Gauguin painted this still life soon after he had arrived in Tahiti for his second and final stay in 1895. Exotic red bougainvillea and hibiscus, white and yellow frangipani, white tiare and large blue leaves burst out of a dark clay pot. They look as though they are slightly past their best, and some blossoms have fallen onto the table top. What seems to have interested Gauguin is the pattern of decorative shapes and the delicate interweaving of reds, creams and blues against the gold background rather than the horticultural detail.
Gauguin may have started this extravagant bouquet as a study of an actual floral arrangement but finished it from imagination, as it has the same dream-like quality as his Tahitian figure paintings. In 1899, when the dealer Ambroise Vollard asked Gauguin to send him some flower paintings for sale, the artist replied that he had ‘done only a few’ because ‘I do not copy nature – today even less than formerly. With me, everything happens in my exuberant imagination.’
Flower paintings were popular in late nineteenth-century French art, and when Gauguin began to paint floral studies in the 1870s, while he was still an amateur artist, there were several possible sources of inspiration. His earliest still lifes of bunches of flowers in vases recall the compositions of Fantin-Latour and Cézanne. Later on he came into intimate contact with what are now the most famous nineteenth-century flower paintings of all: Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. The Dutchman painted four pictures of sunflowers to decorate Gauguin’s bedroom in the house they shared in Arles for a few months in 1888. One of these, Sunflowers, is in the National Gallery’s collection. Van Gogh’s still lifes evidently made a long-lasting impression of Gauguin, as he painted four of his own still lifes of sunflowers over a decade later, when he was in Tahiti. The seeds may have been sent to him by his friend George-Daniel de Monfried, since Gauguin had written to de Monfried in 1896 asking him to send flower bulbs and seeds suitable for a hot climate: ‘I would like to embellish my little plantation, and as you know, I adore flowers.’
The flowers in this picture are exotic blooms that would have flourished in the Polynesian climate. Red bougainvillea and hibiscus, white and yellow frangipani, white tiare and large blue leaves burst out of a dark clay pot. They look as though they are slightly past their best, wilting in the vase, and some blossoms have fallen onto the table top. What seems to have interested Gauguin is the overall pattern of decorative shapes and colours – the delicate interweaving of reds, creams and blues that glow against the golden background – rather than the horticultural detail.
In 1899, when the dealer Ambroise Vollard asked Gauguin to send him some flower paintings for sale, the artist replied that he had ‘done only a few’ because ‘I do not copy nature – today even less than formerly. With me, everything happens in my exuberant imagination. And when I’m tired of painting figures (which I prefer) I start a still life which I finish without a model.…Besides, this is not really a land of flowers’. It is possible that this is what happened with this painting, which was perhaps begun with a study of an actual floral arrangement but ended up as an almost hallucinogenic extravaganza with the same dream-like quality as the Tahitian figure paintings. Odilon Redon greatly admired Gauguin’s work, and the floral arrangement in his Ophelia Among the Flowers of 1905–8 echoes this painting in its glowing colour and otherworldly quality.
Degas bought Gauguin’s painting from de Monfried in 1898. Degas had helped Gauguin organise an exhibition in Paris of his Tahitian paintings four years earlier, and eventually acquired eleven of his paintings for his personal collection.
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