Gauguin was born, several other great European artists went In search of
inspiration in foreign, exotic parts of the world. Delacroix and several
lesser French painters of the romantic generation for instance visited
Morocco, Algeria and the Middle East, in the 1830s and 1840s. The
stimulation they received, however, resulted simply in pictorial
anecdotes, high in local color to be sure, but the new motifs were never
accompanied by any stylistic borrowings or technical innovations. It can
therefore safely be claimed that Gauguin was the real discoverer in
Europe of the aesthetic merits of the hitherto neglected and disdained
arts of the so-called primitive peoples, and the first artist in the
Western world to adapt In his own works many of their characteristic
features and designs.
In retrospect, it is tempting to
ascribe this widening of his horizons to the various voyages and
sojourns he made In the tropics in his childhood and youth, before he
took up painting in 1873. These included a six-year stay in Lima, Peru,
from the age of one to seven, and two voyages to South America as an
apprentice and second mate on various merchant ships, between the ages
of seventeen and twenty.
Gauguin's response to these exotic
stimuli was, however, very slow, for it was not until the winter of
1886-87 that he began making ceramic pieces. clearly inspired by
American pre-Columbian pottery. Like his masters, the Peruvian and
Mexican Indians, who never had the potter's wheel, he simply kneaded big
chunks of clay into vessels of strange, fantastic forms with his bare
hands - which was quite a revolutionary method at the time in Europe,
where all potters without question continued to turn out vases of the
classical, cylindrical, symmetrical form, distinguishable only through
the decoration applied to them.
Another group of non-European cultures
that fascinated Gauguin at an early stage was labelled
"Oriental" by himself and comprised most generously not only
Japan and Cambodia but also Persia and Egypt! Since he never visited any
of these countries, he must have seen the much-praised examples of
'Oriental art" he so often refers to, in the museum collections in
Paris, or simply as illustrations in books and magazines. Somewhat
later, the World Exhibition in Paris, In 1889, offered him another
splendid opportunity to see a wide range of Oriental architecture,
sculpture and other works of art.
CHOICE OF TAHITI
a painter so captivated by "primitive" art as Gauguin it was
only a matter of time before he would begin to study it more closely, at
in @ His first choice was Indo-China, where he optimistically expected
to be employed as an administrator in the recently established French
colonial service. Unfortunately, the bureaucrats did not realize what a
splendid empire-builder was concealed in this unknown artist and turned
him down. His next choice was Madagascar. The motivation was the same,
for he spoke of the many exotic races and religions he wanted to study
there. As to the financial problems, he now believed that they could
easily by solved by gathering a small group of artists who were willing
to work together, grow their own food and keep a couple of cows!
The only fellow-painter who
immediately accepted Gauguin's invitation was the young Emile Bernard
who found the plan wonderful - except for one thing. He had just read
the sentimental best-seller The marriage of Loti and was firmly
convinced that the still more remote Polynesian island of Tahiti,
described in such glowing terms by Loti, offered even greater
advantages, from both the artistic and the economic point of view.
Gauguin lamely objected that it was a novel and asked for a more
reliable book about Tahiti, giving facts and figures. By return mail he
received an official guide, confirming that Tahiti was indeed still the
unspoilt Eden, inhabited by noble savages, that Wallis, Bougainville and
Cook had made known to the world more than one hundred years earlier.
The lines that Gauguin appreciated most were these : "While men and
women on the opposite side of the globe toil to earn their living,
contend with cold and hunger, and suffer constant privation, the lucky
inhabitants of the remote South Sea paradise of Tahiti know life only at
Its brightest. For them, to live is to sing and love."
Consequently, he was only mildly upset
when Bernard and the other prospective travel companions withdrew, one
after the other, and he pushed vigorously ahead with his own plans. How
strongly and sincerely he believed In the popular myth, depicting Tahiti
as an earthly paradise, is best seen from the following explanation of
his artistic aims, taken from an interview published by the Echo de
Paris, on February 23, 1891, five weeks before his departure :
"The reason why I am leaving is
that I wish to live in peace and to avoid being influenced by our
civilization. I only desire to create a simple art. In order to achieve
this, it Is necessary for me to steep myself in virgin nature, to see no
one but savages, to share their life and have as my sole occupation to
render, just as children would do, the images of my own brain, using
exclusively the means offered by primitive art, which are the only true
and valid ones."
The same day this interview appeared
In print an auction sale In Paris of thirty pictures painted in
Martinique, Aries and Brittany realized almost ten thousand francs. This
success led Gauguin to believe that he would soon be able to send for
and support his Danish wife Mette and his five children whom he had left
in Denmark six years earlier. They had continued to correspond all these
years, hoping for better times. As soon as the sale was over, Gauguin
therefore took the train to Copenhagen to talk things over with his
wife. She was perfectly willing to resume life with him, she said. But
not In Tahiti. So without too much regret Gauguin changed his plans and
decided to remain there only the time it would take to paint enough
pictures to be able to organize, on his return, a big exhibition that
would at long last result in the final and universal recognition of his
genius. On All Fools' Day, April Ist, 1891, he left Marseilles on a
French passenger ship, bound for Noumea in New Caledonia via the
Seychelles, Albany, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. He was lucky, for he
was able to continue from Noumea only one week later, on a French naval
ship. At daybreak, on June 9, the ship moored in the harbor of Papeete.
The passage had taken 69 days, which was considered quite rapid.
