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“Ia Orana, Gauguin” - Gauguin and Tahiti

Updated on November 11, 2014
Manao Tupapau (The Spirit of the dead watches).
Manao Tupapau (The Spirit of the dead watches).

The ideal which killed Paul Gauguin

“For Gauguin the figure of a European returning to the healthy primitivism of native life was an ideal, which he never managed to attain – in the end it killed him.” - Georges Boudaille: Gauguin (London: Thames and Hudson, 1964)

What drove a moderately wealthy and successful stockbroker to give up prestige and money, family and future prospects, to take up the uncertainty of art and the quixotic search for an earthly paradise?

Perhaps the answer lies in the ambiguities of his ancestry – one grandmother was the fiery socialist and feminist writer Flora Tristan (1803 – 1844) who herself had connections with very wealthy Peruvian family, the Tristan Moroscos. It was as a result of this connection that Paul Gauguin spent the first few years of his life in Lima, Peru, speaking Spanish as his first language.

As Boudaille writes: “There is no doubt that vivid memories of it (his early years in Peru) remained with him, leaving strange and occasionally morbid impressions, mingling with his taste for luxury and the exotic, and an already awakened sensuality.”

Whatever the causes, Gauguin, who was born in the revolutionary year of 1848, gave up his marriage, family, and a substantial income, to take up painting seriously in 1880. By 1885 the man who had been the envy of his friends because of his comparative wealth, was living in abject poverty in Paris, struggling to make his mark as an artist, because, as his widow would say many years later, “...he could not do otherwise.”

Six years later, after a journey to Panama and Martinique, Gauguin again cast himself loose by sailing to Tahiti in search of paradise.

Bonjour Monsieur Gauguin!

Gauguin painted this shortly before his departure for Tahiti
Gauguin painted this shortly before his departure for Tahiti

The Perfumed Island

His initial experience of the island, where he had landed after a 63-day voyage, was not promising, as he wrote in his memoir Noa Noa: “It was Europe—the Europe which I had thought to shake off—and that under the aggravating circumstances of colonial snobbism, and the imitation, grotesque even to the point of caricature, of our customs, fashions, vices, and absurdities of civilization.” Such was Papeete, which he lost little time in leaving for more congenial surroundings in the district of Mataiea, about 30 miles away.

Soon after his arrival in Papeete the last king of Tahiti, Pomare, died and Gauguin was deeply intrigued by the mourning activities of the Maoris. This event also led to a happy meeting with a Maori princess, Vaïtüa, the niece of the recently-deceased king.

He had retired to bed with a fever, as tells the story in Noa Noa, and she came to the place where he lay, saying: "Ia orana (I greet thee), Gauguin. Thou art ill, I have come to look after thee."

Her visit made a deep and lasting impression on Gauguin and after she left, he wrote, “I put my head back on the pillow, and for a long time I was caressed by the memory of the syllables: 'Ia orana, Gauguin.'"

Gauguin's encounter with the Princess Vaïtüa symbolised in a way his letting go of his European sensibilities and the beginning of his deepening appreciation of the people among whom he now found himself: “Yes, wholly destroyed, finished, dead, is from now on the old civilization within me. I was reborn; or rather another man, purer and stronger, came to life within me.”

Merahi metua no Tehamana (Tehamana has many ancestors) (1893)
Merahi metua no Tehamana (Tehamana has many ancestors) (1893)
Fatata te miti (By the Sea) (1892)
Fatata te miti (By the Sea) (1892)

A new art is born

And with this new man came into being a new art.

Gauguin's acceptance by the local people was completed by his marriage with the young Tehura, whom he described in Noa Noa: “Through her dress of almost transparent rose-coloured muslin one could see the golden skin of her shoulders and arms. Two swellingbuds rose on the breasts. She was a large child, slender, strong, of wonderful proportions. But in her beautiful face I failed to find the characteristics which hitherto I had found everywhere dominant on the island. Even her hair was exceptional, thick like a bush and a little crispy. In the sunlight it was all an orgy in chrome.”

Out of this relationship came a wonderful painting, shown above, called Manao Tupapau (The Spirit of the dead watches).

The origin or inspiration of this masterpiece was described by Gauguin. He had needed to go to Papeete for a day and was delayed, only arriving back at their home in the early hours of the next morning. On entering their hut, he saw: “Tehura, immobile, naked, lying face downward flat on the bed with the eyes inordinately large with fear. She looked at me, and seemed not to recognize me. As for myself I stood for some moments strangely uncertain. A contagion emanated from the terror of Tehura. I had the illusion that a phosphorescent light was streaming from her staring eyes. Never had I seen her so beautiful, so tremulously beautiful. And then in this half-light which was surely peopled for her with dangerous apparitions and terrifying suggestions, I was afraid to make any movement which might increase the child's paroxysm of fright.”

