Paul Gauguin Painting

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) "L'homme à la hache" The Woodcutter

Estimate: 35,000,000 - 45,000,000 U.S. dollars

Sale Date:
Nov 08, 2006
Sale Number: 1722
Lot Number: 9

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)
L'homme à la hache
signed and dated 'P. Gauguin 91.' (lower left)
oil on canvas
36½ x 27 5/8 in. (92.7 x 70 cm.)
Painted in 1891

We love the colors in this wonderful painting by Paul Gauguin. A quality museum piece that can be yours if you have a bit of money (
35,000,000 - 45,000,000 U.S. dollars).

Please note this work has been requested for the exhibition Paul Gauguin. Artist of Myth and Dream to be held at the Complesso del Vittoriano in Rome from October 2007 to February 2008.


Night came quickly. This time again, Moorea was asleep. I fell asleep, later, in my bed. Silence of a Tahitian night.

Only the beating of my heart could be heard. The reeds of my hut in their spaced rows were visible from my bed with the moonlight filtering through them like an instrument of music. Pipo our ancestors called it, Vivo is their name for it. But silent (it speaks at night through memories). I fell asleep to that music. Above me, the great high roof of screw-pine leaves, -- the lizards dwell there. In my sleep I could imagine space above my head, the vault of heaven, not a prison in which one stifles. My hut was Space, Freedom.

Near my hut there was another hut (Fare amu, house to eat in). Nearby, a pirogue -- while the diseased coconut-palm looked like a huge parrot, with its golden tail drooping and a huge bunch of coconuts grasped in its claws--

The nearly naked man was wielding with both hands a heavy axe that left, at the top of the stroke, its blue imprint on the silvery sky and, as it came down, its incision on the dead tree, which would instantly live once more a moment of flames -- age-old heat, treasured up each day. On the ground purple with long serpentine copper-coloured leaves, [there lay] a whole Oriental vocabulary -- letters (it seemed to me) of an unknown, mysterious language. I seemed to see that word, of Oceanic origin: Atua, God. As Taäta or Takata it reached India and is to be found everywhere or in everything -- (Religion of Buddha) --

In the eyes of Tathagata all the fullest magnificence of Kings are merely like spittle and dust; in his eyes purity and impurity are like the dance of the six nagas.
In his eyes the search for the way of Buddha is like flowers set before a man's eyes.

A woman was stowing nets in the pirogue, and the horizon of the blue sea was often broken by the green of the waves' crests against the coral breakers--

(From Noa Noa, II, the original draft manuscript of 1893, translated by Jonathan Griffin, in N. Wadley, ed., op. cit., pp. 17 and 19)

This visionary narrative is one of the most remarkable passages in Noa Noa, Gauguin's collection of memories, stories and observations from his first sojourn in Tahiti, which lasted from 9 June 1891 until 4 June 1893. Subsequent research has demonstrated that the people, places and events Gauguin described in his manuscript, which he wrote upon his return to France, are not necessarily true to fact, and that the author freely embellished his recollections as he saw fit. In fact, the second, so-called 'Louvre' manuscript of 1893-1897, and the definitive 'La Plume' edition, published in 1901, contain the collaborative redrafting of the text as well as additions to it by the Symbolist poet Charles Morice. Here, however, the voice is entirely Gauguin's own, and the anecdote and its details all ring true. The reader immediately senses that in witnessing the scene of the man with the axe, which must have been a deeply memorable encounter, Gauguin experienced an intensely felt epiphany, a powerful revelation of transcendent importance.

This momentous event became the genesis for the magnificent canvas L'homme à la hache, offered here. This painting, the most important by Gauguin to become available for sale since the very same work last changed hands almost a quarter-century ago, is one of the signal works of the artist's Tahitian period, and among the most powerful and commanding of his entire career.

* * *

Gauguin's arrival in Tahiti, after a passage of 69 days, was not especially memorable. His ship dropped anchor in the port of Papeete during the dead of night, as per normal practice, to take advantage of the high tide. Stories in the local press had anticipated Gauguin's coming, for the artist carried a commission from the French government to paint the island and its people. A young naval lieutenant named Jénot helped him get settled in town. The famous painter's presence quickly raised eyebrows--because of his longish hair (fig. 1), he was called taata-vahine ("man-woman"). He trimmed his locks, adopted the white tropical suit of a typical colonial, and mingled with the European residents in this uneventful and thoroughly westernized town.

