One of Paul Gauguin’s key Tahitian works will be auctioned in Paris on 3 December, with an estimate of €5m-€7m. Te Bourao II (The Purao Tree) is to be sold by the auctioneer Artcurial.
Te Bourao is part of an important series of nine paintings which Gauguin produced in 1897 in connection with his huge masterpiece, Where Do We Come From? What are We? Where are we Going? (now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Just after finishing these works, Gauguin walked up into the mountains above his hut, intending to poison himself with arsenic. As he wrote to his friend Daniel de Monfreid: “Whether the dose was too strong, or whether the vomiting counteracted the action of the poison, I don’t know; but after a night of terrible suffering I returned home.”
The Te Bourao canvas is painted in blues and greens, with just a touch of red in the upper left corner. The similar tones make it awkward to read the composition, rendering it a mysterious scene, possibly a nocturnal work. Centred around a tree with spreading branches, there is a horseman just to the right of the red decoration, with blue, flowing water across the canvas and a large goose in the foreground. The cool tones may well have been chosen by the artist to contrast with other pictures in the series.
The other Tahitian paintings in the series are now in the Boston museum, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the Barber Institute in Birmingham, the Ordrupgaard Museum just outside Copenhagen, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and with three works in the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. Te Bourao is the only one left in private hands.
Te Bourao was unsold in Gauguin’s lifetime, and it remained with Vollard’s descendants until 1995, when it was bought by the present seller. Although Artcurial are not disclosing the identity of the seller, unconfirmed reports suggest that the owner may, appropriately, be from Tahiti.
The painting was exhibited at a Gauguin retrospective at the Grand Palais, Paris and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (2003-4) and at a Vollard exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris (2007). It was then on long-term loan to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (2007-17).
The announcement of the Te Bourao sale comes on the eve of the opening of the Gauguin Portraits exhibition at London’s National Gallery (7 October-26 January 2020).