When Will You Marry? Tahitian: Nafea faa ipoipo? is a painting of two Tahitian women by French Post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin in 1892 whose work won little or no acclaim in his lifetime but as at Feb 2015, it has become the most expensive artwork ever at a king’s ransom of nearly $300m.
When Will You Marry? is an oil painting with its dimensions being 101 by 77 centimetres (40 in × 30 in). It was done in Tahiti when Gauguin travelled there for the first time in 1891, after becoming estranged from his wife and was facing financial difficulties given the unpopularity of his art. He also came up with the idea of making the voyage to paint illustrations for the most popular novel at the time, Pierre Loti’s The Marriage of Loti.
His hope was to find untouched island where he could create pure, ‘primitive’ art”, rather than the primitivist faux works which was the facade of the moment by painters in France.
When Paul Gauguin got to Tahiti, he was disappointed. To his dismay, he learnt that it has been colonized by Europeans and about two-thirds of the indigenous people of the island had been killed by diseases brought by Europeans. The original “Primitive” culture had been wiped out. Despite this, he painted many pictures of native women: nude, dressed in traditional Tahitian clothes, and dressed in Western-style dresses, as is the rear figure in When Will You Marry?
In the painting , When Will You Marry?, Richard Field suggests the white tiare flower behind the girl in front’s left ear indicates she is seeking a husband. Again, the custom is alluded to in a 1914 letter from Rupert Brooke to Cathleen Nesbitt. According to Brooke, the flower worn at the left ear meant the wearer had found a sweetheart. Behind her a second figure in a high-necked Western-style dress sits erectly. Field thought her gesture derives from Buddhist art. While,Naomi E. Maurer subsequently identified it as a mudra denoting threatening or warning. The front woman stretches herself, her facial features stylized and simplified. Field thought her pose had a Japanese precedent, Charles F. Stuckey suggests Delacroix’s Women of Algiers.
Gauguin commonly inscribed his paintings in Tahitian at the time: he was fascinated by the language, though never learnt beyond its basics.
Arr historian Nancy Mowll Mathews also author of Paul Gauguin, An Erotic Life, wrote that Gauguin portrayed the natives as living only to sing and to make love. That’s how he got the money from his friends and raised the public’s interest in his adventure. But, of course, he knew the truth, which was that Tahiti was an unremarkable island with an international, westernised community.”
Despite that, his paintings of Tahitians, including When Will You Marry?, were met with relative indifference when Gauguin returned to France two years later. His 1893 Durand-Ruel exhibition was only a limited success generating some favourable reviews but little by way of sales.
Gauguin placed this painting on consignment at the exhibition at a price of 1,500 francs, the highest price he assigned and shared by only one other painting,but it had no buyers.
He also wrote an autobiographical account of his time in Tahiti called Noa Noa. According to Mathews, it was “the beginning of Gauguin’s writing of an erotic life for himself”.He was said to have had sexual relations with several of the women he painted in Tahiti, which include Vairaumati te Ioa, or Her Name is Vairaumati.
Those efforts also failed and the artist made a second trip to Tahiti. “He returned expecting the erotic idyll that was only ever a figment of his imagination,” Mathews said. “Of course, he didn’t find it and … he died a twisted and bitter man, having alienated everyone both at home and in Tahiti. It’s a sad story of a man who believed his own fiction.”
Like so many artists, Gauguin’s talent was not fully recognised until after his death, which came in 1903 at the age of 54 from a morphine overdose.
He was a major influence on 20th century greats such as Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró and Henri Matisse.
Staechelin eventually purchased it at the Maison Moos gallery in Geneva in 1917.
Staechelin, in his lifetime put together a wonderful collection which included “When Will You Marry” as he was an art lover. He befriended artists and made most of his purchases during and after the first world war. He later advised the Kunstmuseum, Basel, Switzerland , which took his collection as a loan following his death in 1946.
It was there for nearly half a century before it was sold privately by 62-year-old former Sotheby’s executive Rudolf Staechelin, (grandson of the original buyer of the painting) to Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad Al-Thani, in February 2015 for close to US $300 million (£197 million). The painting was on exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler, Riehen, until 28 June 2015. It is said that the Qatar Royal family is one of the owners of the most expensive art works in a private collection.
The Staechelin family trust currently owns more than 20 impressionist and post-impressionist works, which is still on loan to the Kunstmuseum in Basel for almost 50 years.