IN HIGH SOCIETY
did not take Gauguin long to discover that the snmdl capital of the
French Oceanic Settlements, as the colony was then called, was an ugly
shantytown, consisting mainly of brick buildings gnd plank houses with
corrugated iron roofs. As for the naked Eves and the noble savages that
he had come halfway around the world to paint, all the native women in
sight decorously wore wide, ankle-length, so-called Mother Hubbard
dresses, introduced by the missionaries. The town dress of the men was
even more civilized and ludicrous, since it consisted of a pareu, or
loin-cloth of gaily printed cotton fabric, a white shirt, and a yellow
High society in Papeete comprised some
dozen French officials and officers with their families and an equal
number of successful business men, practically all former navy men or
ex-soldiers who had married Tahitian women and stayed on after
completing their terms of service. For the governor and certain other
senior officials, the required everyday wear was a black frock-coat,
while the settlers as a rule wore a white linen suit with high-necked
collar and a topee. Social life among the upper classes was an endless
round of dinners, the menus and table plans of which would long be the
chief topic of conversation in the town. Between dinners the women would
gossip over tea, while their husbands gossiped, drank absinth, and
Gauguin was well received, mainly
thanks to an official letter of introduction from the Department of
Colonies that he had obtained before his departure from Paris. The day
he arrived he was for instance feted at the Cercle Militaire, the
exclusive club whose premises were situated in the largest park in the
center of the town and included a giant banyan tree with a refreshment
balcony ten feet above the ground. (A portion of the tree is still
standing behind the present Post Office). Quite happily he conflded to
Mette in his first letter to her : "I think I shall obtain some
well-paid commissions for portraits. I am being constantly asked by all
manner of people to paint them. At the moment I am making myself as
difficult as possible (the surest way of getting
At any rate, I think I shall be able to make money here which I
did not expect, Tomorrow I shall meet the entire royal family."
just before the time of the appointed audience the next morning, Gauguin
learnt with a shock that his intended patron, King Pomare V, had
suddenly died, a victim of many years of excessive drinking.
When the funeral took place, on June 16, Gauguin joined the long
procession of mourners that followed the hearse on foot to the royal
family's mausoleum, situated on a beautiful spit of land in the district
of Arue three miles to the east of Papeete.
Gauguin was very unfavorably impressed by this strange
construction (still In existence) which "clashes glaringly with the
decorative beauty of the nature".
period of official mourning was immediately followed by the biggest
annual event in the colony.
Bastille Day. which, with admirable endurance and patriotism, the
settlers and natives alike extended into a frenzied celebration lasting
When Gauguin, alarmed by the rapid drain of his funds, at long
list declared himself ready to accept commissions, the only person
willing to sit for him and pay the enormous fee of 200 francs was a
middle-aged, faded, sturdy matron, Tutana Bambridge.
Still worse, he made the mistake of producing a portrait of such
a striking likeness, including a most authentic scarlet nose, that it
was also his last commission.
AMONG THE NATIVES IN MATAIEA
by the narrowness and egoism of the European town people, Gauguin
decided to leave Papetee at once and settle down somewhere in the
country among the natives. Unfortunately, just as he was about to pack,
he began to have palpitations and cough blood, the sad consequences of a
hepatitis contracted in Panama In 1887. At the meagerly equipped
hospital In Papeete, the two doctors who formed the whole staff
diagnosed a weak heart, gave him digitalis, applied mustard plasters to
his legs and cupped his chest! Thanks to, or rather In spite of this
barbaric treatment, Gauguin recuperated enough to accept the kind offer
of the French schoolmaster of Paea, on the west coast of Tahiti, to come
and stay with him for a couple of weeks. Feeling fit again in October
1891, he moved still farther away from Papeete to the district of
Mataiea. on the south coast of Tahiti.
Although there were other houses
available, Gauguin preferred to rent an oval, Tahitian style bamboo hut
with a roof of pandilnus leaves. The choice was excellent, for such a
hut is definitely the coolest and most comfortable dwelling in the
tropical climate that reigns in the island. Equally important for
Gauguin was the fine, even lighting inside the windowless hut, thanks to
the wide interstices in the walls of loosely connected bamboo canes,
which made it an ideal studio. The hut - which of course has disappeared
long ago was situated some hundred yards from the beach, on the bank of
the small stream Vaitara, immediately west of the present Protestant
church in Matalea. From the hut Gauguin could see the mountains in the
interior of the island, and from the beach, where he used to go down In
the evening with his neighbors to smoke a cigarette, he had a
magnificent view of the peninsula of Talarapu, or Little Tahiti.
All this was very rewarding. But even
In this remote district preciouslylittle remained of what Gauguin had
come such a long way to study : the ancient native culture. What the
Tahitians had managed to preserve was mainly their language, simple
subsistence economy, family-centered social organization, dances and
music, whereas the aspects In which Gauguin was most interested, the
artistically sculptured utensils and decorated bark-cloths, had long ago
been replaced by Imported articles of European manufacture. As for the
many sculptures of wood and stone that existed in Tahiti in pre-European
times, they had a religious character and function. Unavoidably, when
the old religion disappeared. this art too had died out.
