Gauguin’s reasons for leaving Paris and its suburbs seem to have been primarily economic. When he first started working in Brittany in 1886, he was attracted by the prospect of cheap board and lodgings for the summer. However, he was captivated by the region’s picturesque scenery and traditional culture, and returned again and again over the years, as the people and landscape became important subjects for him. As he later wrote: ‘I love Brittany, I find the wild and the primitive here. When my clogs resonate on this granite ground I hear the muffled, powerful thud that I’m looking for in painting.’
His five-month stay in Martinique in 1887 followed an ill-fated trip to Panama, and he was recovering from malaria and dysentery. Nevertheless, Gauguin regarded this experience of living and working on the Caribbean island as pivotal for his development as an artist. The paintings that he made here – and afterwards back in Paris – preserve the immediacy of his encounter with a complex, alien environment that did not quite comply with his romanticised preconceptions. The lush vegetation under tropical sunlight is conveyed through a dream-like intensity of colour and flattened composition, disavowing traditional European ideas of perspective – all characteristics that he would develop when he returned to Brittany and in his later travels to Tahiti.
For Gauguin, the essence of each country or region can be found in its people and the ways they interact with the landscape. But while his sketches demonstrate an intensive study of the local inhabitants, the paintings that followed combine observed reality with his subjective vision. He sometimes embraced popular clichés – such as the patronising stereotype that equated the supposed simplicity of Bretons with geese or cows. He drew inspiration from folk traditions and locally produced artefacts, so that many works seem to suggest the locals’ own way of looking at the world.