him that the woman in question had ‘crushed it on her chest and afterwards you would surely be dealt with at her discretion’. Gauguin’s letter fits in with the then prevailing European conceptions about the seductiveness and even the danger of the Black women of Martinique. The image presented in Study of a Martinican Woman evokes this remarkable passage from Gauguin’s letter very well indeed.
Martinique versus Tahiti
Five years later, when Gauguin was in Tahiti, he again used the mango as a symbol of fertility and availability in two portraits of Tehamana, his thirteen-year-old vahine (meaning ‘woman’ or ‘wife’ in Tahitian): Vahine no te vi (Woman of the Mango) and Merahi metua no Tehamana (Tehamana Has Many Parents or The Ancestors of Tehamana) In the latter work, the fruit is not so prominent, but in Vahine no te vi the model holds up a mango, just as in Study of a Martinican Woman. This suggests that in Tahiti, Gauguin reverted to symbolism he had already explored in Martinique.
Nevertheless, Study of a Martinican Woman differs in important respects from the two Tahitian portraits. To begin with, the Tahitian paintings are more ambitious and they portray to a certain extent specific individuals, in contrast to the more generic woman in the Martinican drawing. Even though Gauguin presented Tehamana as representative of her culture as a whole, he did not anonymize her. In this context the mango not only says something about the fertility of the island of Tahiti but also alludes to her personal availability, no matter how improper Gauguin’s allusion might seem from our present-day perspective.
The personal dimension is less evident in the Martinican drawing, where there is a greater distance between the artist and the individual depicted. Gauguin’s understanding of Martinique was superficial: owing to his short stay there, he did not become acquainted with the local inhabitants as he did in Tahiti. Study of a Martinican Woman shows that Gauguin, in exploring the island and its population, was in search of a certain ‘type’, which was in keeping with the colonial approach and its attendant pictorial tradition.
Fifty francs from Theo van Gogh
When Gauguin left for Pont-Aven in late January 1888, roughly three months after his return from Martinique, he took along the drawing Study of a Martinican Woman. In June of that year he received a gift of 50 francs from Theo van Gogh (1857–1891), who had been acting as his dealer since December 1887. In return he gave Theo Study of a Martinican Woman and Study for the painting Breton Girls Dancing, Pont-Aven. Gauguin noted in his sketchbook that Theo van Gogh had received drawings (dessins) in return for the 50 francs, without specifying the works in question. The line of reasoning presented below explains why this ‘exchange’ must have involved the drawings mentioned above and not any of the other three drawings by Gauguin in the collection of the Van Gogh brothers.
In August 1888, Gauguin gave the two drawings intended for Theo van Gogh to Emile Bernard’s mother, who was visiting her son in Pont-Aven and was supposed to give the drawings to Theo when she returned to Paris. Study of a Martinican Woman and Study for the painting Breton Girls Dancing, Pont-Aven are the only Gauguin drawings in the collection of Theo and Vincent van Gogh that were not made or used as preparatory drawings in Arles, where Gauguin spent ten weeks with Van Gogh after his stay in Pont-Aven. The other Gauguin drawings the brothers obtained were all left behind in Arles by the artist. So it stands to reason that these are the only drawings that could have been given to Bernard’s mother in Pont-Aven.
A well-considered present
Gauguin no doubt chose Study of a Martinican Woman for Theo because the Van Gogh brothers had shown great appreciation for his Martinican work. After all, they had already acquired two Martinican paintings: The Mango Trees, Martinique and On the Banks of the River, Martinique. Moreover, Gauguin might have thought that Study of a Martinican Woman would interest the brothers because it had served as a preparatory study for On the Banks of the River, Martinique. Combined with Study for the painting Breton Girls Dancing, Pont-Aven, these drawings, chosen by Gauguin, can be seen as a set of souvenirs of Martinique and Pont-Aven, the remote regions where he had worked. In this way Theo was given, in these two drawings, an overview of Gauguin’s recent sojourns and his artistic activities in those places.
Remarkably, Gauguin intentionally tore the edges of the two drawings he chose for Theo. He probably did this to underscore his ‘primitive’ disposition as an artist – an image he increasingly promoted after his return from Martinique. Deliberately marring drawings of models from ‘primitive’ places must have been an experiment that enabled Gauguin to investigate the extent to which both the content and the appearance of a sheet reflected on him as an artist. It was important to him that Theo – who was, after all, his dealer, and in touch with potential clients – understood how he wished to fashion his image.
Joost van der Hoeven