It nevertheless gave Gauguin great
satisfaction and many thrills to participate in the village life, and,
stimulated by all these new experiences, he painted with eagerness and
enthusiasm during the first months. The only problem he had was that he
could not find a girl willing to share his life. Towards the middle of
1892, he therefore set out on a journey, first by mail coach to Taravao,
on the isthmus, and then on horseback along the east coast of Great
Tahiti. He had barely ridden five miles, when he was invited, with
typical Tahitian hospitality, by a native family In the district of
Faaone, to enter their hut for rest and refreshment. Inside the hut
several persons reclined on the dry grass that covered the earth floor.
THE MARRIAGE OF KOKE
Gauguin frankly told them the true
nature of his errand, without knowing that it was customary in Tahiti
for the parents to arrange a match for their children. He was therefore
somewhat taken aback when one of the women calmly proposed to give him
her daughter and immediately sent for her. She turned out to be a
beautiful young girl who, like all true Polynesians, had a broad, flat
nose, very full lips, powerful legs, a wonderfully soft skin, large
expressive eyes and jet-black hair which reached the waist. Her name was
Teha'amana, but she is better known by posterity as Tehura, the name
Gauguin used in his book Moa Noa. She was thirteen and had thus just
attained her marrying age.
Gauguin was Immediately fascinated by
bw and wooed her In this qukk and matter-of-fact way :
- You are not afraid of me?
- Will you live in my hut for good?
- Have you ever been ill?
To Gauguin's great annoyance, however,
Teha'amana's mother and other relatives started to follow them, when
they left. A few miles to the south, the whole troop came to halt before
another bamboo hut. Inside, Teha'amana introduced another couple to him
as her foster parents. His second motherin-law proved a little bit more
exacting, for she said firmly :
- I want Teha'amana to come back here
a week from now. If by then she is not happy, she shall not stay
Luckily, he passed the test. A new
life began for him - "I started to work again and my house was an
abode of happiness. In the morning wmm Cbe rose the house was filled
with radiance. Teha'amana's face shone rike @ tinging everything with
its lustre, and the two of us would go out and . ef, ourselves in the
nearby stream as simply and naturally as in the Garden of Eden, fenua
nave nave. As time passed, Teha'amana grew ever more P4@ and
affectionate in our day-to-day life. Tahitian noa noa (perfume) imbued
Teha'amana unquestionably was the
right woman for him. Not she happened to be different, but because she
was in every respect an ordinwy. typical Tahitian vahine. Her need of
money and gifts was small, her dem&-id for sentimental effusions,
compliments and gallantries even smaller. Know--I by her simple
upbringing in the country that men's and women's int@ and work are
different, she never interfered in, or even tried to unde,s= id what
Gauguin did, but let him paint in peace. Nor did it matter to her. if he
never kept regular hours, for she herself had never been used to @mHer
perpetual gaiety and good humor were particularly pleasant and
refreshing to his mind. There was no risk that they would quarrel, for
Gauguin knew only some dozen Tahitian words and sentences, and
Teha'amana spoke no French. Incidentally, she called him, like everybody
else in the district, K@ the nearest approximation in Tahitian to the
way his name was pronounced. From the practical point of view too, she
helped him to learn more about the life and customs of his Tahitian
neighbors and persuaded them to pose for him.
Not even Teha'amana's pregnancy,
barely two months later, created any problems or ill-feelings on her.
part. The reason was, as Gauguin quite truthfully declared in a letter
that "a child is always welcome, and is often stipulated in advance
by the relations. In fact, they will actually compete in order to become
the adoptive parents, a child being in Tahiti the best possible
gift." But another solution, equally acceptable. was to resort to
abortion. and this was the course Teha'amana eventually decided on.
In spite of the immense satisfaction
and joy that Teha'amana gave him, Gauguin's life in Mataiea was not
entirely without complications and problems. The most serious one was
that he had recklessly spent so much of his capital. meant to last two
years, during his first hilarious months in Papeete, that
itwasalmostcompletelyexhaustedafteroneyear. Heneededatleast2OOfrancs a
month for paying the rent, the wine, the tobacco and the canned food
that made up his daily fare, and he soon had to ask for credit. His
basic difficulty was of course that there were no buyers for his
pictures in Tahiti, and that the nearest place where he had some chances
of selling them was Paris. If he was lucky, he received payment five
months later. In addition to his money problems his health failed him
again on several occasions. But when he finally left for France, on June
14, 1893, almost to the day two years after his arrival. he had achieved
his aim : among his luggage he carried sixty-six superb pictures and a
dozen of wooden sculptures - more than enough for an epoch-making
GAUGUIN'S SELECTIVE EYE
To what extent do these sixty-six
pictures that Gauguin painted 1891 and 1893 show us life as it really
was in Tahiti towards the end of the last century ? This question has
been much debated, but no single answer is satisfactory, since his aims
and approaches varied greatly even during this short period.
To begin with there are among these
pictures numerous portraits, landscapes and scenes of every day native
life, such as women plaiting hats, children gathered round a table with
food, men carrying bunches of bananas or bread fruit, fishermen
inspecting their nets, Tahitians bathing In a river, and young people
dancing at night round a bonfire in the palm forest. Good examples are Under
the pandanus, and Tahitian landscape In the Minneapolis
Institute of Art, The burao tree in the Art Institute of Chicago
and Parau parau, belonging to Mr. John Hay Whitney. New York.
Every detail is exact, and it is easy to find contemporary photographs
that confirm the realistic character of these paintings.
