Among the Mangoes, 1887

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)

  • Oil on Canvas, 89 x 116 cm
  • Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
    (Vincent van Gogh Stichting)

In the spring of 1887 Paul Gauguin faced such poor financial circumstances that he decided to seek his fortune elsewhere. Together with his friend Charles Laval he travelled to Panama, where he spent two weeks working on the Panama Canal to earn some money. The two artists then moved to Martinique. The island provided the inspiration for a number of colourful paintings. Gauguin cherished a romanticised view of Martinique, as a paradise where the friendly natives still lived close to nature.

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Synthesism

This style, which Gauguin later called ‘synthetism’, inspired a range of reactions. The painter Maurice Denis called the new style ‘disagreeable’. An art critic who saw work by Gauguin at an exhibition in Paris wrote: ‘[…] people with blue faces, green suns, purple trees, in short well nigh every object that is depicted has another colour than the one in which it has thus far been seen by mankind. Moreover everything is [so] smooth that it is a delight. I wonder if this will ever be able to supplant the art of Millet and Corot.’

Dream and fantasy

Gauguin first made a study in pastel of the two women at the front. However, the painting is not a pure impression of reality, although the brushstrokes strongly recall impressionism. Gauguin incorporated fantasy and illusion in his work, and choose unusual colours in order to convey a specific feeling. Gauguin used this striking composition, with its cropping of the picture plane and high horizon, on more than one occasion, a further example being his Portrait of Van Gogh painting sunflowers.

Idyllic life

Laval and Gauguin lived near the beach, surrounded by coconut palms and fruit trees – a productive environment for a landscape painter. In a letter to his friend Claude-Emile Schuffenecker, Gauguin described the idyllic life he was leading. He continued to be amazed by the people whom he saw passing every day; he made numerous sketches of them, in order, so he said, to understand their character. He was particularly fascinated by the colourful clothing of the women and their graceful movements, even when they carried heavy burdens on their head. Among the mangoes is a magnificent representation of these impressions. The muted yet warm colours contribute to the sultry ambience of the painting.

Poetry

The Van Gogh brothers, however, were enthusiastic about Gauguin’s work. In early 1888 Theo displayed a number of Gauguin’s paintings and ceramic pieces in the art dealers’ gallery he was managing. Vincent told his sister Wil about Among the mangoes, after Theo had purchased the painting. He described the canvas to his friend Emile Bernard as ‘uplifting poetry’.

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