Boudaille describes this canvas thusly: “The attitude of the Tahitian girl's body on the milky, pale sheet, the intensity and at the same time the abstraction in her look of terror, it is all there, while behind in the lefthand corner we do not know whether the roughly drawn silhouette is that of a Tupapau, or of Gauguin himself, as he appeared to Tehura that night.”

Some scholars, notably, Nancy Mowll Mathews, have cast some doubt on Gauguin's explanation of his young wife's terror that night, suggesting it was more likely a result of his generally aggressive nature and violent behaviour to women.

Another wonderful painting of his young wife, who was also called Tehamana, is the canvas known as The Ancestors of Tehamana (shown to the right).

Of this painting Gerry ( wrote in his blog: “This portrait is more than an exotic fantasy. It has an undeniable reality and passion. Tehamana is not simply made to look sexily mysterious; she also seems to be contemplating differences, memories, emotions that Gauguin, the foreigner, cannot comprehend.”

He continued: “... this painting evokes the depth of memory, oral tradition and heritage that, literally, stands behind Tehamana.”

Ia orana Maria
Ia orana Maria
Aita Parari the Tamari Vahine Judith (portrait of Annah the Javanese)
Aita Parari the Tamari Vahine Judith (portrait of Annah the Javanese)
Te arii vahine
Te arii vahine
Mahana no atua (Day of the Gods)
Mahana no atua (Day of the Gods)

Tahiti to France and back again

Gauguin spent two years on the island, two years of intense exploration of the culture and mores of the local people, two years of intense experimentation with colour and form, and two years of writing.

One of the great masterpieces of this first period in Tahiti was Ia Orana Maria, which covered a religious subject, as he was in the habit of doing although he expressed extreme horror of most conventional religion.

In this great painting all the elements combine to evoke harmony and serenity in contrast to the excitement and agitation of his own mind at the time. The colours and forms presage the intensification of the abstraction which would soon characterise his Tahitian period.

He returned to France in August 1893 where he had several unfortunate adventures, including an ankle broken in a brawl during a painting trip to Brittany and being ripped off by the young Javanese girl he had taken as his mistress while in Paris. Her name was Annah, she was 13 years old and provided the exotic feeling that Gauguin missed while he was away from Tahiti. He painted her portrait, she seated nude on a quilted armchair. But while he was away in Brittany she decamped with all she could take from his studio in the rue Vercingetorix (he had decorated the door of this strangely-equipped studio with the words “The Fururu”, meaning “make love here.”). This was the final straw for the artist who redoubled his efforts to raise the funds to return to Tahiti.

In July 1895 Gauguin set sail once more for the French colony in the south Pacific. It was his final break with Europe, both physically and psychologically.

His second stay in Tahiti was to be as difficult as his first, as he struggled with the lack of money and numerous health problems, not least of which the after-effects of the broken ankle which had not been properly attended to. His heart was also suffering from the effects of smoking and alcohol, and possibly syphilis. In recent years there has been some doubt about the syphilis: some of his teeth have been examined and no trace of mercury have been found in them which would suggest either that he did not in fact have the disease or that he was not receiving treatment for it.

Soon after his arrival back on the island he set up house at Punauia between Papeete and his former home at Mataeia with a young woman of almost 14, Pahura, who inspired his masterpiece The Arii Vahine. He wrote of this work: “I think that in terms of colour, I have never done anything of such great and sober harmony.”

By the end of the year Gauguin was in debt and in hospital. But his time in hospital seems to have revitalised him somewhat, as did the prospect of the child Pahura was soon to bear him. Paintings done in that period have an almost ethereal glow, and the subjects are quasi-religious, mixing ideas from Christianity and the local Tahitian beliefs.

The period of relative respite was short. In 1897 his beloved daughter Aline died and Gauguin went into a deep depression. As Boudaille wrote: “In so far as everything was conspiring against him, he experienced a sort of unhealthy pleasure, as if the very unanimity of the forces lined up against him proved that he alone stood for the truth.”

In this time of anguish he painted the large masterpiece which formed a kind of artistic testament: Where do we come from, what are we, where are we going? He painted this huge work measuring 3 metres 75 by 1 metre 39 in haste, a sort of rush to get it done, “straight off the brush” as Boudaille has it.

Gauguin wrote of it himself: “I sought to put into it all my energy before dying, such a painful emotion under terrible circumstances, and such a clear vision, without any alterations, that the feeling of hastiness disappeared and it suddenly came alive.”

The painting “reads” from right to left, from birth to death, and it is possibly inclusive of a meditation on the birth of his last child, a daughter born to Pahura. It also includes many elements which had appeared in earlier works, making possible its rapid completion.

Gauguin's artistic testament

Where do we come from, what are we, where are we going?
Where do we come from, what are we, where are we going?
Adam and Eve
Adam and Eve
And the gold of their bodies (1901)
And the gold of their bodies (1901)

Ua mate Gauguin, ua pete enata

In 1899 Gauguin was inveigled into writing for a local paper and used the platform to write furious articles attacking the colonial regime, which got him into considerable hot water.