But we must at the same time be aware
that Gauguin's eye is selective he only depicts the most beautiful,
primitive and idyllic aspects of life in Mataiea. There is no reason, of
course, to criticize him for painting what he found new and attractive -
which would neither be missionaries, nuns, settlers, churches plank
houses, nor shops. But in view of the widespread belief, shared for a
long time by Gauguin himself, that Tahiti still was an earthly paradise
in the 1890s, it is nevertheless of some importance to point out that
what the artist presents us with in these pictures is actually a very
limited part of the reality.
Another category of paintings have
subjects taken from the Tahitian religion and mythology. like Hina
Tefatou (The moon and the earth), in the Manhattan Museum of Modern
Art, or Te aa no areois (Root of the ariol society), belonging to
Mr. William S. Paley, New York. Gauguin's initiation into the ancient
Tahitian mysteries occurred, however, not through personal participation
in the rites and scenes he depicted, but quite prosaically by reading
two learned works, written half a century earlier by a local merchant
named Moerenhout and the French naval officier de Bovis, who had
obtained their information from the last surviving indigenous priests.
Gauguin was particularly fascinated by the two author's account of the
ariol society, a kind of religious order in the service of the god Oro,
comprising both men and women, who more completely and harmoniously than
any other known human group, the hippies not excluded, had realized the
ideal of free love. Since these two studies contained no illustrations
or description of the ancient idols and cult paraphernalia, Gauguin in
each case had to rely on his own superb imagination. It is therefore to
no avail to look in the Polynesian sections of our anthropological
museums for counterparts to the barbaric idols that dominate these
A third group of paintings is made up
of freely Invented compositions that however often contain more or less
recognizable borrowings from reproductions In Gauguin's possession of
other artists' work or of Egyptian, Indian or Oriental sculptures and
frescoes. The most famous example is the picture la orana Maria
(Hail thee Mary), In the Metropolitan Museum in New York. In view of the
fact that the Tahitians were by then completely Christianized and
assiduous churchgoers, it is not at all surprising that the subject Is
Biblical : the Virgin Mary with the child Jesus, attended by two women
and an angel. In all likelihood, Gauguin got the Idea of this picture
when he visited the nearby Catholic church in Mataiea and heard the
Tahitian version of the prayer Ave Maria. All the figures have
Tahitian features which was a quite original and daring innovation In
the 1890s. Yet his most
Important source of inspiration was one of the friezes at the Javanese
temple at Borobudur of which he owned a photograph.
different types of pictures had, however, one thing in common by
Gauguin's masterly choice of suggestive colors he always succeeded in
Investing them with that mystical and mysterious aura that was his
special hallmark. The only
difference between his previous works and the paintings he produced in
Tahiti was one of degree. In
his new environment, so remote from Europe, fellow-painters, art
galleries and critics, he felt freer and found it easier to go his own
his return to Paris, in the fall of 1893, Gauguin managed. with the help
of Degas, to persuade the famous dealer in impressionist paintings,
Durand Ruel, to organize an exhibition.
Of the sixty-six pictures he had brought back, he selected
forty-one which all today occupy places of honor in private and public
collections around the world. The
leading newspapers and magazines carried articles well in advance.
Furthermore, invitations had been sent out to everybody who
counted in the Parisian art world of that day.
As a result or these careful preparations, on the day of the
vernissage, November 9, a considerable crowd had gathered in the elegant
gallery in rue Laffitte to deliver Its verdict.
Only half an hour later- the indifferent, derisive or puzzled
faces of the spectators told their own unmistabable story.
Gauguin had failed. From
the financial point of view, too, the exhibition was a complete
disaster. Only eight
pictures were sold, and the proceeds barely covered the expenses.
hardest blow for Gauguin, however, was that his wife Mette was more
convinced than ever after this fiasco that he had no talent whatsoever
for painting and refused to see him again, if he did not at once abandon
his foolish pursuit of an impossible dream.
Unfortunately, this was the only sacrifice that he could not do
for his wife. To crown all
his misfortunes, he met with two stupid accidents that seriously
impaired his health. The
first one occurred in the spring of 1894, in Brittany, where he and some
of his friends were attacked by a far superior number of sailors who
knocked him down and kicked him so savagely with their wooden shoes that
he was left on the battle-ground with his right leg broken just above
the ankle. The second
accident was more insidious. Barely
one year later, Gauguin contracted syphilis from a prostitute he picked
up at a popular ball in Paris.
by all these failures and misadventures, Gauguin had only one wish : to
leave Europe as soon as possible. After
having toyed for a while with the idea of settling in the unspoilt
islands of Samoa, following the example of Robert Louis Stevenson, he
eventually chose to go back to Tahiti, an island civilized enough to
have a hospital, such as it was. This
was especially important, as it was to be a voyage of no return.
In the dejected mood he was, he even assured a friend that he was
giving up painting, "apart from what I may do for my own
attempt to raise money by selling his whole stock of pictures at a
public auction - a method which had given so excellent results In
16" failed completely this time, but thanks to a legacy from an
uncle he could nevertheless realize his plans.
Once more he embarked in Marseilles on a French steamer, but
instead of continuing to Noumea, he transferred in Sydney to a ship
bound for Auckland, where he had to wait three weeks for the Richmond
that maintained a regular service between New Zealand, Samoa, Rarotonga
and Tahiti. He spent most
of his waiting period complaining about the bad weather, the poor food
and the lack of distractions, but, more positively, also carefully
studied the fine maori collections in the old Auckland Museum, at the
top of Shortiand street. On
September 9, 1895, he was back in Papeete.
The advantage of having chosen a different route was nil.
