Paul GAUGUIN | Yellow haystacks (The golden harvest) [Les meules jaunes (La moisson blonde)]

Paul GAUGUIN
France 1848 – French Polynesia 1903

Yellow haystacks (The golden harvest)
[Les meules jaunes (La moisson blonde)]
1889
oil on canvas
canvas 73.5 (h) x 92.5 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Gift of Mrs Huc de Monfreid 1951
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

This work was painted during Gauguin’s third sojourn in Brittany, after the notorious episode with van Gogh at Arles. 1889 was a testing year for Gauguin: he was desperate for public recognition, to prove himself in the eyes of his estranged wife Mette. From Arles he had retreated to Paris, where feverish preparations for the 1889 Exposition Universelle were underway. In the first part of the year he alternated between Pont-Aven and the capital, making arrangements for an exhibition—Groupe Impressioniste et Synthétiste—which opened on 8 June at Volpini’s Café des Arts. Like many artists, Gauguin saw the Universal Exhibition as an opportunity to draw attention to his work; he produced a portfolio of zincographs—images which repeat and expand on his work in Brittany, Arles and Martinique—printed on brilliant yellow paper.

Returning to Brittany for the summer, Gauguin found Pont-Aven so overtaken by artists that in July he sought quiet at the small fishing village of Le Pouldu, travelling between the two until February 1890. During his time in Le Pouldu, Gauguin lived cheaply, relishing the connections between people and land, and the ‘archaic’ way of life. He often returned to the theme of the haystack, or to views of the harvesting of seaweed. Like several earlier works—his landscape painted at Arles in 1888, which also featured a haystack, as well as the study of haymakers and another harvest scene1Yellow haystacks features a palette dominated by flamboyant yellow, perhaps influenced by his time with van Gogh.

Gauguin sought to express harsh, primitive aspects of the Breton landscape through technique as well as subject. The dry, matt, even rustic technique—the texture of the haystack, whitewashed walls, grassy mound and ground strewn with straw—is applied to advantage in this work. As Thomson points out, it is ‘the strength of the underlying design rather than the colour or brushwork that establishes harmony: lines are smoothed and simplified and strong rhythms established through repeated shapes’.2 The stones of the rock wall in the mid-ground are echoed in the curves of the haystacks and grassy mounds at left. The Cézanne-like brushstrokes of the tree are reprised in the foreground. The female figures in traditional Breton costume are dwarfed by the huge mass of the hay; indeed, standing on her step ladder, the woman at right seems about to be engulfed by the stack. The central figure is repeated in reverse in another work from the same period, Haymaking in Brittany 1889.3 Simplified peasant figures are omnipresent in the work of the Pont-Aven artists, and Gauguin may have taken his inspiration from Bernard’s painting, The harvest 1888, which he briefly owned.

Lucina Ward

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009

  1. Farm at Arles 1888, also known as Haystacks (Landscape at Arles), is in the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis; The haymakers 1889 is in a private collection; Haymaking in Brittany 1889 is in the Courtauld Institute Gallery, London; Georges Wildenstein, Gauguin, Paris: Les Beaux-arts 1964, pp. 134–35.
  2. Belinda Thomson, Gauguin, London: Thames and Hudson 1987, p. 102.
  3. Courtauld Institute Gallery, London.