All of this bored Gauguin, for he had come all this way to experience a more primitive way of life. In the early fall he visited and then relocated to Mataiea, a small village forty miles south of Papeete. He was still not far enough from civilization, it seemed, and it annoyed him to have been fined for public indecency when he was caught naked while bathing. Titi, a mixed-race girl of dubious repute from Papeete, had accompanied him, but she missed the comforts of the capital and departed. Following the native traditions of hospitality, a local family offered the European newcomer their teenaged daughter, Tehamana, who became Gauguin's vahine and model.

On 7 November 1891, five months following his arrival in Tahiti, Gauguin wrote to his friend Georges-Daniel de Monfreid, "As of yet I have done nothing striking. I am content to dig into myself, not into nature, and to learn a little drawing; that's the important thing. And then I am getting together subjects to paint in Paris" (quoted in C. Frèches-Thory, Gauguin Tahiti, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2004, p. 25). Within the next few weeks, however, as Gauguin filled the pages of his Carnet de Tahiti with sketches, he began to paint as well. He completed some twenty Tahitian subjects by Christmas Day, including L'homme à la hache, and three other canvases illustrated here (figs. 3, 4 and 6).

Gauguin normally carried with him a collection of post-cards and other small reproductions of artworks by various artists and from different cultures that held special interest for him. These proved to be extremely useful now that the artist was living thousands of miles from museums, galleries and his colleague's studios. In an 1890 letter to Redon, Gauguin had referred to these photographs as "a whole world of comrades who will talk to me every day" (in Lettres à Odilon Redon, 1960, p. 193). He based the pose of the woodcutter on a figure on the west frieze of the Parthenon, using a phototype of a cast done from the original by Choisel-Gouffier (fig. 2). As students of Greek Art will recognize, the actual figure on the Parthenon, created under the supervision of the master sculptor Phidias, is far more eroded than the cast in the phototype, which had been crudely restored. Morever, the image in the phototype appears to have been inadvertently flipped, and consequently the pose of L'homme à la hache is the reverse of the original Greek sculpture.

It is curious that Gauguin should have felt the need to resort to printed reproductions when he had ample opportunity to observe native figures in the very settings he had long fantasized about, and draw them from real life. He followed this practice of selective appropriation elsewhere during this time. The boy and horse in Le rendez-vous (Wildenstein, no. 443; fig. 3) are also based on a Parthenon relief, and the women in the famous Ia Orana Maria (Je vous salue Marie) (Wildenstein, no. 428; fig. 4 ) were closely adapted from relief sculptures at the Javanese Temple of Barabadur (fig. 5). Gauguin wrote to Monfreid in 1892, "One does what one can, and when marbles or wood engravings draw a head for you, it is so tempting to steal it" (Lettres a Georges de Monfreid, Letter 5). Gauguin called himself un peintre synthétiste, and to a greater extent than any of his artist contemporaries, and in a manner akin to the literary Symbolists whose circle he frequented, he searched far afield for aspects of world art, culture, philosophy and religion, including myths and texts from the distant past, that he could mingle and remold within the context of his own painting. In the section from Noa Noa cited above, Gauguin imagined in the swirls of fallen and shriveled palm leaves, seen in the foreground of L'homme à la hache, an Oriental script he associated with passages from the Buddhist sutras. These "serpentine leaves" also appear in I raro te oviri, Sous les pandanus (I) (Wildenstein, no. 431; fig. 6). John House has noted that these appropriated images have "a positive role in his art, since his borrowings, even before they are precisely recognized, evoke reminiscences of the culture from which they come, and give his canvases more universal terms of reference" (in exh. cat., op. cit., Royal Academy of Art, London, 1979, p. 77).

Gauguin was particularly fascinated with one aspect that he observed these archaic sources to share, a nearly-androgynous conception of the human body, which he mirrored in the figures that he derived from them and from his own observations of young native men and women. The shoulders of the woodcutter are perhaps more broad than those of Gauguin's Tahitian women, but otherwise both sexes generally share similar body types, with flattened chests or smallish breasts, slim waists, narrow hips and thick, trunk-like lower legs.

