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Collecting Gauguin: Samuel Courtauld in the ’20s

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). Bathers at Tahiti, 1897. Oil on sacking, 73.3 x 91.8 cm. © The Trustees of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham.

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THE COURTAULD Gallery holds the most important collection of works in the United Kingdom by the Post-Impressionist master Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). Assembled by the pioneering collector Samuel Courtauld (1876-1947), it includes five major paintings, ten prints and one of only two marble sculptures ever created by the artist.

This special summer display – Collecting Gauguin: Samuel Courtauld in the ’20s – presents the complete collection together with the loan of two important works by Gauguin formerly in Courtauld’s private collection: Martinique Landscape (Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh) and Bathers at Tahiti (Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham) along with two double-sided drawings and archival material from the Gallery’s collection.

Today, Gauguin is widely celebrated as one of the most important artists of the 19th century. Collecting Gauguin offers an opportunity to consider the contribution of Samuel Courtauld in developing the artist’s reputation in this country.

In 1910, the critic Roger Fry organised his ground-breaking and famously controversial exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists at the Grafton Galleries in London. Fry included over forty works by Gauguin (more than by any other artist) and also chose a work by him for the poster, a rare surviving copy of which will be included in the display.

Inspired by this exhibition, over the following decade the educationalist Michael Sadler (1861-1943) established the first substantial collection of works by Gauguin in England. Whilst a small number of other individuals acquired single paintings, Courtauld was the only other early collector to assemble a major group of works by Gauguin.

Samuel Courtauld’s acquisitions of works by Gauguin span the short decade in which he assembled his great collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. He bought his first paintings by the artist in 1923, purchasing Bathers at Tahiti, which he later sold, and The Haystacks, an outstanding example of the artist’s work in Brittany. Gauguin’s exceptionally rare marble portrait of his Danish wife Mette, probably carved with the help of a professional sculptor, was acquired by Courtauld in 1925 for £288.

The earliest painting in the display is Martinique Landscape, 1887, an important large work dating from the four fruitful months that Gauguin spent on this French colonial possession in the Caribbean. In its rich colours and exotic subject matter, this painting foreshadows Gauguin’s journeys to Tahiti in the following decade.

Courtauld went on to acquire two of Gauguin’s very finest Tahitian paintings. In 1927 he purchased Nevermore, previously owned by the English composer Frederick Delius. Painted in 1897, during the artist’s second stay in Tahiti, it exemplifies Gauguin’s search for a mythic Polynesian paradise. He wrote of this work: “I wished to describe by means of a simple nude a certain long lost barbarian luxury”.

Courtauld acquired his last painting by Gauguin in 1929 when he paid £13,600 for Te Rerioa (The Dream). Roger Fry, who saw the work in the gallery of the dealer Paul Rosenberg in Paris shortly after Courtauld’s visit, wrote an enthusiastic letter, urging his friend to buy what he described as “the masterpiece of Gauguin”. An early photograph shows it magnificently installed in Courtauld’s London home in Portman Square.

Samuel Courtauld lived with Te Rerioa for just three years before presenting it, along with most of his other Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces, as part of his founding gift to The Courtauld Institute of Art in 1932. It remains one of the highlights of The Courtauld Gallery’s collection.

Collecting Gauguin, on display from June 20 to September 8, 2013, is the first of a new series of special summer displays which will showcase aspects of The Courtauld’s outstanding permanent collection.

Collecting Gauguin Gallery

The Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, Strand, London, WC2R 0RN