The voyage had taken 69 days, exactly as in 1891.
excitement reigned in Papeete. A
high-ranking French official with the pompous title of Commissioner
General and two war-ships had just arrived from France in order to annex
the Leeward Islands. After
a first round of talks, the people of Raiatea and Tahaa still threatened
to make armed resistance if any French troops landed, whereas the ruling
queens of Huahine and Bora Bora declared themselves ready to give up
their sovereignty. The
Commissioner General wisely decided to call at these latter islands
first, accompanied by the governor and a dozen local officials and
politicians, of whom some took along their wives.
Somehow GaugLiin succeeded in obtaining permission to join this
party was well received in Huahine with chants, dances, speeches and a
dinner that lasted all night and Gauguin enjoyed every minute of it.
The festivities awaiting them in Bora Bora were even more
grandiose, as witnessed by the following account by Gauguin, taken from
an hitherto unknown letter : "During these four days and four
nights of extraordinary merrymaking, we have talked, shouted and sung,
exactly like in Cythera... The queen is quite amusing and truly
considerate. She wanted the
feasts to be celebrated completely in accordance with Tahitian custom
and decided therefore to abolish, as long as they lasted, all marital
laws. That's why the owners
of wives must keep them indoors, if they don't want their complaints to
be disregarded." After the magnificent receptions accorded the
party in these two islands, it was a severe shock to discover that the
rulers of Raiatea and Tahaa still flatly refused to let anybody land.
Deciding to remain in the Leeward Islands on one of the
war-ships, the Commissioner General sent back the rest of the party to
Tahiti on the other ship.
meant that Gauguin was again
this pleasant Interlude had permitted him to postpone : he had to find a
suitable place for building a new home.
When living in Mataiea, on the south coast, the uncomfortable
coach journey to Papeete took five hours.
He was now more dependent than ever on such institutions as the
hospital, the post office and the bank, all located in the small
capital, and that was also where he had to go in order to find
well-stocked shops, taverns and European friends.
For these reasons Gauguin did not move farther out into the
country than to the village of Punaauia6 on the west coast, 12
kilometers from Papeete. The
bamboo with the problem that
hut he built there on a leased land, between the road and the lagoon,
was almost an exact copy of the one he had lived in previously.
At the same time he bought a horse and a trap for 300 francs to
make him independent of the coaches.
next step he took - to send for Teha'amana - shows even more clearly
that what he tried to do was to recreate the happy life he had led in
Mataiea, three years earlier. He
should have known, however, that all attempts to turn back the clock are
doomed to failure for though the external circumstances may be
Identical, one's personality changes over the years.
This was particularly true in Gauguin's case, after all he had
been through in France. As
far as Teha'amana was concerned, she could not stand the sick and bitter
Koke more than a week. In a
neighboring family, Gauguin soon found another girt of the same age.
Pau'ura. who was less particular.
few pictures he managed to paint during his first year in Punaaula
reflect his personal situation : he took up motifs dear to him during
his stay In Mataiea and resorted to old stylistic devices.
Even his best works from this period, like Rerioa (The
dream) and Nevermore, which both are in the Courtault Institute
in London, are only more artificial, elaborate, insipid versions of two
earlier pictures, i.e. The sulking woman from 1891, now In the
Art Museum, Worcester, Mass. USA,
and the famous Manao tupapau from 1892, in the Albright-Knox Art
Gallery, Buffalo, USA. But
in order to be fair, we must not forget that Gauguin was still a
convalescent and almost constantly suffered from severe pains in his
broken ankle. Time after
time he had to lay aside his brush and palette, take pain-killing drugs,
and lie In bed. These were
hardly circumstances conducive to intense creativity, particularly not
for an artist with a temperament like Gauguin who had to paint a picture
"feverishly, at one go."
THE COURAGE OF DESPAIR
if all these moral and physical sufferings had not been enough, he also
had to cope again with money problems. culminating in a complete
disaster, when, at the beginning of 1897, the owner of the land where he
had built his hut died, and the heirs told him to leave.
In order to avoid any recurrence of a similar misadventure in the
future, he spent all his remaining funds on the purchase of a plot of
about two and a half acres, on the beach, about a kilometer farther
south, in the same district, and on the construction of a plank house,
measuring 30 by 24 feet, and a studio of the same dimensions.
The site, next to the schoolhouse in Punaauia, is today marked by
personal contribution consisted of some carved wooden panels which he
nailed to the walls of the bedroom and the studio.
According to the Papeete post master who often visited him in
Punaauia, the house was sparsely furnished, but filled with books,
clothes, rolls of canvas, musical instruments and other objects which
lay scattered about in the greatest confusion.
Thanks to the postmaster's recollection, we also know exactly
what Gauguin looked like : "He was powerfully built, with blue
eyes, a high complexion, a slight tan, and chestnut-brown hair and beard
- thin, imperial, to be exact - which were already greying.
At home he invariably dressed in native fashion, wearing a cotton
shirt and a loin-cloth or pareu, always bare-footed.
But when visiting Papeete he wore European clothes : a
high-collared jacket and white, or more often blue linen trousers, white
canvas shoes, and a broadbrimmed hat of plaited pandanus leaves. Because
of his unhealed leg ulcers - evidence of his impaired health - he had a
slight limp and supported himself by a scout stick."
he had no longer any rent to pay, Gauguin's monthly expenses did not
exceed 150 francs. Unfortunately,
he was unable to earn even this modest sum, for his pictures rarely
fetched more than 100-200 francs in Paris, and the sales were very, very
irregular. For months, it
was solely the credit granted him by the Chinese store-keeper in
Punaauia that kept him alive. But
obviously, it was only a respite he had gained, for he could see how the
diseases gradually spread through and over his whole body.
