Paul Gauguin and His Tahiti Experiences
By 1890, Paul Gauguin had conceived the project of making Tahiti his next artistic destination. A successful auction of paintings in Paris at the Hôtel Drouot in February 1891, along with other events such as a banquet and a benefit concert, provided the necessary funds. The auction had been greatly helped by a flattering review from Octave Mirbeau, courted by Gauguin through Camille Pissarro.
After visiting his wife and children in Copenhagen, for what turned out to be the last time, Gauguin set sail for Tahiti on 1 April 1891, promising to return a rich man and make a fresh start. His avowed intent was to escape European civilization and “everything that is artificial and conventional”. Nevertheless, he took care to take with him a collection of visual stimuli in the form of photographs, drawings and prints.
He spent the first three months in Papeete, the capital of the colony and already much influenced by French and European culture. His biographer Belinda Thomson observes that he must have been disappointed in his vision of a primitive idyll. He was unable to afford the pleasure-seeking life-style in Papeete, and an early attempt at a portrait, Suzanne Bambridge (fr), was not well liked. He decided to set up his studio in Mataiea, Papeari, some forty-five kilometres from Papeete, installing himself in a native-style bamboo hut. Here he executed paintings depicting Tahitian life such as Fatata te Miti (By the Sea) and Ia Orana Maria (ca) (Ave Maria), the latter to become his most prized Tahitian painting.
Many of his finest paintings date from this period. His first portrait of a Tahitian model is thought to be Vahine no te tiare (Woman with a Flower). The painting is notable for the care with which it delineates Polynesian features. He sent the painting to his patron George-Daniel de Monfreid, a friend of Schuffenecker, who was to become Gauguin’s devoted champion in Tahiti. By late summer 1892 this painting was being displayed at Goupil’s gallery in Paris. Art historian Nancy Mowll Mathews believes that Gauguin’s encounter with exotic sensuality in Tahiti, so evident in the painting, was by far the most important aspect of his sojourn there.
Gauguin was lent copies of Jacques-Antoine Moerenhout’s (fr) 1837 Voyage aux îles du Grand Océan and Edmond de Bovis’ (fr) 1855 État de la société tahitienne à l’arrivée des Européens, containing full accounts of Tahiti’s forgotten culture and religion. He was fascinated by the accounts of Arioi society and their god ‘Oro. Because these accounts contained no illustrations and the Tahitian models were in any case long disappeared, he could give free rein to his imagination. He executed some twenty paintings and a dozen woodcarvings over the next year. The first of these was Te aa no areois (The Seed of the Areoi), representing Oro’s terrestrial wife Vairaumati, now held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His illustrated notebook of the time, Ancien Culte Mahorie (it), is preserved in the Louvre and was published in facsimile form in 1951.
In all, Gauguin sent nine of his paintings to Monfreid in Paris. These were eventually exhibited in Copenhagen in a joint exhibition with the late Vincent van Gogh. Reports that they had been well received (though in fact only two of the Tahitian paintings were sold and his earlier paintings were unfavourably compared with van Gogh’s) were sufficiently encouraging for Gauguin to contemplate returning with some seventy others he had completed. He had in any case largely run out of funds, depending on a state grant for a free passage home. In addition he had some health problems diagnosed as heart problems by the local doctor, which Mathews suggests may have been the early signs of cardiovascular syphilis.
Gauguin later wrote a travelogue (first published 1901) titled Noa Noa (ca), originally conceived as commentary on his paintings and describing his experiences in Tahiti. Modern critics have suggested that the contents of the book were in part fantasized and plagiarized. In it he revealed that he had at this time taken a thirteen-year-old girl as native wife or vahine (the Tahitian word for “woman”), a marriage contracted in the course of a single afternoon. This was Teha’amana, called Tehura in the travelogue, who was pregnant by him by the end of summer 1892.[d] Teha’amana was the subject of several of Gauguin’s paintings, including Merahi metua no Tehamana and the celebrated Spirit of the Dead Watching, as well as a notable woodcarving Tehura now in the Musée d’Orsay.