Where? Part of the Thannhauser collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
What do you see? This painting is situated in a small forest in Tahiti used to grow vanilla. The vanilla vines climb up the trees. The majority of the painting is made up by the landscape. In the bottom half of the painting, Gauguin used abstract color areas to depict the grassland. The forest in the background looks more like a tapestry. In the right foreground, a man holding his horse can be seen. The man is only wearing black shorts. He is looking down while waiting and does not have much expression on his face. In between the trees, just left to the middle, a woman dressed in white hides in the forest. It seems that the two people have arranged a romantic meeting (a rendezvous) between them that needs to remain a secret.
Backstory: This painting was bought in 1942 by Justin Thannhauser, who left the painting in 1978 to the Guggenheim Museum. It is also known as The Rendez-vous, or under the French name Dans la Vanillère, Homme et Cheval. During the Fall of 1891, Gauguin was living in a small village on Tahiti, Mataiea. This painting is most likely depicting a vanilla grove in that area. The poses of the man and his horse in this painting are derived from a well-known frieze on the Parthenon in Athens. This painting, as much of Gauguin’s other work while in French Polynesia, is considered to fall under primitivism, an art style that borrows elements from non-Western societies.
Synthetism: This is an artistic style used by artists such as Gauguin and Émile Bernard. It is a combination of different approaches to painting. For example, on the one hand, the real world can be depicted in a painting, while on the other hand, the artist’s dream world can also be depicted. As Gauguin was an artist who mainly painted from his imagination, he combined the real world which he saw in front of him with the ideas that he had in his mind. In this painting, he combined the landscape in French Polynesia with a scene in his mind from a man with a horse that was inspired by one of the friezes of the Parthenon. An even better example of this style is the painting Vision after a Sermon by Gauguin. In this painting, several women are leaving the church at the bottom, and they see a vision of Jacob wrestling with the Angel, which was the subject of the sermon.
Who is Gauguin? Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) was born in Paris. He was a post-impressionist painter. He is known for his experimental use of different colors, which has had a big impact on future artists such as Picasso and Matisse. On April 1, 1891, Gauguin left to Tahiti, which is the largest island of French Polynesia and lies in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. His idea was to escape from the artificial life in France and to immerse in nature, live like a child would do, and focus on his art. The first painting he created on Tahiti is Hail Mary which is now on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At the same time as the painting In the Vanilla Grove, Man and Horse, he also painted Haere Mai, which is also on display at the Guggenheim Museum. Gauguin stayed in Tahiti for two years, before returning to France in August 1893. In 1895, he returned to French Polynesia where he stayed until his death. During his life, Gauguin was often struggling for enough money to be a full-time painter. Unfortunately for him, his work only became very popular after his death.
Tahiti: Tahiti is an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It is formed by volcanic activity and is a part of France. 70% of the total population of fewer than 200,000 consists of indigenous Tahitians. While many people speak the Tahitian language, French is the official language. The island contains a small airport but has direct flights to Los Angeles, Paris, Sydney, and Tokyo. Vanilla is one of the important export products of Tahiti. The island contains a small museum dedicated to Paul Gauguin, appropriately called the Paul Gauguin Museum.
Fun fact: In 1893, Gauguin returned to Paris to sell some of his paintings. During his time there he dressed in traditional Polynesian cloths and started an affair with an exotic teenager. His stay in France was not a success, and his ideas and his reputation were verbally attacked in the Mercure de France magazine by several contemporaries. Disappointed, he returned to French Polynesia in 1895, where he could focus again on his art without much distraction from the artificial and conventional aspects of life.
Written by Eelco Kappe