Towards the end of 1897 he was prostrate for long periods without
getting any real sleep. Giddiness
and fainting flu alternated with bouts of blood-spitting.
But somehow his body resisted - to his intense regret.
As God or Destiny was unwilling to give him relief, he finally
decided to put an end himself to all his sufferings.
But before disappearing he had to paint a last picture that was
to be his spiritual testament to mankind.
Taking a piece of the ordinary coarse jute material that in
Tahiti was used for making copra sacks, and which came in rolls four and
a half feet wide, he cut off a portion a little more than thirteen feet
in length, and with trembling fingers went to work.
The title he gave to this huge. fresco-like canvas which today
occupies a place of honor in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, was made up
of the three eternal questions : Where do we come from ? What are we
? Where afle we going ?
soon as he had completed the picture, Gauguin climbed up to the top of a
hill behind his house and swallowed a huge dose of arsenic.
He must have taken an overdose, for after a while, when he had
already dropped off Into a merciful sleep, he suddenly threw up all or
most of the poison.
he recovered little by little. He
felt like a living dead but lacked will-power to make another attempt at
suicide. As the days
passed, however, he became painfully conscious that even a living dead
needs a lot of things that cost money.
In Gauguin's case, it was particularly urgent to pay his debts.
In the past, he had consistently refused to do anything else but
paint. But all his
ambitions and hopes were now gone, and he was ready to accept any work,
not only in order to earn a little money, but also for psychological
reasons, to forget, bury his tormented sell The only employment he could
find was ideally suited for this purpose :, he was hired by the Public
Works Department, at a salary of six francs a day, to copy building
designs and plans.
his astonishment. after one year of this tedious work, he felt much
better, and as at the same time he unexpectedly received enough money
from Paris to pay off his debts, he resigned and returned to Punaauia.
When, on April 19, 18", his vahine Pau'ura, who
during all these difficult years had remained relatively faithful, gave
birth to another child, a boy, he was sufficiently pleased and
interested to name him Emile like his eldest son with Mette.
He even painted two versions of a scene that he called Maternity,
of which the first and best one presently belongs to Mr. David
Rockefeller, New York, and the second one is hanging in the Hermitage
Museum in Leningrad. It may
be worth adding that several unscrupulous agents and gallery owners
recently have tried to launch this illegitimate son, who has not
inherited one lot of his father's genius, on an artistic career.
The attempt has been a complete fiasco, and Emile is now back in
his native island, happy to be simply a Tahitian among other Tahitians.
It was not the pleasures of parenthood which gave fresh purpose to
Gauguin's life during the next few years, but an unexpected opportunity
for sweet revenge. It all
began when he wrote an open letter to the procureur (attorney-general)
of the colony that a local monthly paper published.
Some months later, in February 1900, the owners of this paper,
two wealthy French businessmen, hired him at a modest salary to edit and
write regularly for their paper, called Les Guilpes (The wasps).
For a whole year he kept up a barrage of criticism against the
colonial administration and some private enemies.
On the other hand, an attempt to publish an illustrated satirical
journal, Le Sourire (The smile), of which he was the sole owner,
editor and collaborator, was less successful.
He only managed to sell about two dozen copies of each issue.
was an excellent writer and polemic, and there is no doubt that the
battles that he provoked and wholeheartedly engaged in gradually gave
him back his taste for life. At
the same time, it is difficult not to regret that this frivolous
occupation prevented an artist of Gauguin's greatness from painting for
nearly two years. The only
important work executed during this period is the splendid picture in
the Metropolitan Museum in New York, representing two Tahitian women
with bare breasts, of whom the one on the left is holding a bowl filled
with red flowers in her arms.
more Gauguin's life was given a new direction by an unforeseen event :
an offer made by the young Parisian art dealer Ambroise Vollard to sign
a contract, guaranteeing him an advance of 350 francs a month, to be
deducted from the purchase of at least 25 unseen pictures a year, at 250
francs a piece. These terms
may not seem very generous to us. But
this was the sort of agreement that Gauguin had tried for years, without
success, to conclude, and he promptly accepted.
With a monthly allowance of 350 francs he could live very
comfortably, and he was at long last, at the age of 53, a free man.
Or at least, a man free from the worries and money problems that
had always hampered him so terribly in his work.
extraordinary courage he decided to abandon his home, family and friends
in Tahiti and continue his life-long quest for an unspoilt, primitive
island with a living culture and art.
His destination : the Marquesas Islands, seven hundred miles
northeast of Tahiti, where Herman Melville @ years earlier had spent
some happy months among the charming Typee cannibals.
A steamship with the proud name of La Croix du Sud assured
a regular and
surprisingly rapid service. Having
embarked in Papeete on September 10. 1901, Gauguin arrived at his last
Island, Hivaoa, only six days later.
choice was mainly dictated by the sight, in the Tahitian homes of
various gendarmes and colonial servants who had been posted in the
Marquesas, of marvelous collections of bowls, weapons and ornaments, all
exquisitely decorated with intricate geometrical designs.
Gauguin was. of course, correct when he placed the arts of the
Marquesas Islanders high on list of human achievements.
