One hundred years ago, on 8 May 1903, Paul Gauguin died in his remote Maison du Jouir, on Atuona in the Marquesas. To celebrate this anniversary, some fifty years after the Museé de l'Orangerie's 1949 commemoration of his birth, the Musée d'Orsay, the Réunion des Musées Nationaux and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston are paying tribute to the man who, on the eve of his death, claimed "the right to dare to do anything at all".
In 1897, during his second stay in Tahiti, Gauguin started work on the huge painting that he saw as the culmination of his artistic career: "Before I die, I wanted to paint the big picture I had in may head, and I worked feverishly on it day and night for a whole month. It isn't canvas done like a Puvis de Chavannes, studies from life, preparatory sketches and so forth…" he wrote to his friend Daniel de Monfreid.
"It was all painted directly with the tip of a brush on a piece of sacking full of knots and rough bits, so it looks terribly crude." At the upper left of the painting, in a triangle of vivid flat yellow, he wrote: "D'où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous?" (Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?), thus signing one of his greatest masterpieces. Forty years later, this pictorial survey, which first belonged to the French collector Gabriel Frizeau, was added to the collections of the Boston Museum.
For the first time in over fifty years, the work is returning to France where it will be surrounded by the eight paintings - replica-fragments or studies, as Thadée Natanson called them - which were exhibited with it in the Ambroise Vollard gallery in 1898.