In 1901 Gauguin was again in hospital and in dire financial straits. He decided to leave Tahiti for the Marquesas. He sold his house at Punauia with some difficulty and set off for the island of Hiva Oa where all the land belonged to the Catholic mission. He was nevertheless able to build himself a house which he called, in a direct challenge to the bishop, “The House of Joy (La Maison du Jouir)”.

Here he painted some wonderful canvasses, including a wonderful Adam and Eve and some landscapes.

His life on the island was far from idyllic, however, and his illness became far worse, until at last he died on 8 May 1903, apparently of a heart attack.

He had while on the island had many differences with the colonial and church authorities, in particular over the treatment of the local people by the gendarme of the island who was harsh with them. For his activities on their behalf he was much admired by the local people and on his death they exclaimed: “Ua mate Gauguin, ua pete enata (Gauguin is dead, we are lost)”, according to the Protestant pastor Paul-Louis Vernier who had befriended Gauguin in his final months.

The infamous lintel

The infamous lintel now in the Musee d'Orsay
The infamous lintel now in the Musee d'Orsay

Please anwer this poll before reading the next section

An artist's lifestyle and morals should influence how we value his/her art

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The Loss of virginity
The Loss of virginity

Contemplating differences

This brings me to the question that Gauguin's art brings into sharp focus: to what extent does the artist's life influence how we see the works of art he or she has produced. If we disapprove of, or morally question, the way the artist lived, the values he or she espoused, should we like, can we like their work?

As Alistair Smart wrote in the Telegraph ( “Life’s not easy as a Paul Gauguin fan. You are on the defensive too much to be effusive. Gauguin was both a syphilitic paedophile and an artist more important than Van Gogh. See the problem? Foul man, fine artist. Some say our knowledge of the former should change our opinion on the latter. Others, myself among them, think otherwise.”

There is no doubt that Gauguin was not a “nice” man, certainly not by 21st Century standards – he had three “wives” in Tahiti, one aged 13 and the other two 14. He also likely while there infected many others with syphilis. As he wrote: “Night after night there are wild young girls in my bed ....”

He had abandoned his European wife and family as well as a young girl in France who was pregnant with his child, a young seamstress called Juliette Huet when he left for his idealised Tahiti in 1891. The lovely Juliette had modelled for his painting, a deliberate challenge to the straight-laced of the time, "The Loss of Virginity”.

So yes, one is not inclined raise one's hat and wave a cheery “Bonjour, M. Gauguin” to this, to say the least, rather strange man.

However, when one looks at his paintings, more especially the gorgeous creations of his later years, one has to tip one's hat at the sheer genius of so many of them.

As Gauguin biographer Nancy Mowll Mathews told David Bowman in an interview published in Salon in August 2002: “It was very difficult to work on someone like that, yet it didn't make me hate his art. I still loved his art. I like it even more because it's incredibly interesting and daring and rich.”

Self portrait (1896)
Self portrait (1896)


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    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 

      3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Great hub Tony on one of Gauguin's greatest artworks either and the story behind it. Very interesting and useful. Voted up!

    • profile image

      Lyn Beaton 

      3 years ago

      Such an interesting account of a part of Paul Gauguin's life and painting. I really do love the vibrancy of his work, despite his depraved lifestyle. That is a separate issue in my opinion. We are not compelled to look at him, when we see his work, just as we are not compelled to look at a compost heap when we admire someone's beautiful garden. Thank you Tony.

    • Ann1Az2 profile image


      3 years ago from Orange, Texas

      A crackpot, to say the least, but then, so was Edgar Allen Poe, and look at what we got from him, quoth the Raven nevermore. I think sometimes people's lifestyle highly affect their talents as artists and writers, even composers. It is said that Beethoven wrote the 5th Symphony when he was totally deaf. And look at the things Helen Keller did. Artists are a unique group. I know because my mother was one. They see things other people don't and they see them in a different way.

      This is well written and very informative. I don't care for the man's lifestyle or his work, but that doesn't take away from your knowledge on the subject.

    • jandee profile image


      3 years ago from Liverpool.U.K

      You have made me realise how perfect was Van Gogh ! Sorry Tony,I'm just a wee bit old fashioned--Long time no see !

      best from jandee(FR)enjoyed the post,thanks..

    • purl3agony profile image

      Donna Herron 

      3 years ago from USA

      Great hub! I love Gauguin's Tahitian paintings and it was interesting to learn more about their background through your hub. I think the colors of Tahiti really enlivened (is that a word?) his art and inspired some of his real masterpieces. One of my favorite Gauguin paintings is "The Brooding Woman", now in the collection of the Worcester Art Museum. Thanks for posting. Voted up!!


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