The artist’s retreat: how the beauty of Martinique transformed Gauguin

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A review by Claire Wrathall for London’s Telegraph

About a mile north of the little town of Le Carbet, on the northwest coast of Martinique in the French Antilles, is a museum dedicated to the great post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin.

Unless you’re especially unlucky with the weather and in need of indoor entertainment, the Centre d’Interpretation du Patrimoine is not in itself especially worth the detour: it’s more about his work, and that of his fellow artist and protégé Charles Laval, than of it (though there are reproductions). But it will probably teach you something about the artists and the months they spent on Martinique in 1887, during which time Gauguin painted 17 works and made many more sketches.

“The experience I had in Martinique was decisive,” he wrote. “Only there did I feel my true self. If you want to know who I am, you should look for me in the works I brought back rather than those I did in Brittany.” Because this was the place that preempted the change in his hitherto naturalistic style in favour of the primitivism for which he became known.

This autumn there’s a rare chance to see nine of Gauguin’s Martinique paintings (and four of Laval’s), together with pastels, drawings and sketches from that year and other related works, at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. It is a fitting setting: Vincent Van Gogh is known to have particularly admired the works his friend Gauguin produced while on the Caribbean island.

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Though Gauguin’s depictions present an idealised vision of what life was like for the women who worked in Martinique’s plantations, several of the idyllic landscapes, saturated in colour, show still recognisable landmarks. Some are named in their titles: Women Carrying Fruit on the Beach of Anse Turin, for example, or Coast Landscape of Martinique (the Bay of Saint-Pierre), which in any case is recognisable from the pale tufa cliffs that rise out of the ultramarine Caribbean.

Those familiar with the island will recognise part of the bay and Mount Pelée in Near the Huts, which shows a cluster of brightly coloured dwellings at the northern edge of Le Carbet. Martinique Landscape, which usually hangs in the National Gallery of Scotland, was painted, writes one of the exhibition’s curators, Joost van der Hoeven, in the exhibition’s catalogue, “Not far from the Habitation Beauregard, since the view it depicts can be seen from Morne Lacroix, the hill in the background of Coming and Going, Martinique.”

Take the path that branches off the Route du Carbet, just south of the site of the plantation known as Habitation Latouche that runs uphill, and “the place with this view [can] be reached in 10 minutes, though it is quite a climb.”

Gauguin did not explore the island widely in his paintings, sticking to the vicinity of Anse Turin on the west coast, near which he and Laval lived in an abandoned plantation worker’s hut with a leaking roof, sleeping on straw mats and cooking on an open fire.


As Van der Hoeven notes, they could have stayed at a hotel in the capital, Saint-Pierre, then reckoned to be the Paris of the Antilles, and spent their evenings at the theatre or the Cave de la Gironde café. But “their intention, after all, was to live like ‘savages’ in ‘primitive’ surroundings.”

The Theatre de Saint Pierre, on rue Victor Hugo, was destroyed in a volcanic eruption in 1902 and now lies in ruins. But the beach at Anse Turin, a long swathe of black sand, remains one of the most beautiful on the island, not least because, bar the addition of a café, it remains undeveloped, and still looks much as it did when Gauguin painted i


Should his depictions entice you to visit the island for yourself, one of the best resorts is French Coco (from €296), which opened two years ago a mile or so from the village of Tartane. Set on the Caravelle peninsula on the Atlantic-facing side of the island, it is surrounded by a nature reserve and each of its 17 spacious pool villas is surrounded by luxuriant gardens. The views should have you reaching, if not for your paintbox, then at least your camera.

Gauguin and Laval in Martinique runs at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, until January 13, 2019. 

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