The Story Behind The Most Expensive Painting Ever - Paul Gauguin's 'When Will You Marry?'

by Aileen Mitchell 31. March 2015 16:43

Photo from: Wikipedia Commons

Everything has a price, especially seminal paintings it seems. Connected to this thought is the news that Paul Gauguin’s ‘When Will You Marry?’ recently became the world’s most expensive painting, after it sold for $300m (£197m). But what’s the story behind this record-breaking artwork? Read on to find out.  

A Brief History of Paul Gauguin

Born in Paris in 1848, Paul Gauguin’s life and career was defined by the burning desire to keep broadening his horizons. His early paintings were shaped by the influence of Impressionism, which was France’s dominating art movement during the 1870s and 1880s. However, it wasn’t long before Gauguin began to carve out his own niche in the art world. 

After being instrumental in pioneering the movement now widely recognised as Symbolism, Gauguin began to travel around the South Pacific in search of inspiration. It was during this period in his life that he began to develop a painting style that blended natural observation with mystical symbolism.  

This new style became known as Primitivism, because it rejected established European values while being heavily influenced by the ‘primitive’ arts of Africa, Asia and French Polynesia. And it was during a trip to Tahiti in search of art unspoiled by western culture that Gauguin applied ‘When Will You Marry?’ to canvas. 

Above: The gorgeous Tahiti landscape that inspired some of Gauguin’s finest paintings. Photo from: Paul Gauguin Cruises

Leaving his wife and family behind, Gauguin travelled to Tahiti for the first time in 1891. His goal was to discover a paradise that would allow him to create pure, primitive art, which he deemed impossible to produce in France.

Yet when Gauguin arrived in Tahiti, he discovered the country wasn’t as primitive as he had imagined. This was largely down to the fact that Tahiti was colonised in the late 18th century, and at least two-thirds of the indigenous people had been killed by diseases bought over by Europeans. Nonetheless, Gauguin settled into Tahitian life, and even made a young local girl called Teha’amana his native wife.

Paul Gauguin's 'When Will You Marry?'

There are many art critics that believe Teha’amana was the model for the majority of paintings that Gauguin produced while in Tahiti. For this reason, it is possible to assume that one of the two women depicted in the ‘When Will You Marry?’  painting is the artist’s Tahitian wife. This statement seems even more likely once you consider that the two women who appear in the painting also appear in many of his other works from the period. 

During Gauguin’s journey into Primitivism, he treated a lot of his painting as a meditation on the meaning of big ideas like human existence and love. If you analyse ‘When Will You Marry?’ you can see that it is another of the artist’s paintings that explores the idea of love in a non-erotic context.

Take a look at the two women in the painting. One is wearing a white flower that symbolises purity and the desire to find a husband, and the other is an older lady making a gesture that in Buddhist art means warning. For this reason it is possible to consider the painting’s theme as one of a relationship between innocence and knowledge. Or, in other words, the older woman reflects experience of love, while the younger woman is still unaware of the complexity of emotions that come with such feelings.

Every Painting Has a Price

Above: Paul Cezanne’s The Card Players. Photo from: Joaquín Martínez

After returning to France from Tahiti, Gauguin included ‘When Will You Marry?’ at an exhibition he held at the Durand-Ruel's gallery, selling it for a price of 1,500 francs. This was a huge amount of money for the time and more than any other painting included in the exhibition, which was a reflection of how much Gauguin treasured the work.  

For many decades before its most recent sale, the painting belonged to Rudolf Staechelin, an art collector from Basel. Staechelin had lent the painting to Kunstmuseum in Basel, but, according to reports in the US media, he decided to sell the painting because of a disagreement with the museum. 

Although Rudolf Staechelin declined to comment upon who had bought the painting, it is widely believed it was purchased by a Qatari collector. If this is the case, it will follow a recent trend that has seen the oil-rich United Arab Emirates buy up a large number of the world’s most valuable paintings – including ‘The Card Players’ by Paul Cézanne, which previously held the world-record for the most expensive painting when it sold for $250 million in 2011.

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Art History | Artists

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