In section IV of Noa Noa (N. Whatley, ed., op. cit., pp. 25 and 28), Gauguin related a second incident, which illuminates the earlier encounter with the woodcutter, and points to his evolving idea of a universal human being. In fact, in this story Gauguin is the woodcutter. A young man agreed to lead the artist to a rosewood tree in the mountains that would provide fine wood for carving. "We went naked, both of us, except for the loincloth, and axe in hand. His lithe animal body had graceful contours, he walked in front of me sexless" Gauguin felt "the desire for the unknown," but when the young man turned to him, the artist was reminded he was male. "The hermaphrodite had vanished," and he felt compelled to deny his earlier desire...

I alone carried the burden of an evil thought, a whole civilization had been before me in evil and educated me.

...Savages both of us, we attacked with the axe a magnificent tree which had to be destroyed to get a branch suitable to my desires. I struck furiously and...hacked away with the pleasure of sating one's brutality and of destroying something. In time with the noise of the axe I sang:

'Cut down by the foot the whole forest (of desires)
Cut down in yourself the love of yourself, as a man
would cut down with his hand in autumn the Lotus.'

Well and truly destroyed indeed, all of the old remnant of civilized man in me. I returned at peace, feeling myself thenceforward a different man, a Maori. ...I could again admire, in front of me, the graceful curves of my young friend -- and calmly.... I was definitely at peace from then on.

The man with the axe destroyed in order to create--he was the very prototype of the true artist, who sought liberation of body and spirit by breaking down and doing away with the accumulated dogma, conventions and all other constraints with which society had burdened him. Gauguin placed the man with the axe at the center of creation in the painting Matamoe (Wildenstein, no. 484; fig. 7). The title of this landscape means "Death," but in this paradise-like scene, with a rainbow in the distance, Gauguin also points to the inevitability of transformation and rebirth, just as the tree has been cut down and will be transfigured into art. Like Nietzsche's Zarathustra, and the great Buddha, the newly empowered artist/creator would embody and then transcend all dualities, good and evil, joy and suffering, male and female, desire and passivity, self and the other, and ultimately, he would journey beyond life and death.

* * *

Gauguin returned to France on 30 August 1893, with only four francs in his pocket. He rented a room in Paris, and made use of a studio in the same building that the painter Alphonse Mucha had lent him. Gauguin convinced the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel to mount an exhibition of his new paintings. The show opened on 10 November, and consisted of 41 Tahitian paintings, plus some sculptures and three earlier Breton pictures, accounting for almost all of the work he had done in the South Seas and deemed important, including L'homme à la hache. Only eleven paintings were sold, and the show was not a financial success; Gauguin nevertheless reported to his wife Mette in Copehagen "The most important thing is that my exhibition has had a very great artistic success, has even provoked passion and jealousy. For the moment I am considered by many people to be the greatest modern painter" (in M. Malingue, ed., Paul Gauguin Letters, Boston, 2003, letter 145, pp. 188).

In an undated letter written to Mette in October, Gauguin mentioned that "I am also preparing a book on Tahiti, which will facilitate the understanding of my painting. What work!" (Ibid., letter 143, p. 187). This was Noa Noa, the first draft of which, quoted in the excerpts above, Gauguin turned over to Charles Morice, together with another text, Ancien Culte Mahorie, some time prior to the opening of the Durand-Ruel exhibition. Gauguin began to make illustrations for its eventual publication. The young poet and playwright Alfred Jarry, best-known today for his Père Ubu trilogy, wrote some verses based on the painting L'homme à la hache, "after and for P. Gauguin." It was probably to illustrate this poem that Gauguin in 1894 made an ink drawing, heightened with gouache, of a solitary woodcutter (fig. 8), which he derived directly from the painting. Jarry wrote (as translated by Paul Edwards, in Alfred Jarry: Adventures in Pataphysics, London, 2001, p. 64):

A giant strides the silt that paves
The shore...
A Caesar, reins held in his fist,

As on a marble plinth, to hew
From hollowed trunk a swift canoe,
With copper arms held high he hacks

That standing firm he may pursue
Us to seas green and out of view
Against the sky glints blue his axe.

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