L GAUGUIN (1848 – 1903)
Le Cheval blanc / The White Horse (1898)
Parigi, Musée d’Orsay
The pictures produced in the years 1898-99 are the most serene – perhaps the most authentically Tahitian – of any Gauguin ever painted.
This is particularly true of Le Cheval Blanc [The White Horse], which was inspired by a detail from the Parthenon frieze yet achieves a sort of arcane simplicity. In effect, Gauguin draws not only upon the image of the horse created by Phidias but also upon the colour associations of Polynesian culture, for which white is the colour of the supernatural and is linked with ideas of power and death. Thus a source from Classical Antiquity is combined with a symbolic use of colour.
In spite of the title, the white horse is not really white; its appearance is the result of an amalgam of the lighter colours than appear in the painting. One might say that the horse’s ‘whitened’ appearance bears out the theories of perception exemplified by the works of the Impressionists (one whom, Pissarro, first initiated Gauguin to modern painting).
Like the pictures already produced at Pont-Aven, this is painted from a raised point of view, this placing the landscape level with the pictorial surface itself; whilst the motif of the sinuous blue branches serves to place the nude horse-riders in a sort of a-temporal distance. This is a example of Gauguin at his best, a perfect – and very difficult – fusion of the poetic and the decorative.
“The colours might almost be said to derive from and to complement each other; this is a harmony based on dissonance. In the stream, the water is of a blue that tends towards violet, with highlights of yellow that tend towards orange […] The white horse is of a perceptible, delicate grey, within which are reflected all the surrounding colours. In this muting of tone, there is a delicacy based on discretion and calm; there is a suggestion of light without the full depiction of light effects. Similarly, the perspective effect is left unaccomplished. The result is a sort of uncertainty – the uncertainty of the hot hours of the day, of solitary places, of plant life. The intense colours do not excite one; they dazzle, inducing a lethargic calm.” [Lionello Venturi, 1934]