Gauguin probably painted this charming fan in 1894 during his brief sojourn in Paris between his first and second visits to Tahiti.
The house pictured may be the one Gauguin rented in Mataiea in 1891, in which case the women would be some of his neighbours. The semi-circular decorative frieze along the lower border is based on traditional Marquesan motifs, which were also used by Gauguin in woodblock prints he made around 1894. The mask-like design is derived from rubbings taken from bowls or clubs made by the Marquesans on their remote islands.
The picture is painted on tapa, a cloth which is produced from the inner bark or bast of a tree. In Polynesia the mulberry and breadfruit trees produce the best tapa.
The Polynesians used tapa for clothing, bedding and burial shrouds. It is made by stripping off the bast, soaking, then beating it to interlace the fibres. The lines on the cloth are caused by ridges on the beaters called 'hoopai'. From the imprint of the 'hoopai' it can be determined from which of the Polynesian islands the paper came. Dard Hunter in his book Primitive Papermaking identifies this design as from the Marquesas Islands. Tapa cloth is very fragile, and this painting on tapa is thought to be the only one by Gauguin still in existence.
Paul Gauguin lived much of his life in extreme poverty, unable to afford expensive paints or canvas. Consequently, his paint surfaces were often thin and many of his works were painted on unprimed hessian. Gauguin's glowing colours were achieved by subtle variations of hue, rather than by thick impasto, and to give extra emphasis to forms and areas of colour he outlined them with darker colours.
The rich colour of The Big Tree testifies to an ongoing dialogue between Gauguin and Odilon Redon, another artist who used colour for mystical, magical effects. Based on early Tahitian paintings, it was intended as a keepsake for his Spanish sculptor friend, Francesco Durrio.
'I am a great artist and I know it', wrote Gauguin from Tahiti in 1892. To prove it, he spent most of his life in an impossible search for an unspoilt haven where he could paint and live simply and cheaply. His wanderings took him from Paris to Brittany, and from Europe to Martinique and Tahiti. He had no formal art training, but he had been exposed to the world of art since the death of his mother in 1867 when a family friend, Gustave Arosa, became his guardian. Arosa was an art patron and collector of avant-garde paintings. By the time he was 35, Gauguin owned works by many of the Impressionists and he had met, and been influenced by, Pissaro and Cezanne. His early work imitated Pissaro, but later he rejected Impressionistic methods in favour of the innovative and expressive mode for which he is known today. It was not until Gauguin had given up his job in a stockbroking firm in Paris to become a full-time painter that his mature style began to develop.
By the time he painted this picture in Paris after his return from his first visit to Tahiti, his life was as artistic and mythological as his paintings. He lived with his thirteen-year old mistress Annah la Javanaise in a Paris flat with walls he painted chrome yellow, and to which he invited a motley collection of artistic and bohemian sympathisers. He was the centre of much of Paris's avant-garde ferment until he left permanently for Tahiti in 1895.
This small painting is a brilliant memento of that period in Paris. It was a personal gift to a dear friend, and the quality of its beauty has ensured its survival despite a fragile support.
Most Gauguin experts believed that this painting had, in fact, been lost since it was last exhibited in 1905. However, the rediscovery of The Big Tree in the Carrick Hill collection in 1986 led to its inclusion in an internationally acclaimed exhibition The Art of Paul Gauguin, where it was seen by hundreds of thousands of visitors to the exhibition in Washington, Chicago and Paris.