But he was definitely wrong when he believed, on the basis of the
meager information that he cared to gather, that the islands were still,
In 1901, inhabited by naked cannibals and master craftsmen.
The sad truth, as he soon discovered, was that the population,
through the white men's usual gifts of diseases, firearms and spirits,
by the turn of the century had dwindled to barely 4 000 forlorn and
apathetic survivors whose only ambition was to be allowed to drink
themselves to death as fast as possible.
sculptors and artists there were none left.
With bitterness Gauguin remarked : "Even if one is willing
to pay high prices, it is no longer possible to find any of those
splendid objects of bone, turtle shell or ironwood that the natives made
in olden times. The
gendarmes have stolen them all and sold them to collectors.
Yet the colonial authorities have never thought of building a
museum in Tahiti for the arts of the South Seas.
All these people who pretend to be so cultured, have no inkling
whatsoever that true artists have existed in the Marquesas
HOUSE OF PLEASURE
tried to find some consolation in the fact that he would at least be
able to work in peace in the small village of Atuona, where he settled
down. The population
consisted of 500 natives, who were as civilized as the Tahitians he had
known in Mataiea and Punaauia, about a dozen European settlers, as many
Chinese store-keepers, one Protestant missionary and a whole Catholic
establishment with a bishop, several priests and lay brothers and half a
dozen nuns. In the center
of the village Gauguin discovered a vacant site, belonging to the
Catholic mission which, after, some wrangles, he managed to purchase for
650 francs. The house that
he hired the best local workmen to build for him surpassed in size and
splendor everything seen in the Marquesas Islands so far.
The length was forty feet, the width eighteen, and it was two
storeys high. The ground
floor was occupied by a wood carving studio and a kitchen, separated by
an open, airy dining-room. One
floor up there was a small bedroom and a vast studio.
The entrance to the upper floor was surrounded by painted wooden
panels. On the lintel the
shocked missionaries and nuns could read in large letters : MAISON DU
JOUIR - House of Pleasure.
name was very appropriate, for drawn by Gauguin's generous bumpers of
rum and claret, large crowds of natives used to come every evening, gape
at the pornographic photographs on the walls, and spend half of the
night singing and playing. Following
the usual sequence of events, firmly established in Tahiti, Gauguin
wasted no time in taking as his vahine a fourteen year old girl,
Marie-Rose, who up to then had been a boarder in the Catholic mission
school. Before long, of
course, she became pregnant. Finally,
she returned to her parents, who lived in a remote valley on Hivaoa. to
give birth to a daughter, on September 14, 1902. This child, whose
existence is much less known than that of her Tahitian half-brother
Emile. Is still quietly living In the same valley.
But let us return to the beginning of
1902, when Gauguin had just moved Into his splendid House of Pleasure
with Marie-Rose and two native servants, assured of a regular income and
a peace of mind that he had never before experienced. As a result, he
completed in a few months more than twenty superb pictures, among them Et
l'or de leurs corps, in the Louvre, Paris, The call, in the
Cleveland Museum of Art, USA, and Horsemen on the beach, belonging to
Mr. Stavros S. Niarchos, New York. What distinguishes these pictures
from those painted previously in Tahiti is above all the avoidance of
all philosophical, religious and literary themes and allusions and the
complete absence of extraneous ethnographical paraphernalia. In other
words, what we witness here Is the last stage in Gauguin's long
evolution towards a pure art where the subject matter is subordinated to
formal, stylistic exigencies. This Is why Gauguin's main contribution to
the history of modern art is not, in the first place, to have introduced
new, exotic subjects - in this respect captain Cook's artists had
discovered the South Seas one hundred years earlier - but to have
destroyed all existing conventions, dogmas and academic taboos and rules
that up to this time had confined the European artists to a narrow,
pedantic realism. Or to use his own words, taken from a letter written
in the Marquesas Islands, he had conquered for future generations of
artists "the right to dare anything."
If this short
account had been a work of fiction, this quite fulfillment of the
artist's destiny. alone, in a far-away South Sea island, would have been
a most fitting end. But it is not, and we must sadly continue the story
by relating how, in reality, Gauguin had again to suffer excruciating
pains and finally went under In a cruel struggle that achieved nothing
but his own destruction. The main reason for this tragic turn the events
took place during the last months of 1902 was his rapidly failing
health, as a result not only of the diseases he had contracted in
France, but also of his steady consumption of liquor, mostly absinth.
his capricious eating habits and twenty years of unrelenting work. But
there is no doubt that his ruin was hastened by the worries and mental
sufferings that his enemies in Atuona caused him.
