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Gauguin’s Nevermore was offered to Swiss collector

The Courtauld’s star Tahitian painting nearly left the UK in 1929

Nevermore, the star of the Courtauld Gallery’s Gauguin show that opened on 20 June, nearly left Britain in 1929

Nevermore, the star of the Courtauld Gallery’s Gauguin show that opened on 20 June, nearly left Britain in 1929. A Berlin dealer, who believed that Samuel Courtauld was willing to sell the Tahitian scene, offered it to Switzerland’s leading collector, Oskar Reinhart.

The Art Newspaper found the offer recorded in Reinhart’s archive in Winterthur. The Berlin-based Alfred Gold wrote to Reinhart, saying he was about to visit London and could “now purchase several important pictures [from Courtauld]… among which is the famous Nevermore”. Gold asked if Reinhart would like to buy it.

Nevermore was painted in Tahiti in 1897. Immediately afterwards, Gauguin had written to his Parisian friend Daniel de Monfreid, explaining that he had “wished to suggest by means of a simple nude a certain long-lost barbaric luxury”. The picture comprised a mix of Western and Polynesian motifs, partly inspired by Manet’s scandalous Olympia, 1863 (Gauguin had a reproduction of Olympia in his Tahitian hut). The artist added that Nevermore is “badly painted (I’m so nervous and can only work in bouts), but no matter, I think it’s a good canvas”. Gauguin rolled up Nevermore and entrusted it to a French naval officer who was returning to Paris.

A year later, it was bought for £20 by the composer Frederick Delius, making it the first work by Gauguin acquired by an English collector. Delius had financial problems after the First World War and unsuccessfully tried to sell Nevermore in Norway. The picture was also offered to the National Gallery Millbank (later renamed the Tate) for £1,800. Its trustees turned it down, suggesting that “more important examples of Gauguin’s work” should be sought. In 1922, Delius sold Nevermore to the Manchester ship merchant Herbert Coleman. Courtauld purchased the picture from him in 1927.

Swiss offer

Two years later, Nevermore was offered to Reinhart. Courtauld wanted to buy Cézanne’s Card Players, 1892-95, from Gold, and suggested some sort of trade with the dealer. On 17 March 1929, Gold wrote to Courtauld responding to “your idea of an exchange of the Card Players with some of your Cézannes or a Tahiti-Gauguin”. Gold explained that an exchange would be difficult and Courtauld then sent a telegram offering cash for the Card Players, which was accepted.

At the same time, Courtauld wanted to buy Gauguin’s The Dream (Te Rerioa) from the Parisian dealer Paul Rosenberg. Roger Fry, the curator of the 1910 Post-Impressionist exhibition, was Courtauld’s occasional advisor. On 22 March, Fry wrote to Courtauld, suggesting that he might sell Nevermore in order to finance the purchase of The Dream.

Meanwhile, since Courtauld had originally suggested the idea of an exchange, Gold realised that he might be amenable to a sale. On 23 March, Gold wrote again, asking for “the honour of entrusting me with the sale of one or two” unspecified Cézannes or Gauguins.

Gold undoubtedly wanted to sell Nevermore to Reinhart, which would have earned him a good commission, although Courtauld does not appear to have made a firm offer to sell it. However, Gold would have been unwise to offer the picture to an important client unless he felt there was a good chance of extracting it from Courtauld. There is no further correspondence in the Reinhart archive (at his Winterthur home, Am Römerholz), which suggests that the Swiss collector decided against pursuing Nevermore.

A few months later, Courtauld sold Bathers at Tahiti, 1897, to Gold. Sometime afterwards he sold another work by Gauguin, Martinique Landscape, 1887. Both pictures, now in Birmingham’s Barber Institute and Edinburgh’s National Gallery of Scotland respectively, have been lent for the Courtauld Gallery’s current display.

The Courtauld Gallery curator, Karen Serres, remains sceptical that Gold would have convinced Courtauld to agree to sell Nevermore: “It was already a famous masterpiece. Courtauld did not need the money and he had originally purchased the picture at a discount on the understanding that he would eventually donate it to a public institution. Gold was therefore being overly optimistic.”

Nevermore remained in London, and passed to the Courtauld Gallery in 1932. It is appropriate that it has always belonged to British owners, since it is the only picture titled by the artist in English (the inscription is in the upper left). Gauguin’s inspiration was Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”. The poem had been recited at Gauguin’s farewell banquet in Paris, just before he set sail for Tahiti.

“Collecting Gauguin: Samuel Courtauld in the ‘20s”, Courtauld Gallery, London, until 8 September

Two powerful collectors: Samuel Courtauld (left) and Oskar Reinhart
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