The first to react was the Catholic
bishop whose wrath was provoked almost immediately by Gauguin's
abduction of Marie-Rose and the many wild parties in his House of
Pleasure. There was not much the bishop could do to stop Gauguin, but
his irate sermons and warnings eventually scared most of the natives
from having anything to do with the painter who thus became more and
more isolated and lonely. The gendarmes, however, were equally powerful
and dangerous enemies, although the first measure they took against him
was rather ludicrous. Gauguin was summoned for driving without lights on
his trap one evening after dark, though he could hardly have been a
danger to the traffic, as there was no other vehicle in the whole of the
Unfortunately for the the painter, a
new gendarme with much more Imagination and venom was sent up to Atuona
shortly afterwards. To make things worse, Gauguin had in the meantime
been unwise enough to write an open letter for a paper in Tahiti,
attacking the governor himself, as well as private letters to various
other colonial officials, complaining of the highhanded behavior of the
gendarmes in the Marquesas. The governor then dispatched a magistrate to
this island group with instructions to examine very closely the doings
and sayings of that "unpatriotic and vulgar individual named
Gauguin." It did not take the judge long to discover that the
painter was guilty of having written a libellous letter, falsely
accusing a gendarme of bribery. In a summons, dated March 27, 1903, he
was ordered to appear in courc at Atuona on the thirty-first. The
magistrate promptly dismissed Gauguin's request for a thorough and
impartial inquiry, accepted without reserve the statement of the public
prosecutor (who was a gendarme), fined Gauguin 500 francs and sentenced
him to three months imprisonment. The injustice of this hastily
pronounced verdict is rendered even greater by the fact that the legal
provision under which it was passed applied only to libellous statements
Gauguin, with every reason to feel
deeply Indignant, dispatched a kmal request for a new trial to the court
of appeal in Papeete by the next mail boat. He also wrote to his friend
Charles Morice in Paris, asking him to influence public opinion in
France by means of some outspoken newspaper articles about the
scandalous conditions prevailing in the colony. But after having written
half a page, he turned from old habit to artistic matters, and among
other things passed the following accurate judgment on his own work :
"You were wrong to say I was mistaken when I called myself a
savage. And every civilized person knows that this is true; for what
astonishes and baffles them in my art is this very fact - that I am a
savage In spite of myself. Indeed, that is why it is inimitable...
Everything I have learnt from anybody else has always been an impediment
to me. Hence I can say : Nobody ever taught me anything. It is true that
I know little! But I prefer the little I have created which is truly
mine. And who knows, that little, when it has been turned to good
account by others, will perhaps one day grow into something big ?"
DAY OR NIGHT?
Next he began
to prepare his defence. But he had a shock and felt terribly weak. The
pain in his fractured leg also returned and forced him to take laudanum
and morphine. In order to get a complete rest he shut himself up in his
house and did not invite anyone to visit him for a whole week. Then,
early in the morning of May 8, he sent for the Protestant pastor who had
many intellectual Interests and some medical knowledge. Gauguin asked
him whether it was day or night and complained of pains "all
over". He added that he had two fainting fits. But soon he turned
abruptly to the discussion of art and literature. As on previous
occasions, it seemed to do him good just to have someone to talk to, for
the aching soon stopped. After a while the pastor left him to return to
his interrupted school teaching.
At eleven o'clock, Gauguin's native
neighbor Tioka, called to see him. In accordance with Marquesan
etiquette, he announced his arrival by shouting 'Koke, Koke" from
the bottom of the staircase. To his surprise he received no answer.
After a short hesitation he climbed the stairs and discovered Gauguin
lying an his bed with one leg hanging over the side. Not sure that his
friend was really dead, Tioka resorted to a traditional method and bit
his head. Gauguin remained silent and motionless. In a shrill voice
Tioka intoned an ancient Marquesan death lament.
A quarter of an hour later the musty
little bedroom was full of inquisitive villagers. The crowd was soon
joined not only by the pastor - who attempted artificial respiration -
but surprisingly by the Catholic bishop, who was accompanied by two lay
brothers. This dignitary had an excellent reason for paying this final
visit to a fallen foe : as Gauguin had been baptized into the Catholic
Church, he was entitled to burial in consecrated ground. The local
gendarme, too, was present in an official capacity : to see to that
Gauguin, In death as In life, duly conformed to the regulations. When
filling in the death certificate, he added, punctilious as ever, the
following words, which have definitely a reproachful ring : "He was
married and a father, but the name of his wife is unknown."
The following day at about two
o'clock. four native pall-bearers struggled up to the Catholic cemetery
above Atuona. There were no funeral orations and no flowers. The only
necrology was the report that the administrator of the Marquesas Islands
sent to his superiors in Papeete. The final paragraph read : "I
have requested all creditors of the deceased to submit duplicate
statements of their accounts, but am already convinced that the
liabilities will considerably exceed the assets, as the few pictures
left by the late painter. who belonged to the decadent school, have
little prospect of finding purchasers."
SOME APHORISMS AND MUSINGS BY GAUGUIN
so simple to paint things as I saw them, applying a red next to a @lue
without any special calculation. I was fascinated by golden figures in
streams or on the sea-shore. Why did I hesitate to fix this glory of the
sun on canvas? Because of the ancient European tradition. Because of the
inhibiting fear of a degenerate people !" "it is very good for
the young to have a model, but when they paint they should draw the
curtain. It is better to employ a memory picture, for then the work
becomes your own." "Never try unduly to perfect your work. The
first impression is a delicate one, and the results fall off if you go
on trying to Improve the details. That way you cool the seething b@-red
lava into lifeless stone. Throw such stone away without scruple, though
it looks like a ruby." "Women want their liberty. They have a
righ to it. But they are not prevented from getting it by men. The day
they cease to site their virtue below their navels they will be free.
And perhaps healthier." "in Europe men and women have
Intercourse because they love each other. In the South Seas they love
each other because they have had intercourse. Who is right?"
"Isn't it a mistake to sacrifice everything for the children, and
doesn't It lead the nation to sacrifice those achievements which its
most gifted and energetic members could attain? A man sacrifices himself
for his children, who when they grow up sacrifice themselves for their
children. And so on As a result everybody sacrifices himself. And the
lunacy knows no end."
more general information
on French Polynesia, go to: